`On Liberty' is a basic text for anyone wishing to discuss the merits of the free market. Although primarily a political tract, this book is vital reading for economists. Let me set the scene. Mill is ultimately an optimist. He feels that `man' is ultimately rational and knows his own interests better than any other person or organisation. Man is capable of error, negligence and gross stupidity, but experience will teach him wisdom. Likewise society functions not through the operation of `big' government but through the market. Actions, ideas, skills all have a place in society. They find their value through the market system. It is through the market exchange process that individuals prosper. Man exchanges his services or goods for money or other goods and services. By this way as Adam Smith noted, choice, value and general individual welfare is maximised.
`On Liberty' stresses the role of freedom. Freedom is the basis for all Human happiness.' Freedom' allows markets to operate and for individuals to act in accordance with their needs and just as importantly in terms of their conscience. `Freedom' means having the ability to do `good' things as well as `bad', to fail as well as succeed. Mill therefore is in favour of `small' government for the protection of rights, internal and external protection. He is in favour of religious freedoms for all ( not just Christians), women's rights and not surprisingly, free trade. He focuses on the role of the individual and minority groups. He knows that governments are fallible, that is when they are not falling into corruption or misguided benevolence. Therefore the role of government in society should be kept to a minimum. Likewise Christian verities are questionable use as principles in governance.
"Christian morality (so called) has all the characters of a reaction; it is, in great part, a protest against Paganism. Its ideal is negative rather than positive; passive rather than action; innocence rather than Nobleness; Abstinence from Evil, rather than energetic Pursuit of Good: in its precepts (as has been well said) "thou shalt not" predominates unduly over "thou shalt."
He wants to create a society of dynamic individuals - free traders, free thinkers and innovators. He worries that democracy will stifle the initiative and creativity of individuals, the source of tomorrow's progress. For Mill society exists because and for the `right' of the individual to express themselves. Failure to allow this to happen leads to the eventual collapse of that society. "that so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of our time"
There is a source of tension here. The idea of allowing the protection of individual rights, for example: divorce, seemingly immoral behaviour or ideas that run counter to accepted notions of propriety, may be said to diminish the Utilitarian ideal of maximising the greatest utility for the greatest number. So, individual rights have to be in some way reconciled or protected not just against the `tyranny' of government but also that of the `majority'. We also incidentally hit upon the problem of Utilitarianism, how is the `public good' to be defined and measured.
`On Liberty' shows political freedoms and economic freedoms as being different sides of the same coin. His is an exciting and challenging argument that for many people still holds water today. The final chapter on `applications' shows just how radical, even for modern readers, his thinking is when put into action.
"No one can be a great thinker who does not recognize that as a thinker it is his first duty to follow his intellect to whatever conclusions it may lead."
Read any modern Libertarian writer such as Friedman or Hayek and you'll see that the spirit of Adam Smith lives on. Although the book is essentially an extended essay, it will require concentration to read as the prose style for some tastes might be a little too dense and dry. However, if you are a lover of ideas, Mill has them in abundance. Recommended
This Penguin edition has a relatively unusual combination. "On Liberty" is more often paired with "Utilitarianism" and "Representative Government" but the pairing with "The Subjection of Women" is worthwhile even though the latter is primarily of historical interest now.
"On Liberty" is one of the most important books on political thought of the nineteenth century. Fortunately for the 21st century reader it is also one of the most accessible. Mill was a libertarian who chose not to base his defence of liberty on natural rights but on his own revised version of utilitarianism: "I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions...grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being." This enables Mill to argue that freedom is needed if man is to be able to explore all the avenues of human development that allow the human race to progress. Total freedom is impossible so what determines the legitimate boundaries of freedom? Mill distinguishes between self-regarding and other-regarding actions. The former should never be interfered with and the latter subject to limitation only if they harm the legitimate rights of others.
For Mill free thought is a self-regarding action which should not be curtailed, and free thought is virtually useless without free speech. He was thinking not only of the legislative curtailemnt of free speech but also the pressure for social conformity, fearing as he did a "tyranny of the majority". Mill then proceeds to add a utilitarian argument in favour of free speech: if an opinion is silenced then mankind is necessarily the loser whether the opinion is true or false. He advances a number of arguments to support this, concluding with the claim that a climate of freedom is essential for "great thinkers" (his attachment to intellectual elitism) and "it is as much, and even more indispensable to enable average human beings to attain the mental stature they are capable of" (his revised utilitarianism). He has no truck with paternalists seeking to guide people's thoughts in the "right" direction. He was equally hostile to the idea that people had the right not to be offended; hence he opposed the blasphemy law. The single case Mill gives of an acceptable limitation of free speech is the case of corn-dealers and an excited mob. An opinion expressed in a newspaper that corn-dealers are "starvers of the poor" is legitimate, but the same view stated to an angry mob outside the corn-dealer's home may be limited if it "is a positive instigation to a mischievous act."
Mill concedes that actions cannot be as free as speech and seeks to establish the proper limits of freedom of action. Mill proposes that "the sole end for which mankind are warranted...in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection." Because he rejects paternalism he opposes all interference with self-regarding actions. Mill would not have prevented people from taking drugs and he would have led the opposition to seat belt legislation. Mill spends a great deal of time attacking the "Social Rights" school that argued people had a right to be protected from seeing evils such as prostitution and drunkenness around them. Mill disagrees, observing that drunkenness is unacceptable only if the person physically harms others or is, say, a soldier or policeman on duty.
Mill even rejects state interference with liberty for the sake of crime prevention, e.g. poisons can be used for criminal purposes. Mill was willing to accept a register of their sale but not the banning of them. Mill believes we must not interfere with the "rights" of others but these are narrowly circumscribed, and Mill makes it clear that "rights" are not the same as "interests". Hence unrestricted laissez-faire is legitimate. As for moral decency arguments Mill does say that sexual intercourse in public is unacceptable, but would not have condemned sado-masochistic practices between consenting adults in private. For Mill it is important not to limit behaviour for any reason at all because any such action is likely to be the thin end of the wedge, leading to the justification for some further restriction.
Though Mill is a very determined anti-paternalist he makes three exceptions: children, primitive societies and the disabled. Children must be guided until they reach maturity and they must be given compulsory education - something not given legislative force until 1871. As for primitive societies we must resist the notion that Mill was a typical Victorian believing in the "white man's burden" or inherent differences between races. He simply observed the reality of the world in the mid-nineteenth century but made it very clear any intervention in backward societies must be temporary with the aim to bring about self-government as soon as possible.
Hence Mill was more libertarian than most modern writers on the subject. There is just one example where, at first sight, Mill may seem reactionary to modern readers. He wished to restrict the right to have children to those who could prove that they could support them. However, those who today wish others to be allowed to procreate at will do so on the grounds of human rights. Mill based his theories on utilitarianism, and not on rights. There was no welfare state when Mill wrote "On Liberty" and he was concerned with the well-being of children born to people without the means to support them.
In view of the growing restrictions on freedom in Britain "On Liberty" is well worth reading again. In particular I like Mill's argument that every restriction on freedom is the thin end of the wedge, providing a justification for further restrictions.
Turning to "The Subjection of Women" we find arguments that women were in no way naturally unequal to men. Such views provoked mirth and hostility in equal measure in Victorian England but are, of course, now the norm. However, there is a link between "On Liberty" and "The Subjection of Women" (plus of course "Utilitarianism") and that is his frequent recourse to his revised version of utilitarianism. This book too is imbued with Mill's version of utilitarianism that wished to open up "all the avenues of human development that allow the human race to progress". Not only did Mill deny that women were in any way intrinsically inferior to men but declared that withholding the vote and restricting them to an inferior status legally and socially held back their development. Not only did women themselves lose out as individuals but so too did society as a whole.