Democratic Underground

An Evening With John Stuart Mill and Marilyn vos Savant
July 31, 2001
by Slow_Simmer

A stage, well lit in the center, with two empty bar stools separated by a small table. The orchestra is playing Beethoven softly. The lights come up and down three times.

The shade of John Stuart Mill enters from the left. John is holding a thick sheaf of parchment. His hands tremble slightly. He steps lightly but confidently to the leftmost barstool and remains standing.

The spirit of Marilyn vos Savant enters from the right. Marilyn is holding a few 3 x 5-inch speaker cards. She smiles broadly at John and stands by her own stool. They bow to each other, Marilyn sits, and then John sits.

From offstage a moderator begins:

Moderator: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Tonight we are very proud to bring you a conversation on individual virtue and civic virtue, as understood by two of the smartest people who have ever lived, as measured by performance estimates set by Stanford-Binet IQ guidelines.

Marilyn smiles and nods at the audience. John looks down, then up at the audience, and smiles.

Moderator: Tonight we are going to hear Marilyn vos Savant and John Stuart Mill on some of the questions of the day. Despite differences in history and geography, we have tried to level the playing field by constraining both participants to quoting from, and explicating from, their published works. In Mr. Mill's case, that work is Political Writings. In Ms. vos Savant's case, that work is Of Course I'm for Monogamy: I'm also for Everlasting Peace and an End to Taxes.

At the end of the conversation, you may drop your questions into the forum named "Articles" held by the DU ushers and I will ask them of our distinguished guests. You may post a question simply by registering with DU, going to the Articles forum, and clicking "post."

No videotaping or flash photography is permitted. Thank you.

A rustle goes through the audience. The last breath of violins die away.

Moderator: The first question is, "What is the greatest mistake ever made?"

Marilyn: "I can't think of any greater harm to humanity than the kind that's done by good people who embrace a bad cause. So perhaps the greatest mistake ever made is to not fully understand what you believe in."

John: "The sole end of for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with liberty of action…of any of their number, is self-protection." John cleared his throat. "To that end, then, perhaps the greatest mistake ever made in civilised society is to deny self-protection as a right and a capability to every member."

A susurrus of heated whispers breaks out. The term "Second Amendment" can be heard, accompanied by hisses.

Moderator: (raps a baton for silence) Thank you both. The second question is, "Should we trust the government? If so, to what degree?"

Marilyn: "Can you trust your neighbor? That is, can you trust your neighbor to make decisions about your life that are better than the decisions you would make yourself? If so, you can rest easy; if not, take note. Government is changing as democracy runs its course. It's becoming increasingly composed of ordinary people (like your neighbor) instead of heroes-men and women of extraordinary judgment who can protect us from ourselves. Those ordinary people may be…just plain likeable, but they're not visionaries…I think you can trust government to have good intentions, but to be fallible about social issues and unrealistic about economic matters."

Murmurs 'Hear, hear,' 'Taxes,' and 'Social Security' can be heard. The moderator raps his baton and calls for quiet; then he looks at John.

John: "There are three conditions. The people for whom the government is intended must be willing to accept it;…they must be willing and able to do what is necessary to keep it,…in both forebearances as well as actions; and they must be willing and able to do what it requires of them to enable it to fulfil its purposes.' When these conditions are fulfilled, the government is trustworthy."

Moderator: Thank you both. The third question is "Shouldn't government organizations try to save taxpayer money instead of spend it? Shouldn't government organizations be restrained from using up all the surplus and operate in a lean way, like businesses?"

Marilyn: "Saving taxpayer money is not one of the primary goals of a governmental agency. The intent is to spend tax dollars to accomplish a particular political goal, and if an agency hits that target, it has fulfilled its mission. Agencies that fulfill their missions are no longer needed, so in order to keep their jobs, these folks never seem to finish."

John: 'The question is about…helping individuals. Should the government do, or cause to be done, something for their benefit? With individuals and voluntary associations…there are varied experiments, and endless diversity of experience. What the State can do is to make itself a central depository, and active circulator and diffuser, of the experience resulting from many trials,' in economic matters no less than any other. 'Its business is to enable each experimentalist to benefit by the experience of others.' In that respect, the work important to community may never be finished, until the community itself is no more.

'Fund public libraries!' shouts a woman, and the ushers escort her out. The moderator clears his throat.

Moderator: The last question before the ushers take your questions is, "Do you feel that the government is operating in the manner that the writers of the Constitution intended?"

Marilyn: 'The Constitution, yes. The government, no…The founders of our country were mere mortals, not gods, and it doesn't make good sense to extend their intentions into a future that they couldn't possibly have foreseen-'

Uproar in the right wing balcony. Several people are leaning over the balustrode, waving signs tha say BUSH-CHENEY and FOUNDERS MADE OUR FREEDOMS RING. Someone dumps tiny bits of vanilla-colored confetti onto the floor below. One woman's head catches on fire, apparently spontaneously. The fire is almost immediately put out by a man with a large Stetson hat.

The Moderator walks out onto the stage in front of Marilyn and John. The Moderator looks exactly like Chris Rock.. He raises his baton and holds his hand flat out in a "Stop" sign. House lights come up and security guards hustle the balcony demonstrators out. The audience bursts into conversation. As the last guard leaves, the Moderator brings his hands down and the house lights come up and down three times.

Moderator: People who don't look at themselves can't really listen to anybody else.

He walks to his podium offstage.

Moderator: "Marilyn, would you repeat your answer to the question: Do you feel that the government is operating in the manner that the writers of the Constitution intended?"

Marilyn: No. You can read more about it in my book.

Marilyn turns to look at John.

John: (nodding) I agree. For as admirable as the U.S. Constitution is, it yields in importance to the qualities of the human agents employed. Of what efficacy are rules of procedure in securing the ends of justice, if the moral condition of the people is such that the witnesses generally lie, and the judges and their subordinates---nay, even their children-take bribes? How can institutions provide a good municipal administration if there exists such indifference to the subject that…the duties are left to those who undertake them because they have some private interest to be promoted?

Spontaneous applause erupts from the left wing of the gallery and spreads through the room. Cries of "Usher! Usher!" and "No More Bushit!" can be heard. The lights come up and the moderator steps forward to take the plates from the users for questions...

Questions posted to DU's Articles Forum for the next 7 days will be forwarded to Marilyn vos Savant as a group, with a covering petition asking her to address them. Or you can post them yourself to:

Ansonia Station
Post Office Box 967
New York, NY 10023

Marilyn vos Savant's book, Of Course I'm for Monogamy: I'm also for Everlasting Peace and an End to Taxes is available from Her other titles include Ask Marilyn, The Power of Logical Thinking, and I've Forgotten Everything I Learned in School.

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