Home > Book review, Liberalism, Politics > On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill

On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill

In 1859, 150 years ago, John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) published On Liberty, one of the finest expostulations of individual liberty in political philosophy. Mill was someone whose words in the years since his death have been expropriated by both socialists, who emphasize his ideas on collective ownership of firms, and by conservatives, who emphasize his suspicion of the state. While he does offer a lot to many political traditions, he should still be regarded primarily as a liberal, given his continual emphasis on the importance of the individual as a political and moral agent in society.

On Liberty is, of course, most famous for his delineation in Chapter One of the role of society in restricting the actions of individuals, with what has become known as the harm principle:

That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.

His words have since been appealed to in opposition to laws regulating private actions and speech. Read in context of the work as a whole, it is clear that Mill was cautious not just of the arms of the state itself, but also of society in general, which in the later Victorian era had become exceptionally moralistic. It had taken on a very middle-class puritan outlook, and he was critical of this attitude of social conservatives even when they did not specifically manage to get the point of legislating against what they determined as vice. He strongly defends freedom of opinion and expression, but his justification is more on the usefulness of alternative points of view in challenging received opinion than on the simple right of the individual. In his defence of freedom of practice and custom, he asks his English reader to consider their position in another society with different customs and taboos, which it would surely be wrong to compel them to follow.

Mill was no armchair philosopher. From early in his life he showed his deep concern for society through his actions. Richard Reeves, in his biography Victorian Firebrand, describes how at the age of 17 he found the corpse of a newborn infant, and from then realized how important education on birth control would be to the lives of the working classes. He distributed literature on birth control, contravening laws on obscenity and spent two nights in jail. At the same time, he strongly believed that parents, and not the state had a deep responsibility for the children they had borne. In Chapter Five of On Liberty, he believed that the state should require a certain standard of education, but that it should be “fulfilled, at the charge, as far as possible, of the parent”. While he did accept that the state should pay for the education of the children of those who could not pay for it, his beliefs that parents should be responsible for providing for their offspring were such that he argued that beyond those who could not provide for them should not have the right to bear children, something few who have a followed him could stomach, following the ideas of Rev. Thomas Malthus (1766–1834). While still on the subject of education, he anticipated Milton Friedman’s school vouchers in arguing against a state school system, saying that “a general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another”.

His own family and personal life was interesting. He was subject to a harsh educational regime by his father, the philosopher James Mill (1773–1836). In his Autobiography, he recounts beginning to read Latin at eight, and Greek at an earlier age, and reading many of the classic works in the original language at that age. He asserts his belief that any child subject to such an education at that age could learn as he did, in line with idea of the blank slate, where the capacity of our minds are not determined at birth, something I would highly doubt. He never got a chance to try such methods with any child of his own, being in a long-term relationship with a married woman. He met Harriet Taylor in 1830, married since 1826 to John Taylor. Harriet and John Stuart soon fell in love, but her husband remained alive till 1849, John Stuart and Harriet marrying in 1851, when she was beyond child-bearing age.

Mill also served a term in parliament from 1865 to 1868, and was an active voice, speaking strongly in favour of the Union in the American Civil War, in defence of the life of condemned Fenians, and on suffrage reform. His greatest parliamentary legacy was the beginning of the campaign for political equality for women. He moved an amendment in 1867 in a debate on the Reform Bill to change the word ‘man’ to ‘person’. He viewed the position of women in most households as an anomaly akin to slavery, “not felt to jar with modern civilization, any more than domestic slavery among the Greeks had jarred with their notion of themselves as free people”. He was critical of the Reform League for the aim of manhood, rather than universal, suffrage.

He had ideas on voting reform that received very little popularity, specifically the idea that votes should be given in according to the degree of education. Every ordinary unskilled labourer would get one vote, a skilled labourer would have two, and so on, so that lawyers, doctors, clergymen and artists would get five or six. Proposed when those at the bottom end of the scale had no vote at all, this was better than nothing, but was unlikely to appeal to many. He also opposed the secret ballot, believing that people should be able to account for their votes.

He also voted against the abolition of the death penalty, arguing “what else but effeminacy is it to be so much more shocked by taking a man’s life than by depriving him of all that makes life valuable”, and was an advocate of compulsory military service, so that there could be an army called at any time if necessary, without a permanent force, believing the latter more likely to be oppressive.

In economic terms, Mill was clearly a classical economist. He opposed progressive taxation, “to tax larger incomes at a higher percentage than the smaller is to lay a tax on industry and economy and to impose a penalty of people for having worked harder and saved more than their neighbours” and he criticized the paternalistic nature of factory legislation, creating “in the minds of labouring people the persuasion that it is the business of others to take care of their condition”. In his later years, however, he supported the rise of the working classes, believing that they should seek to own the sources of labour collectively, through cooperatives. Given changing times he lived in, it is difficult for any contemporary political tradition to claim his views wholesale, though with this mix, he fits most closely with the Liberal Democrats, as one would expect. He has served as one of the great influences for those across the political spectrum, and his ideas remain a yardstick by which people seek to justify their political actions.

About these ads
  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,609 other followers

%d bloggers like this: