Was publishing John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty a mistake?

Under the editorship of Chris Berg, the IPA Review is generally much improved. But its recent list of Australia’s 13 biggest mistakes contains some rather eccentric entries.

One of these is to put the publication of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty on the list. The entry doesn’t argue against On Liberty itself, but rather that its popularity rubbed of on some of Mill’s other books, which contained ideas supporting protectionism, which in turn contributed to the rise of tariffs in the new federation that began in 1901.

Generally, Mill was in favour of free trade. But the source of the trouble was this passage in his Principles of Political Economy:

The only case in which, on mere principles of political economy, protecting duties can be defensible, is when they are imposed temporarily (especially in a young and rising nation) in hopes of naturalizing a foreign industry, in itself perfectly suitable to the circumstances of the country.

Stuart Macintyre’s A Colonial Liberalism reports that:

Colonists invoked this section of the Principles so often and so liberally that Mill added a passage to the 1860s edition that carefully insulated his ‘infant industries’ argument from the protectionist heresy he saw flourishing in places like Victoria.

While Mill’s ideas were used – or misused – in the 19th century, it is a rather dubious move to blame a book that wasn’t even about trade policy for the trade policies that were implemented in Australia. Are we to believe that if On Liberty had never been published that Australia would have adopted free trade? The interests allied in favour of protectionism would have succeeded with or without whatever intellectual respectability this passage from Mill gave them, and indeed another of the IPA Review mistakes (the end of the Reid government in 1905) gives some of the blame to the Free Trade party itself.

Against this, too, we need to consider the good On Liberty has done and is doing. While Mill’s Principles of Political Economy are deservedly long forgotten, On Liberty‘s ideas on free speech and individuality and his harm principle continue to be influential nearly 150 years after the book was published. I doubt there was a social liberalisation over the last century in which Mill’s arguments haven’t played a part. When I was assessing entries in a recent CIS essay competition Mill’s ideas kept coming up, and he’s there again in a robust defence of free speech that fellow blogger Steve Edwards has coming up in the next issue of Policy. It’s probably the only nineteenth century political work that’s still relevant to us today, and still a force for freedom.