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Offences of the Press with respect to Government. – James Mill, Liberty of the Press

This week’s crossword puzzle is taken from an excerpt of an article supplement to the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1825.  There are some very interesting ideas, herein, some of which are highlighted by WWTFT.

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Freedom of Censure on the Conduct of their Rulers, is necessary for the good of the People.

It is perfectly clear, that all chance of advantage to the people, from having the choice of their rulers, depends upon their making a good choice. If they make a bad choice—if they elect people either incapable, or disinclined, to use well the power entrusted to them, they incur the same evils to which they are doomed when they are deprived of the due control over those by whom their affairs are administered.

We may then ask, if there are any possible means by which the people can make a good choice, besides the liberty of the press? The very foundation of a good choice is knowledge. The fuller and more perfect the knowledge, the better the chance, where all sinister interest is absent, of a good choice. How can the people receive the most perfect knowledge relative to the characters of those who present themselves to their choice, but by information conveyed freely, and without reserve, from one to another?

There is another use of the freedom of the press, no less deserving the most profound attention, that of making known the conduct of the individuals who have been chosen. This latter service is of so much importance, that upon it the whole value of the former depends.

This is capable of being rigidly demonstrated. No benefit is obtained by making choice of a man who is well qualified to serve the people, and also well inclined to serve them, if you place him in a situation in which he will have preponderant motives to serve himself at their expense.

If any set of men are chosen to wield the powers of government, while the people have not the means of knowing in what manner they discharge their duties, they will have the means of serving themselves at the expense of the people; and all the miseries of evil government are the certain consequence.

Suppose the people to choose the members of the Legislative Assembly, with power of re-choosing, or dismissing them, at short intervals; To what desirable end could these powers be exercised, without the liberty of the press? Suppose that any one of those whom they have chosen has misconducted himself, or promoted, as far as depended upon him, the ends of misgovernment; how are the people to know that the powers with which they had entrusted him had been treacherously employed?

If they do not know, they will re-choose him, and that as cordially as the man who has served them with the greatest fidelity. This they are under a deplorable necessity of doing, even to be just; for, as they know no difference between him and the best, it would be on their part iniquity to make any. The consequences would be fatal. If one man saw that he might promote misrule for his own advantage, so would another; so, of course, would they all. In these circumstances, we see laid the foundation on which, in every country, bad government is reared. On this foundation it is impossible that it should not be reared. When the causes are the same, who can expect that the effects will be different? It is unnecessary to dwell upon these fundamental truths, because they have already been developed in the article, Government.

Without the knowledge, then, of what is done by their representatives, in the use of the powers entrusted to them, the people cannot profit by the power of choosing them, and the advantages of good government are unattainable. It will not surely cost many words to satisfy all classes of readers that, without the free and unrestrained use of the press, the requisite knowledge cannot be obtained.

That an accurate report of what is done by each of the representatives, a transcript of his speeches, and a statement of his propositions and votes, is necessary to be laid before the people, to enable them to judge of his conduct, nobody, we presume, will deny. This requires the use of the cheapest means of communication, and, we add, the free use of those means. Unless every man has the liberty of publishing the proceedings of the Legislative Assembly, the people can have no security that they are fairly published. If it is in the power of their rulers to permit one person, and forbid another, the people may be sure that a false report,—a report calculated to make them believe that they are well governed, when they are ill governed, will be often presented to them.

One thing more is necessary, and so necessary, that, if it is wanting, the other might as well be wanting also. The publication of the proceedings tells what is done. This, however, is useless, unless a correct judgment is passed upon what is done.

We have brought this inquiry, then, to an important point. In the article Government, we have seen that, unless the people hold in their own hands an effectual power of control on the acts of their government, the government will be inevitably vicious: We have now seen, that they cannot exercise this control to any beneficial purpose without the means of forming a correct judgment upon the conduct of their representatives: We have likewise seen, that one of the means necessary to enable them to judge correctly of the conduct of their representatives, is the liberty to every body of publishing reports of what they do: It remains to inquire, by what other acts the press can be made to contribute to the same desirable end.

What is wanted is, that all the people, or as many of them as possible, should estimate correctly the consequences of the acts proposed or done by their representatives, and also that they should know what acts might have been proposed, if the best were not proposed, from which better consequences would have followed. This end would be accomplished most effectually, if those who are sufficiently enlightened would point out to those who are in danger of mistakes, the true conclusions; and, showing the weight of evidence to be in their favour, should obtain for them the universal assent.

How is this to be accomplished? In what manner are those wise men to be chosen? And who are to be the choosers? Directly the object cannot be attained. There are no distinct and indubitable marks by which wisdom, and less by which integrity, is to be known. And who is to be trusted with the privilege of pointing them out? They whose judgment requires to be directed are not well qualified to determine who shall direct them. And if the rulers are to choose, they will employ none but those who will act in conformity to their views, and enable them to benefit themselves by the pillage and oppression of the people.

As there is no possible organ of choice, no choice whatever ought to be made. If no choice is to be made, every man that pleases ought to be allowed. All this is indubitable. The consequences of denying any part of it are so obvious, that hardly any man, we suppose, will risk the imputations to which such a denial would justly expose him.

They who say that no choice ought to be made, say, in effect, that no limit whatsoever ought to be imposed upon the liberty of the press. The one of these propositions is involved in the other. To impose any restraint upon the liberty of the press, is undoubtedly to make a choice. If the restraint is imposed by the government, it is the government that chooses the directors of the public mind. If any government chooses the directors of the public mind, that government is despotic.

Suppose that, by the restraint imposed upon the liberty of the press, all censure of the government is forbidden, here is undoubtedly a choice. The government, in this case, virtually says, The people who might attempt the task of directing the public mind are of two sorts; one, those who would censure; another, those who would not censure; I choose the latter.

Suppose that not every censure, but only such and such kinds of censure, are forbidden; here, again, is still a choice, while confessedly there is no party to whom the power of choosing for the rest can with safety be given.

If not every censure, but only some censures, are to be forbidden, what are those to which the prohibition should extend? The answer to this question will elucidate nearly all that yet remains in any degree obscure, of the doctrine of the liberty of the press.

It will not be said that any censure which is just should be forbidden; because that would undoubtedly be to detract from the means of enabling the people to form correct judgments; and we have, we trust, rendered it indisputable that no source of benefit to society is at all to be compared with that of correct judgments, on their government and its functionaries, formed by the people, and determining their actions.

But what censures are just and what are unjust; in other words, what are the conclusions which ought to be formed respecting the properties and the acts of the government, is exactly the point to be determined. If you say that no man is to pass an unjust censure upon the government, who is to judge? It is surely unnecessary to repeat the proof of the proposition, that there is nobody who can safely be permitted to judge. The path of practical wisdom is as clear as day: All censures must be permitted, equally; just, and unjust.

Where various conclusions are formed among a number of men, upon a subject on which it would be unsafe, and therefore improper, to give any minor portion of them a power of determining for the rest, only one expedient remains. Fortunately, that is an expedient, the operation of which is powerful, and its effects beneficial in the highest degree. All the conclusions which have formed themselves in the minds of different individuals, should be openly adduced; and the power of comparison and choice should be granted to all. Where there is no motive to attach a man to error, it is natural to him to embrace the truth; especially if pains are taken to adapt the explanation to his capacity. Every man, possessed of reason, is accustomed to weigh evidence, and to be guided and determined by its preponderance. When various conclusions are, with their evidence, presented with equal care and with equal skill, there is a moral certainty, though some few may be misguided, that the greater number will judge right, and that the greatest force of evidence, wherever it is, will produce the greatest impression.

As this is a proposition upon which every thing depends, it is happy that the evidence of it should be so very clear and striking. There is, indeed, hardly any law of human nature more generally recognized, wherever there is not a motive to deny its existence. “To the position of Tully, that if Virtue could be seen, she must be loved, may be added,” says Dr. Johnson, “that if Truth could be heard, she must be obeyed.” (Rambler, No. 87.)—“Je vous plains, mes Péres,” says Mons. Pascal to the Jesuits, “d’avoir recours à de tels remèdes. Vous croyez avoir la force et l’impunité: mais je crois avoir la verité, et l’innocence. C’est une etrange et longue guerre que celle ou la violence essaie d’opprimer la verité. Tous les efforts de la violence ne peuvent affoiblir la verité, et ne servent qu’à la relever davantage: toutes les lumières de la verité ne peuvent rien pour arrêter la violence, et ne font que l’irriter encore plus. Quand la force combat la force, la plus puissante detruit la moindre: quand l’on expose les discours aux discours, ceux qui sont veritables et convainquants confondent et dissipent ceux qui n’ont que la vanité et le mensonge.” (Lett. Provinc. 12.)—“Reason,” says Burke, “clearly and manfully delivered, has in itself a mighty force; but reason, in the mouth of legal authority, is, I may fairly say, irresistible.” (Lett. on Regicide Peace.)

It is of importance to show how many of the greatest men, of all ages and countries, have borne testimony to the prevalence of true over false conclusions, when both are fairly offered to the human mind. “Truth,” says Mr. Locke, “certainly would do well enough, if she were once left to shift for herself. She seldom has received, and I fear never will receive, much assistance from the power of great men, to whom she is but rarely known, and more rarely welcome. She is not taught by laws, nor has she any need of force to procure her entrance into the minds of men.” (Letter on Toleration.) The following is the emphatical language of Montesquieu: “La raison a un empire naturel; elle a même un empire tyrannique: on lui resiste, mais cette resistance est son triomphe, encore un peu de temps, et l’on sera forcé de revenir à elle.” (Esp. de Loix, l. 28, ch. 38.)—“It is noted out of Cicero, by Machiavel, that the people, though they are not so prone to find out truth of themselves, as to follow custom, or run into error; yet if they be shown truth, they not only acknowledge and embrace it very suddenly, but are the most constant and faithful guardians and conservators of it.” (Harrington.)—“The labour of a confutation,” says Chillingworth, “I have not in any place found such labour or difficulty, but that it was undertakeable by a man of very mean abilities; and the reason is, because it is Truth I plead for; which is so strong an argument for itself, that it needs only light to discover it.” (Religion of Protestants.)—“About things on which the public thinks long,” says Dr. Johnson, “it commonly attains to think right.” (Life of Addison.)—“The adversary,” says Dr. Campbell, “is both subtile and powerful. With such an adversary, I should on very unequal terms enter the lists, had I not the advantage of being on the side of truth. And an eminent advantage this doubtless is. It requires but moderate abilities to speak in defence of a good cause. A good cause demands but a distinct exposition, and a fair hearing; and we may say, with great propriety, it will speak for itself.” (Campbell on Miracles, Introd.)

We have then arrived at the following important conclusions,—that there is no safety to the people in allowing any body to choose opinions for them; that there are no marks by which it can be decided beforehand, what opinions are true and what are false; that there must, therefore, be equal freedom of declaring all opinions, both true and false; and that, when all opinions, true and false, are equally declared, the assent of the greater number, when their interests are not opposed to them, may always be expected to be given to the true. These principles, the foundation of which appears to be impregnable, suffice for the speedy determination of every practical question.

All censure thrown upon the government, all censure thrown either upon the institutions of the government, or upon the conduct of any of the functionaries of government, supreme or subordinate, has a tendency to produce resistance to the government.

Of the censures thrown upon government, some may have a tendency to produce resistance to the operations of government in detail; others that general resistance which has in view some great alteration in the government.

Of the first sort would be any such accusation of the conduct and disposition of a judge, as might excite the people, whose sympathies were roused in favour of the individual against whom his sentence was to operate, to rescue him from the officers of justice. We have already shown that such a rescue ought to be punished, and any direct exhortation to it ought to be punished. It will now be evident, we trust, that no censure on the judge, though capable of being treated as an indirect exhortation, ought to be punished.

The reason is conclusive. The people ought to know, if possible, the real qualities of the actions of those who are entrusted with any share in the management of their affairs. This they have no chance of knowing, without the unlimited power of censure upon those actions, both in gross and detail. To see the full force of these propositions, it is only necessary to apply the principles which have been already established.

If the people have not the means of knowing the actions of all public functionaries, they have no security for the good conduct even of their representatives. Suppose it is the duty of their representatives to watch the conduct of the judges, and secure the perfection of judicature, the people cannot know whether their representatives perform this duty, unless they know what the conduct of the judges is. Ignorance of this would of itself suffice to vitiate the government. A door would be left open, through which the rulers might benefit themselves at the expense of the people. All the profit to be made by an abuse of the power of justice, would thus become the profit of the representatives, by whom it would be allowed, and encouraged, as far as the knowledge which they could not withhold from the people, would permit.


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