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.