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john stuart millAs long as there have been “libertarians,” there has been hero worship of John Stuart Mill. This Nineteenth Century utilitarian author, most famously of On Liberty, has been looked to as a kind of fount of holy writ for individualism. And Mill was an individualist. Unfortunately, he was not a supporter of liberty in any meaningful sense.

It is somewhat odd, frankly, that Mill should enjoy the reputation he does, given the depth and breadth of the written record of his opinions and proposals advocating an administrative state with unchecked power to regulate people’s daily lives. What is more, excellent studies by Joseph Hamburger and, more recently, Linda Raeder, have shown the character and statist intentions of his life’s work. Still, some of the many passages so frequently quoted from his works might give evidence, to those who do not read more and with moderate care, that he was a friend to individual freedom and reasoned, principled service to mankind.

There is a pride evinced in Mill’s work that appeals to his readers’ own pride, especially if they consider themselves to have sacrificed material gain for principles—and particularly if they are academics or otherwise committed to what we somewhat self-servingly refer to as “the life of the mind.” Thus, Mill’s catchphrase, “one person with a belief is equal to ninety-nine who have only interests,” is the stuff of dorm room walls and faculty office doors across America. Commitment to “principle,” be it justice, freedom, or toleration, and however defined, makes us feel good about ourselves. That such principles, stated in the abstract and held by their adherents more or less abstractly, may serve as cover for hypocrisy as well as inhumane zealotry is a well known problem of long standing—and one that generally is ignored until long after it is too late to prevent moral enormities of various kinds.

Nonetheless, almost all of us not residing in asylums want to believe that we live according to principle rather than mere self-interest. Moreover, we should not forget that the Golden Rule itself is a kind of master-principle of virtue, though one freighted with cultural context in its admonition, not to “do unto others so as to serve the greatest good of the greatest number” but, rather, to do unto others as we, in light of our varying circumstances and needs, would have done by us.

Of course, the Golden Rule assumes innate recognition of certain permanent goods beneficial to us all. Utilitarianism, the belief that societies should be seen as mechanisms for the gathering of “good things” defined as good by those seeking them, holds no such view. Yet, idealism has the power to invest with at least an apparent nobility even the extreme vision Mill has of the good of individual autonomy, in which liberty itself is defined in terms of self-mastery: “The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good, in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.” The “sovereign” self in this view is what matters. And what makes that self truly matter is sovereign, that is self-willed, autonomous choice. Thus, the principle that Mill would serve is the liberty to do as one wills, making the will itself a governing principle for us all.

Another aspect of Mill’s writing that has endeared him to many is his seeming love of eccentricity. The individual who dares to be different in the face of the conformist mob appears to be his greatest hero, just as it is for those hordes of non-conformists populating the halls of academe (and, of course, juvenile halls everywhere). To break the chains of tradition and social authority seems, to Mill, to be a moral duty to oneself and to mankind. As Mill succinctly claimed, “the despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement.” If only, he seems to argue, we would dispatch custom to the ash heap of history, we might get down to some serious reasoning about how to make life better for everyone.

The problem with this vision, as we have learned to our great loss, is that unthinking opposition to the wisdom of the ages, made concrete in a people’s practical habits and ways of living, produces, not ordered liberty, but social chaos. Individuals are, indeed, unprincipled “followers” and “self-interested” morally flawed beings, at least more so than they are the kind of grand idealists Mill would have us be. That is to say, people are social creatures, not abstract calculators of public interest. If they do not follow good customs, they will follow bad habits—including the contemporary habit of disparaging settled modes of living and even the most basic of social institutions. As a result, people more and more come to disparage the confining limits of family, church, and local association. They become the isolated individuals Mill wanted them to be, lacking human attachments, habits of thought and conduct binding them to one another in fashions allowing for love, charity, and fellow-feeling. Thus, increasingly, all becomes calculation of self-interest and the pursuit of our wants-of-the-moment, as our institutions fail.

Some, of course, welcome this atomization of society. And these people may find joy in Mill’s celebration of the individual, as well as his insistence that the individual is all that matters even in social life. One even may join with Mill in proclaiming the moral independence of the individual from society: “The individual is not accountable to society for his actions in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself.” In essence, here, Mill is saying that society (not merely government, but society as a whole) has no authority to act other than as the protector of individuals. Groups and communities, whether they take religious, educational, charitable, or any other form, have no real existence, on this view. And even society as a whole is at base merely a mechanism for the protection of “sovereign” (that is, self-guided) individuals.

There is, of course, a highly attractive argument to be made for such an individualist view, particularly when dealing with the government. Mill’s argument seems to limit legitimate governmental action in a way and to an extent highly favorable toward liberty. As he puts it, “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.

Paternalism and the nanny state, it would appear, are ruled out by Mill’s argument. We are to be left to construct our own lives on the basis of our own reasoned consideration of our own principles and other goods. But is this the case in practice? Is liberty the actual result of an atomized society devoted to individual self-fulfillment?

It would seem not. To begin, Mill notes that individuals can be acted upon to prevent harm to others. But how, exactly, does one harm others? Mill himself had problems with this issue in On Liberty, in which he had to deal, for example, with the social costs of those whose alcoholism leads them to abandon their families, or otherwise fail in their basic duties, leaving others, and even society as a whole, to take up the slack. This problem is made all the worse by the fact that Mill derided the institutions, beliefs, and practices that generally serve to soften the blows of individual misconduct, market relations, accident, and governmental overreach. Families may be tyrannous toward their members, after all, as may various hierarchical communities, so they cannot be allowed the power and autonomy necessary to correct for the misdeeds of individuals, even fathers who abandon their children. Yet these fathers have harmed others, so they can, then, be forced to take up their responsibilities. How, then, are we to determine what exactly those responsibilities may be?

Mill has no coherent answer to this question. In answering it we are left as isolated individuals facing the mass of our fellows and the might of a government that may want to oppress us, or may want to “free” us from institutions other than itself. And here Mill’s so-called “harm principle” does us no good at all. Stated negatively, his principle continues to sound very pro-liberty: “The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people.” But who is to judge what might be “a nuisance?” Given that people—particularly the eccentric people Mill seems to value—differ in their views concerning what is beautiful, healthful, pleasant, and so on, why would we think they would agree on what constitutes a nuisance? Of course, the harm principle often is simplified to the old notion (or “principle”) that “my right to swing my fist stops at your nose.” But this is laughably untrue. Swinging one’s fist in the region of another’s nose is assault—putting another in reasonable fear of bodily harm. There is no magical fence around individual persons protecting them from the conduct of others; societies and the groups within them must work out (largely through custom) what is welcome and what is noxious conduct in interpersonal relations.

And when we refuse to do so? Then our guide will be the government. And the government will not be restrained in its efforts to define, find, and prevent noxious conduct. Indeed, Mill in his own words showed how our social relations may require individuals to undertake positive action as well as restraint, opening the way for comprehensive regulation in the name of liberty: “A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury.

9781492127949_p0_v1_s260x420In his Considerations on Representative Government, Mill spelled out his views on how government actually should work. Here he focused on the need for expert administrators to craft laws and regulations to put the will of the people into action in a rational manner best able to achieve proper ends. What were those ends? Mill generally eschewed discussion of specific policies, though he did recommend weighting elections to increase the representation of “disinterested” men of reason. More to the point, for Mill, was the need for a class of experts dedicated to public service and to increasing the virtue of the people. Some peoples (he was thinking in particular of the people of India, here) he deemed not yet worthy of representative government at all. As for the rest of us, a wise elite, trained from an early age in the principles of public management, were to draft laws and oversee the legislative process itself to make certain the right kinds of things were done in the right way.

And what would constitute “the right things,” and “the right way?” Commitment to the freeing of rational minds from custom, convention, and tradition, including as institutionalized in various social, cultural, and religious institutions. The government would become the guardian, not of public morals, but of public reason. In pursuit of maximum individual autonomy, individuals would be torn from one another, “freed” from their natural protectors, and left to face the elite and its demand for reasoned, autonomous action.

As to limits on the government’s power, it is not insignificant that Mill was a committed socialist before the end of his life. What is more, we have seen in our own time how the drive to “free” individuals may include “freeing” them from want, from the oppression of natural communities, and even from the consequences of their own actions (which might cause them to choose differently in the future). One can argue whether this is the right way to implement the program of autonomy, but it is, indeed, a program intended to maximize autonomy. And it can find ample justification in the writings of John Stuart Mill.

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5 replies to this post
  1. I’ve been kicking around an idea for a scifi story for years–a reworking of the Terminator concept in which a Catholic order in the distant future build a time machine for the purpose of going back in time to assassinate the thinkers responsible for the demise of the human race–Mill is on the short list of targets (along with Rousseau and William of Ockham).

  2. The unfortunate, underlying premise of Utilitarianism is that a human being is a (biological) machine, and can be made to run properly with good lubricant and maintenance. It has no answers for the question, “If you could secure the happiness of the human race forever by torturing one baby to death, would you do it (and if not, why)?”
    I am not a machine, biological or otherwise. I am a Human.

  3. “The biggest problem with Mill is that he is boring.”

    Maybe that’s an asset. It could keep people today from wanting to read anything he wrote.

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