On Liberty at 150

The 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of the Species, along with the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, has been getting plenty of attention. But there was another still-famous book published in 1859 that doesn’t seem to be getting anniversary celebrations – John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.

I try to rectify this in the current issue of Policy. At the end of my article, I try to explain why Mill, despite probably being the most read and cited liberal philosopher, has an uneasy place in the classical liberal canon, but still deserves to be there:

In classical liberal circles, On Liberty’s 150th is unlikely to get the positive attention outside observers of liberal politics might expect. This cannot be explained solely by disagreements with the book’s argument. Few of liberalism’s great books are accepted uncritically by all liberals, and inevitably books from earlier times contain analysis that cannot easily be carried forward to the very different social, economic and political conditions found decades or even centuries later. With Mill, the problem is less On Liberty itself than Mill’s other work and influences.

Mill was an eclectic thinker, drawing on conservative writers as a young man and dabbling with socialist ideas later in life. Despite Mill’s objections, his work in economics was used to justify protectionism in nineteenth century Australia. These intellectual impurities, along with his place in the intellectual history of ‘social’ liberalism, gave Mill his marginal position in the classical liberal canon. A few years ago the IPA Review went so far as to list On Liberty’s publication among Australia’s ‘13 greatest mistakes’ for the credibility it added to Mill’s protectionist arguments.

Mill’s relegation is undeserved. He should be read as eclectically as he wrote, with far more attention to On Liberty than Principles of Political Economy. Bad arguments on free trade do not infect good arguments for free speech. Though On Liberty is not convincing on every point, many of Mill’s dilemmas are our dilemmas too. How do we balance individual freedoms against broader social goods? Which social norms are valuable, and which obstacles to freedom and well-being? What rules of debate make it robust enough to discredit ill-founded beliefs, but civil enough that ideas get heard? Like other great political books, On Liberty remains worth reading because it asks questions that still need answers.

6 thoughts on “On Liberty at 150

  1. I don’t know if Mill “should” be read as eclectically as he wrote, but he certainly has been. When liberals in recent decades have cited the book, it has usually been the Preface they have quoted, in particular, the paragraph in which Mill asserts the “one very simple principle” that he claims the rest of the book will defend.
    And looking at the rest of the book, modern liberals show prudence in ignoring it. Rather than actually mount a logical argument for his principle (as he should have been able to do, having been a talented logician) he proceeds to take it for granted and then flies off on various rather dubious — and even self-contradictory — tangents.
    The Australian philosopher David Stove some years ago drew attention to the rank dishonesty of Mill’s phrase “experiments in living” — trying to attach the prestige of science to certain relationships of a then-unrespectable kind that were entered into by the participants not at all in a spirit of scientific inquiry.
    I suspect the book’s reputation owes more to the independent attractiveness of the positions that people infer it supports, rather than anything intrinsic to the text.

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  2. Alan – I don’t think he does take the harm principle for granted, tackling it both from the perspective of the contribution of individuality to well-being and from the disadvantages to society flowing from various forms of prohibition.

    Nor do I think there is any dishonesty in ‘experiments in living’; it is a word with wide meaning that is entirely appropriate to the context in which he used it. I don’t know my mid-19th century British history well enough, but would the idea of a ‘spirit of scientific inquiry’ even have established itself as prestigious? I’m critical of some of how Mill treats this idea in my article, but this claim of Stove’s seems to be another of his eccentric views.

    On the other hand, I largely agree with your last statement. The argument from first principles is quite complex, and as many commentators have argued not entirely successful. Personally I think they are right – indeed one point on which I still agree with John Gray is that attempts to derive an entire political philosophy from one idea or ideal never work.

    But many of Mill’s arguments can be detached from the weaknesses in the argument as a whole. Though the harm principle is far from simple, it is an example of an idea that people find useful and which has been influential in arguments about subjects – often to do with sex – where people feel disgust but have trouble explaining what other damage is done.

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  3. AlanC says:

    “The Australian philosopher David Stove some years ago drew attention to the rank dishonesty of Mill’s phrase “experiments in living” — trying to attach the prestige of science to certain relationships of a then-unrespectable kind that were entered into by the participants not at all in a spirit of scientific inquiry.”

    A lack of comprehension on your part doesn’t imply dishonesty on Mill’s part. Mill obviously didn’t think those engaged in “experiments in living” viewed themselves as scientists in white lab coats.

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  4. The point of the phrase ‘experiments in living’ is that there is an epistemological (i.e. knowledge finding) element to liberalism. Within particular boundaries (e.g. set by the harm principle and the rule of law) there is scope for different arrangements to be tried and for people to then learn by experience, example and emulation. This is quite similar to the epistemological arguments for free markets (e.g. allowing ‘experiments in producing and distributing goods and services’ including ‘experiments in coming up with new goods and services which may or may not catch on’) and the epistemological arguments for federalism (allowing States within the boundaries set by the subsidiarity principle to ‘experiment’ with different ways of delivering collective goods and services). As mel rightly points out, the fact that the agents involved may not intentionally want to experiment in the scientific sense of the term (indeed they are frequently not disinterested in the result as objective lab workers should be) is neither here nor there.

    If this is David Stove’s ‘argument’ then it cements my impression of him as a much over-rated sophist,

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  5. Andrew — I don’t doubt that many people find the harm principle “useful”, or at least they think they do, and especially, as you say, on subjects related to sex. But I suspect this seeming usefulness is illusory and enthymemetic; that is, the principle seems to make sense only because people conjoin it with a raft of unstated assumptions or suppressed premises, e.g. about what is and is not harmful.

    Mill did indeed say much about the value of individuality and of the damage that could be done to it by excessive social constraints. But to rest the harm principle on the value of individuality it is not enough to show that individuality is valuable, nor that it can be damaged by an excess of social conformity. One has to show that all paternalistic interventions in people’s affairs — even the most fleeting and mild — impair their individuality. Mill was so excessive in his rhetoric that I’m not sure we can even say he attempted to prove such a point, let alone that he succeeded.

    I’m not an expert on 19th century British history, but from what I’ve read science did enjoy considerable prestige (although not necessarily huge remuneration). So many gentlemen were so keen to contribute to the advancement of science that there was a healthy market for various kinds of specimens; Alfred Wallace, who shared the credit with Darwin for developing the theory of evolution by natural selection, for some years made his living by supplying that market. And what separated the real scientist from the mere collector was understood to be the generation of testable hypotheses and their verification or refutation.

    Melaleuca says:

    Mill obviously didn’t think those engaged in “experiments in living” viewed themselves as scientists in white lab coats.

    No, indeed. So why not then describe what the people involved were doing as, for example, “adventures in living”? Considering the praise that Mill heaped on individual spontaneity, “adventures” might have been a better fit for the rest of his argument than were “experiments”. But an adventure doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, does it?

    Jason Soon says:

    The point of the phrase ‘experiments in living’ is that there is an epistemological (i.e. knowledge finding) element to liberalism…

    So people’s activities can be dubbed “experiments” irrespective of their own desires and intentions because the rest of us can look on and learn. Nice. Except for the inconvenient fact that liberals do not really want the rest of us to put, e.g. homosexual relationships under the microscope. When it comes to the so-called “experiments in living” the liberal aim is not for us to exercise judgement but to suspend it. And that’s what makes such talk dishonest.

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