Mill and Stupid Conservatives

I see that Andrew Sullivan passes along as genuine this bit from Mark Kleiman, who offers the usual misunderstanding of what is quite possibly the most misunderstood Mill quotation of all time. From Kleiman:

John Stuart Mill — who seems to have been one of those shrill, uncivil bloggers — once called the Tories "the Stupid Party." It wasn't so much that Tory politicians and voters were any dumber than anybody else, but that they were, as a party, devoted to Stupidity as a principle of government.

The problem, of course, is that Mill actually says no such thing. Rather, here's the actual quotation, from Considerations on Representative Government:

The Conservatives, as being by the law of their existence the stupidest party

Nothing about this particular quotation would seem to indicate that Mill believes the Tories to be committed to stupidity as a principle of government. That this is not what Mill meant is even more evident when one realizes that Mill himself clarified what he meant, writing in a letter to Sir John Pakington that

I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative. I believe that is so obviously and universally admitted a principle that I hardly think any gentleman will deny it.

It's still not a particularly nice claim. But it's also not a claim that Conservatives are committed to a policy of stupidity, nor is it even a claim that most Conservatives are in fact stupid.

Share this