How John Stuart Mill's On "Liberty" is Still Relevant to Americans Today


In today's political culture, libertarianism has begun to take on new life. As such, I thought I would go back and read On Liberty and see how the ideas there in would compare to today's. In "Chapter One" (discussion on chapters two through five to come later) Mill gives a short history of liberty's progress, and its current (as of the mid-1800s) lack of forward momentum.

Liberty's progress, phase one:

Mill begins with governments who derived their authority from sheer force of will. The leaders of such governments were powerful, forceful, and unquestioned, as was necessary for the defense of the realm. As one well knows, these leaders often turned their destructive tendencies toward their own people. So at its most base existence "by liberty, was meant protection against the tryanny of the political rulers," a theme we definitely still hear today.) "The aim, therefore, of patriots was to set limits to the power which the ruler should be suffered to exorcise over the community." This was liberty's first act.

Phase two:

As the world moved on, new types of governance were sought. Representative governments of various forms seemed to be the answer. After all, "the nation did not need to be protected against its own will. There was no fear of its tyrannizing over over itself. Let the rulers be effectually responsible to it, promptly removable by it, and it could afford to trust them ... "

I can hear many of you groaning right now, for you realize that this idea potentially presents its own brand of tyranny. As Mill points out, this idea of "self government' spoken of is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest. The will of the people, moreover, practically means the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people." In other words, tyranny of the majority.

The great challenge for liberty here is that there must be "rules of conduct," while at the same time,protecting the individual against unwarranted limitations on their actions. Mill saw this as a battle between "feelings" and "reason" and called people out as being unprincipled, easily swayed by whatever political wind came sweeping by, and for demanding government action without first consulting reason. "There is, in fact, no recognized principle by which the propriety or impropriety of government interference is customarily tested." Mill goes on to say, "and it seems to me that in consequence of this absence of rule or principle, one side is at present as often wrong as the other; the interference of government is, with about equal frequency, improperly invoked and improperly condemned."

This last statement is a perfect description of our current political culture.

Phase three:

In this current or future phase, Mill says we must overcome the oppression of the social tyranny that drives our political process. To this end, he says that the only thing that should trump liberty 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." This idea is to be distinguished from harm to oneself. In other words, we have no right to force our ideas of, say, healthy living on anyone else — no matter how big their soda. Furthermore, if it can be convincingly argued that my health is so deeply entangled with your well-being that I can be compelled to do anything in regard to it, then we need to do some serious disentangling. But I digress.

Liberty's domain:

Before concluding chapter one, Mill sets forth three areas in which liberty must rule.

First is "the inward domain of the consciousness". This includes such things as thought, feeling, opinion and sentiment, and the free expression there of.

Second, "the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits." My preferences are my own, and as long as they do not harm others, I am entitled to them. How we go about judging if something has caused harm to another, however, can get quite messy.

Third is the freedom to unite, with the same liberties as individuals.

Many of the ideas Mill put forth in this chapter are very familiar to us, but their application is still something we are struggling with. The process towards liberty has been marred by the pettiness of some of its proponents, to the end that they think this gives them license to do whatever it is they please. Liberty has been taken for granted for a long time, and has become the domain of the immature and the dissaffected. Liberty is too precious a commodity to be taken for granted by anyone. It is time we all came together and took our stand on liberty.