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The Christian Examiner.
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ART. I.-THE BEST GOVERNMENT.
Considerations on Representative Government. By JOHN STUART MILL. London. 1861.
POLITICAL Science in time past has shared the fate of Metaphysic, as described by Kant,- that of being "the arena of endless contests." Neither of these sciences, coupled as they often have been in the love and pursuit of the foremost thinkers of the world,- Plato and Aristotle among the ancients, Bacon, Spinoza, Leibnitz, Hegel, among the moderns, has yielded the remunerating fruit which the learned reap from other studies. Of metaphysical insight, if the world has gained aught since the dawn of European civilization, the gain is due to the practical idealism of the Christian religion, and not to the schools. The schools are still in the dark as to first principles in this province. What is spirit? What is matter? What is an idea? Is substance single or dual? How does the mind communicate with the outer world? these are points of which philosophy before the Olympiads knew as much as Hegel or Sir William Hamilton.
Of political wisdom (exclusive of jurisprudence), from Solon to the present Congress of the United States, an interval of twenty-four centuries, - the growth has been inconsiderable. The first and fundamental problems of social science and civil government are still matters of debate, and very contrary opinions are propounded concerning them. The origin and right of government, the theory of the state, the VOL. LXXII. - 5TH S. VOL. X. NO. III. 27
limits of legislation as applied to social well-being, the question whether private property or community of goods be the true and divine order of society, the question of free or restricted trade, of universal or restricted suffrage, of the right and expediency of chattel slavery, - these are topics which have been discussed in our day with equal confidence on both sides, if not with equal constituencies. Experimental phalansteries" on the basis of a modified Fourierism are still fresh in our recollection. And now, the question of the possibility of federal democracy on a continental scale is the imminent question of the day, of the hour;-a question whose vast moment shakes the world, and whose solution millions of anxious hearts are waiting with an agony of expectation such as never before hung on the verdict of war.
From these uncertain and conflicting views, from these empiric gropings, it appears that political science is yet fumbling among the antilegomena, and has its canon still to settle.
The work with whose title we have headed our remarks is the most important aid to this settlement which our time has furnished, and perhaps the most important contribution to political science since the immortal "Spirit of Laws." The distinguishing merit of Mr. Mill's treatise the same which characterizes all his writings is the union of bold speculation with practical knowledge and practical judgment. While propounding views considerably in advance, in the democratic line, of existing polities, he deals wisely with the practical conditions of society, and makes broad the distinction between the government which is best in itself, provided a people is ripe for its use, and governments which are best for given nations. Jacobi declared all governments to be, in some sense, "a compact with the Devil." Accepting this statement of the indispensable concession to human ignorance and vice, we should say that Mr. Mill had made the best terms with the adversary which the case allows. Political theorists have usually erred in building their systems with ideal subjects and ideal conditions, instead of existing materials. Even so cautious a philosopher as Locke was at fault when he came to construct a civil polity for actual use. It has not been sufficiently considered that, as each clime is furnished with a flora
of its own, so governments have a necessary relation to the peoples governed, and are not always transferable. Those which are theoretically best may prove practically the worst when applied to unsuitable conditions. A republic, as such, is better than a monarchy, but republican forms would not suit the social and moral condition of Turkey or Siam. The paper constitution of the Abbé Sièyes was well devised, but would "not march" when applied to revolutionary France. On the other hand, a government whose principles are discordant, and whose theory is absurd, like that of Great Britain, may be best adapted to the present condition of its subjects. Solon was asked whether he had given the Athenians the best form of government? "Not the best," he replied, "but the best for them." And a Hebrew prophet represents Jehovah as saying to his people, "I have given them statutes that were not good."*
At the breaking out of the civil conflict which now agitates this land, it was reckoned a special aggravation of the crime of the rebels, that the government from which they revolted was, as the public prints expressed it, "the best government the world has ever seen." That judgment, though founded, we suspect, in laudable patriotism rather than competent insight, we shall not dispute, but offer on this text some reflections touching the general question involved in it.
What constitutes a good government? To answer this question, we must know the true ends and functions of government. These we hold to be,-1. Protection; 2. Promotion of co-operation for social ends. First and mainly, protection, not of property only, as some have defined it, but of all the natural rights of man. We are not speaking of ideal polities, of Platonic or Baconian Atlantides, but of actual or possible, historically conditioned states. The ideal polity aims at something more than protection: it would exercise moral and spiritual functions; it would legislate for the soul; it would make the education of its subjects its first and chief object. But such a polity is not a thing to be realized by human device; not at least with existing materials. If realized
Ezekiel xx. 25.
at all on earth, it must descend, like the New Jerusalem, out of the heavens. The ideal polity requires perfect men for its administration, but actual polities have to do with very imperfect ones. The ideal polity would be a true theocracy. Hitherto we have only sham theocracies, the form without the reality; and these are precisely the worst governments that could be devised. Such a government is the Roman state, which, ever since the time of Pepin, has been the plague of civil Christendom, and which now lingers a ghastly, insoluble crudity in the glowing mass of fused and united Italy.
Government must not assume theocratic functions, and the church must not legislate in civil affairs. Each has its proper sphere and aim. The business of the one is to make the best possible characters; the business of the other is of given characters to make the best possible commonwealth.
As nations now are, or can be, the function of the state is primarily not education, but protection, — education only as a means of protection, and in order to that end. Reduced to its lowest terms, the business of civil government is simply this: a number of individuals being given, twenty or twenty million, first to keep them as far as possible from hurting one another and from being hurt by other similar communities; and next, to facilitate their co-operation in works of public utility. This is the problem at which human wisdom has been tugging ever since Cain went forth from the presence of the Lord and founded a city in the land of Nod; and how much earlier, among the pre-Adamite tribes whose existence science begins to surmise, it is impossible to say. We assume that human nature, freely developed, will take care of itself, with no more legislation or civil aid than is necessary to secure that freedom. When we say freely developed, we speak with reference to the thraldom imposed by its own ignorance and passions, as well as the oppressions exercised by others.
We may say, then, and this we believe will be found to be the most precise and comprehensive statement of the matter, - that the prime end of civil government is liberty. The promotion, extension, and preservation of individual liberty, - this is the supreme duty of the state, of civil government, and all its other functions must be conceived as subordinate to this.