John Stuart Mill, Dead Thinker of the Year

By Kaplan, Robert D. | Foreign Policy, December 2011 | Go to article overview

John Stuart Mill, Dead Thinker of the Year


Kaplan, Robert D., Foreign Policy


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FUNDAMENTALLY, THE past year has been about grappling with the most profound question in political philosophy: how to create legitimate central authority. In one Arab country after another--Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria--populations have taken to the streets to demand the downfall of their rulers, even as it is unclear what will follow in their wake.

And the question applies not only to the Arab world. It is unclear, for example, whether Iran's quasi-clerical system of revolutionary rule has a long-term future, given the intense infighting within the regime and the intense dislike it stirs within significant swaths of the population. Can China's one-party system of control last indefinitely? Can Burma's? Whereas the United States basically inherited its democratic system from the British, and its main drama over more than two centuries has been about limiting central authority, the challenge in too many other places is the opposite; how to erect responsive government in the first place.

No thinker has tackled these questions as painstakingly and as eloquently as the 19th-century English philosopher John Stuart Mill, which is why he is such an appropriate guide for these complicated times. Mill asserts, in On Liberty, and especially in Considerations on Representative Government, that while democratic government is surely to be preferred in theory, it is incredibly problematic in its particulars. This, of course, is part of Mill's larger exploration of liberty, and why ultimately the only justification a government has to curtail that liberty is when a person's behavior impinges on the rights of others. Despotism may work better in some instances, if only as a temporary measure, he writes; democracy is not suited for each and every society during significant periods of its development. I am crudely simplifying Mill, who is so clear while being so incredibly nuanced, and thus immensely readable.

"Progress includes Order," Mill writes in Considerations, "but Order does not include Progress." Tyranny may be the political building block of all human societies, but if they don't get beyond tyranny, the result is moral chaos and stagnation. Middle Eastern despots of our day too often supplied only Order; Asian ones have brought Progress, too. Thus China's rulers, who must retire at a certain point, who bring technical expertise to their rule, and who govern in a collegial style, are much to be preferred over the North African variety, to say nothing of those in Syria or Yemen.

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