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Lecture Notes on Mill's On Liberty

[These notes are the basis of a lecture delivered in LBST 112 on Wednesday, February 10, 1999, by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College (now Vancouver Island University). This document is in the public domain, released February 1999, and may be used, in whole or in part, by anyone, without permission and without charge. This text was extensively revised in December 2001 and slightly revised in December 2002]

For comments or questions, please contact Ian Johnston


[Note that this essay begins with a discussion of the political traditions leading up to modern Liberalism before Mill. If you are seeking a direct discussion of Mill, please move to that section directly]

Our concern this week and next week is politics: the art of maintaining harmony in a civil community The purpose of this part of the curriculum is to encourage us all to think about one thing: What do we mean by liberal democracy? We are all participating citizens in a political form which we call democratic liberalism, and some of may think that this form of government has been eternally present or is a law of God, so that something like freedom of speech or the rule of law is an inalienable right or natural law, like gravity, which will always be there, whether we choose to think about it or not.

What my lecture here aims to do is to show that many of the things we most value have not always been present, that they have been introduced for particular reasons, that they are always vulnerable, that they create certain problems for us, and that we can usefully try to come to grips with certain features of them. The point is that if we value our political system, then we should be able to speak up reasonably in its defence, while recognizing also some problematic issues our way of life raises.

So to further this aim we are looking in the next two weeks at one of the most famous and eloquent defences of modern liberalism and at one of the most important attacks upon it, both books written in the middle of the nineteenth century: On Liberty by John Stuart Mill and The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx.

Some General Observations on Politics

Let me begin by invoking the image of a political community as a ship which for its proper functioning (i.e., sailing across the oceans) requires a structure of authority, a division of labour, consensus on the purpose of the voyage (which requires an understanding of the surroundings), and, emerging out of all of these, a shared sense of duties and responsibilities and obedience to certain rules without which the ship will founder. Orders need to be given and obeyed if the community is to function.

The survival of this ship-community is constantly threatened by three great dangers: destruction by nature (e.g., famine, natural disaster, disease); invasion by a foreign power; and self-destruction (civil war). The political structure ruling on the ship is designed to meet these three challenges. If it cannot do so successfully, then the community will cease to exist.

Politics is the study of the strengths and weaknesses of the various arrangements on such a ship, a consideration of good and bad structures. For the Greeks the major concern of politics (which they perceived as one of the highest form of human knowledge) is JUSTICE, which they conceived of as the proper arrangement and distribution of power for the highest purposes of human life (note the Greek meaning of their term for justice: dike: the arrangement).

The central task of politics is finding some way in which the power in the community (the economic, military, and personal power) can be united with some form of morality, some shared sense of a common purpose and obligation which will enable the community to survive. There are many arrangements possible, many ways to distribute power to ensure stability and prosperity. The central question facing a community is what arrangement will work best for it. Any arrangement will, of course, also have to have some process for sorting out disagreements more or less peacefully, so that the citizens can remain generally united in a common enterprise.

A Very General Overview of Western Political Traditions

By way of an introduction to Mill, I would like now to make some very large, superficial, and thus potentially misleading generalizations. However, if we treat these carefully, they may enable us to appreciate the importance of Mill's central argument.

What we call Western Culture inherited from its various roots different political traditions, ones which are not fully compatible. From the Greeks we derive a strong tradition of competition, the idea that the ruling of the state should be carried out by those who have demonstrated in action their moral, athletic, military, and political excellence. These superior citizens set the standard by which others are judged and are by nature and education best suited to determine how the power available in the state should be applied. Hence, the political vision of the Greeks sees political rule as a proper extension of their emphasis on individuality and individual excellence.

The Judaeo-Christian tradition, as we have briefly seen from reading Exodus, has a very different tradition. There the emphasis is not on a hierarchy of excellence, but on a stringent set of rules, endorsed by God, which governs a community of equals. The stress here falls very much on the sense of equality throughout the community, and individuals are expected or forced to conform to the community standard—codified in a set of written laws—as a group of equals with a shared sense of a common destiny.

The Romans, the most politically astute and successful of all the ancient cultures, set down a principle of republican government, ruled by traditional law and governed by a strong emphasis on public service. The important stress here fell on curbing one's desire for individual excellence (on the Greek model) and dedicating one's energies to the service of the state. The Romans clearly had no sense of communal equality on the Judaeo-Christian model, but they strove to channel the power of the best citizens into public service (the desire to compete, so prominent among the Greeks, especially the Athenians, must be curbed for the good of the republic). Their models of the highest political standards were set by those who exercised power well in service of the state and then, once their political career was over, retired.

The final major element in the western political tradition comes from the Northern Germanic tribes, the Goths, Ostragoths, Vandals, Franks, and so on, who inherited the political space after the fall of the Roman Empire. These tribes were held together by a military aristocracy, bonded by personal loyalty and a strong family-clan structure. Their political life was dominated by a sense that the leader and his peers exerted all the decisive political power in the community and in their lives set the standards which ruled the community. And one obeyed them out of a sense of traditional personal, kinship, or tribal loyalties.

Western Europe was formed as a political entity by the amalgamation of these conflicting traditions in the first thousand years after the birth of Jesus Christ. And what evolved was, in a sense, something of a contradiction. The Feudal System was clearly based on a powerful military-ecclesiastical aristocracy in which family and family property were governed by an unquestioned leader. The political order was held together very much by personal loyalties to particular people and families. And the justice in the community depended almost entirely on virtue in the ruler. Thus, for a great deal of medieval politics, the central question I outlined at the start of this lecture required the education of the ruler in virtue. Everything depended upon that.

The contradiction I refereed to above stemmed, in part, from the fact that the religion of Europe (after the fourth century) was Christianity, which has always had a radical equality at the heart of its most important traditions (inherited from the Mosaic code, among other things). So the political life of the Middle Ages manifested a constant tension between the political realities of aristocratic power in the hands of a few very wealthy landowners set off against a religion which, no matter how much the Church itself might support a hierarchy of wealth and power, also preached the equality of all (it's no wonder that many of the radical protests against traditional order—the most famous being Luther's—were inspired by close reading of the Bible).

We have seen in the Morte Darthur some of the weaknesses and contradictions of this system. Peaceful co-operative living among the powerful militaristic landowners required some coordinating belief, so that they would not spend all their time fighting each other. And Arthur's Round Table is an attempt to impose such a coordinating discipline (the Crusades were clearly another).  The community in the Morte D'Arthur is held together by two things: traditional codes of knightly conduct and personal relationships. The traditions establish public codes of virtue, that is, they enable everyone to distinguish between good and bad conduct and to evaluate people on a scale of values; everyone is constantly evaluated by this code, and the degrees of excellence which each individual manifests are a matter of public recognition. No one has to be persuaded that Sir Lancelot is the best of Arthur's knights; everyone knows that because his virtues are always on public display (hence the political importance of the jousting tournaments).

In this political structure the people that matter are the leaders, those whose excellence gives them the power to rule and the authority to make decisions which other people obey. Other people's importance is derived from their position in the scale of excellence or from their direct relationship with someone who is excellent; hence, in the Morte D'Arthur little to no attention is paid to anyone who is not either the top dog or in the next few ranks, except when the leader's personal relationship with that person gives him or her a momentary importance. In the Morte D'Arthur that incident where Lancelot instantly kills a working man whose cart he wants indicates the relative importance of the knight and the peasant. Lancelot, the most courteous and noblest of all the knights, recognizes no obligations at all to respect the owner of the cart as a person entitled to any courtesy or consideration or even his life (and there is no sense that the worker is even armed): in a very real sense for Sir Lancelot, the worker is not even a person.

The Private Life

Before going on to examine the instability of this feudal arrangement, I want to call attention to something which many of us will find very curious, that is, the absence of any importance given in these political systems to the private life of the individual, a protected space in which the individual has a certain freedom to do as she likes, without interference from those with power.

There is little attention paid to this notion (so dear to us), because for most people most of the time private life does not exist, and the individuals possess no private freedoms in our sense. At all moments they are controlled by a sense of their public duty and reputation. In the Morte Darthur, people are almost never alone, and if anyone is, he is governed by his awareness of public values. The wounded knights all sleep in the same room as Guenevere, and if Sir Lancelot wants to make love to her, he must negotiate his way among them.

This may be hard for us to appreciate, but political considerations did not take into account the need to protect private life, simply because that was not a concern. The majority of people had virtually no leisure nor any private space to which they could retire. But the issue was more complicated than that, because the very notion that anyone would want to live a private life was largely incomprehensible. Human beings were, first and foremost, social and political animals, and the purpose of life was to develop one's relations with others, not to pursue some private agenda.

Private life was not only largely unavailable or unwelcome; it was also potentially dangerous, because in private people thoughts might turn anti-social. The devil makes work for idle hands, as the saying went. Hence, political structures made little room for any notion that people should spend much time alone or that the political justice system should somehow ensure them such privacy as a right. The freedom that mattered was the freedom of the community, and personal freedom might well be a threat to that.

The End of the Old Order

Historically speaking, this arrangement I have too briefly sketched out formed for a very long time the political structure of European communities. It was, if you like, a pyramid of families held together by personal and traditional loyalties. One was born into the circle of one's community which included a system of traditional loyalties and responsibilities which had existed since time immemorial. The system of law was largely upheld by tradition, in accordance with the old Roman formulation: non mos, non ius [if it's not the custom, it's not the law] and the unwritten laws of the community were in most cases far more binding than anything codified.

It will be obvious that such a political structure requires extreme stability in the traditional forms of life, customs, and beliefs of a community. Only if people largely share a common belief in the value of the arrangement will it work.  And since the structure of the community is so intensely personal, it is very difficult for someone to move from one community to another or for the community to accept a sudden influx of strangers, especially strangers from a different culture (who do not acknowledge the traditional lines of authority, have a different religion, speak a different dialect, and so on)..

Such stability in Europe, as in other parts of the world, was kept in place for centuries by three things: (a) the agricultural basis for communal life in the small stable village, (b) the common religious belief of all the participants, and (c) the relatively unchanging social and economic arrangements in the small village. And the stability came to an end when these three things gradually began to lose their grip on the communities of Europe in a process that started in the Renaissance. This is a long, fascinating, and complex story which I can only inadequately sum up here.

To begin with, Europe began shifting from a collection of small agricultural communities to an economy dominated by the cities in which trade and business became important generators of wealth. This created a large strain on the conventional arrangements, in part because it created a growing class of people who had wealth without commensurate political power. Such people were not big landowners or important military types or part of a traditional aristocracy (often their financial wealth was very recent and the origins of their family very humble), and the prevailing arrangements required them to serve such traditional leaders, even though in many cases they were wealthier than those leaders. The political muscle of these growing middle-class capitalists created political strains which the old order could not adjust to (the American War of Independence and the English Civil War can be seen as the revolt of this new business class against the traditional rule, both under the banner "No taxation without representation" which basically translates into "If you want our cash, then you have to hand over some of the ruling power").

Secondly, Europe lost its religious uniformity. Once Luther issued his challenge to the traditional Roman Catholic authority in the 1520's, he split the religious unity of Europe and launched one hundred a fifty years of civil war in which Catholics fought against Protestants and Protestants fought amongst themselves, without reaching any conclusion. By the end of this religious warfare (in 1648) the traditional structure of society (of the sort I have sketched out above) was in ruins in Northern Europe, and the notion that the political structure of society could be held together by personal loyalties based upon a shared sense of virtue and excellence was no longer possible.

Thirdly, in the 18th century the population of Europe started to expand extremely rapidly. This combined with a shift of people from the country to the city (accelerated by the industrial revolution) removed forever the agricultural basis of the old order. By the time Mill and Marx are writing, a majority of citizens in Northern Europe are living new urban centres, many of which did not exist as large cities in the time of their grandparents or great-grandparents.

[This process, of course, took place slowly—although with an accelerating speed—over a period of at least two centuries, and the forces of the old order, the traditional ruling groups, did not give way gracefully. I don't want the brevity of the above account to suggest that the process was quick and simple. In my own youth (in the 1940's) I was educated to believe that someone who came from the right family and had gone to the right schools was someone I could implicitly trust to act morally—that faith lay behind the concept of a gentleman. This notion was (perhaps) finally laid to rest (at least in England) by Burgess, Philby, Maclean, Blount, and all the other well-educated "gentlemen" with excellent pedigrees who turned out be traitors]

The Beginning of Liberalism: A Note on Hobbes

The collapse of the conditions essential to the survival of the traditional order posed an urgent question: How can we now restructure society when there is no more agreement about what constitutes virtue, when money-making through trade and industry is replacing land ownership as the basis of power, when traditional communities are breaking up, when there is no traditional network of personal loyalties, and when we have no common religious tradition?

The first comprehensive theoretical answer in English came from Thomas Hobbes who in the mid-17th century laid down a radically new theory of society which was so different from what everyone had believed for centuries that it got Hobbes into immediate trouble, and his book was condemned for generations.  Nevertheless, Hobbes's theory was plundered by later thinkers and laid the foundations of the modern liberal state. Many of the key ideas we Canadians use to justify the way our state is organized are ultimately derived from Hobbes's radically new proposal, one of the greatest works of political science in our culture. Since Hobbes' theory is very closely argued in great detail, I cannot review it adequately here, but let me suggest some of the highlights, especially in comparison with what had gone before.

Hobbes proposed a political order in which there were only two levels of authority: the first was every citizen who, for the purposes of government should be considered an equal independent social and economic unit, with no inherited distinctions based on virtue or tradition and no web of personal loyalties in the old sense. The second was what Hobbes called the Sovereign, by which he meant the government which ruled them. Hobbes's model did not specify what form the sovereign should take (his model fits all forms of government, although he had a preference for monarchy).

Society, Hobbes argued, should consist of a Sovereign who has all the power, and equal subjects who obey the laws as established by that sovereign. In other words, the concept of written law (as the Sovereign determined it) replaces the old order's reliance on tradition, on unwritten law. The Sovereign establishes all the rules, and the subjects obey. The essential part of this arrangement, which is one of the cornerstones of any liberal society, is that there is no authority other than the written law as established by the sovereign: What is not expressly prohibited by the sovereign is allowed. People, in other words, have no right to oppress each other in the name of anything not authorized by the Sovereign. My obligations as a citizen are to the law as laid down by the Sovereign and to nothing else; they no longer include any traditional commitments based on personal loyalty or religious faith. And I have no obligations in society other than to the sovereign or those the sovereign designates as his representatives.

We can represent Hobbes's view of society (simplistically) as a isosceles triangle with the sovereign and the top and every individual in society as isolated units along the base. Every individual on the base has a direct obligation to obey the Sovereign as that Sovereign expresses his orders in Law (that might be pictured as a straight line linking each individual to the Sovereign). But there are no lines linking the individuals on the base line, no traditional bonding by clan, region, religion, family, or whatever, no clusters of local associations, no hierarchy of rank based on traditional personal obligations.

Obviously the Sovereign cannot rule each individual directly; there have to be intermediate gradations of authority. These, Hobbes argues, must be set up by the Sovereign, and they derive their authority from the Sovereign. Such a distribution of administrative power is based, not on traditional loyalties, particular families, or personal virtue: it is based on the official office, backed up by the power of the Sovereign. From this model, Hobbes thus introduces the key principle of modern liberal government: my obedience is to the position, not the person. I obey the judge or the Mayor, not because of the person occupying the position (as in the old days) but because of the office (which represents the authority and power of the Sovereign). The day the judge steps down from office, his power over me ceases.

This model immediately raises two key questions: Why would subjects obey such an arrangement? And what is there to protect the citizen from a corrupt sovereign? To these two questions Hobbes gave two very definite answers: People would obey this because it is in their self-interest to do so. People are afraid of civil disorder, and they want an arena in which they can work and create wealth and construct a comfortable life for themselves. This, Hobbes argued, is more important than virtue. Since there is no longer any shared concept of virtue or a sufficient supply of virtuous people to run the country, society has to be based upon the two most important elements in human life: fear of death and greed. Obeying a strong government was infinitely preferable to the alternative: civil war. Hobbes believes this principle is so obvious that all people have enough reason to understand it.

Secondly, Hobbes argued that the Sovereign would curb any tendency to tyranny over the people, because the major interest of the Sovereign was the generation of wealth (the basis of state power) and that would only be possible if people were left free to pursue their business interests. Hence, the Sovereign would concentrate on making a limited space of personal freedom in which people could work without interference.

What is particularly important about this arrangement is the argument Hobbes puts forward to justify this view of the state. It is a very sophisticated, detailed, and for many compelling argument, and, in large part, it forms the basis for our way of life in Canada today. Here I can offer only an inadequate sketch of Hobbes' justification for this model.

First, Hobbes argued that without government, in a state of nature, every human being has a right to everything; there are no rules, no morality, no justice. Before the state exists there are no controls of any sort. Everyone has full freedom to take what he can and to keep it as long as he can. In this world the individual's personal freedom is total—unrestricted by law or custom or morality. But there's one problem; in such a state of nature, to use Hobbes's most famous sentence, there are "No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man [is], solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

Because of the total lack of security in a state of nature, Hobbes argues, reasonable people finally agree to a compromise. They come together and agree to give up all their power to a common sovereign who will rule them all equally. People surrender all their natural freedom to the government because they want security so that they can live longer, better lives. Thus, the government (sovereign), who is not a party to the contract, has absolute power. The sovereign will determine the rules which apply equally to all parties to the contract (i.e., all citizens), and will thus decide how much personal liberty each individual possesses. This contract between the citizen and the sovereign lasts as long as the sovereign lives up to the reason for the contract, that is, social peace and security. The contract is broken as soon as that no longer obtains (hence, the individual always has a right to fight back if the sovereign comes after his life).

The basis of this arrangement is a social contract made by all the citizens; no one has any special privileges or is exempt from the contract. Thus, the answer to the question "Why should I obey the state" now becomes "Because you've agreed to do so and, in addition, it's in your enlightened self-interest. And if you don't the sovereign will punish you."

Liberal Freedom (Negative Liberty)

Hobbes' model of the state argues that we need to think of society as consisting of two spheres: the public sphere in which the rule of the Sovereign is absolute (we obey the laws as established by the sovereign here because we've agreed to and because the sovereign has the force to punish us if we don't) and the private world where I am free to pursue my own best interests, that area where public law has made no ruling (the principle that what is not forbidden is allowed).

Now, Hobbes was widely reviled in his own time (especially for his views of human beings as motivated only by fear and greed and for his views on religion), and no one immediately rushed to construct a state on his model; but the milder version of Hobbes's model constructed by John Locke shortly afterwards was the basis for the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution and for the founding of English government in Canada: the key principles here, derived from Hobbes, are the notion that government exists by the consent of the governed, that individuals are to have certain freedoms to pursue their personal lives as they see fit, that the government's law will control the public sphere and be equally applicable to all, that people's obligations extend only to the law, and so on.

This new vision offers a profoundly different view of Freedom than the one we encounter in the Odyssey or the Morte D'Arthur or, for that matter, in Exodus. Here freedom is no longer the freedom of the entire state to rule itself; it is now what has been called Negative Freedom: the liberty of the individual to live life with as little interference from anyone else as possible (the government or, more importantly, one's neighbour). Human beings have to have this freedom, Hobbes argued, in order to function as efficient economic beings and, if they are allowed to do that, then they will agree—out of self-interest—to the exercise of the sovereign's authority in the public sphere. In other words, Hobbes argued that if you gave people enough freedom to get rich and comfortable, they would be happy to surrender all sorts of other freedoms (including, he argued, the freedom to worship whoever they wanted to in public).

Hobbes liked this model because he concluded that the old concept of justice arising from the virtue of the ruler was no longer tenable. There was not enough virtue to go around. Instead, we should in our political thinking abandon virtue and focus instead on two much more powerful and universal qualities of human beings: greed and fear. Any citizen could plainly see that he needed protection from his fellow citizens—hence, it was quite rational to give all power to the government. At the same time, the government could see that the security and prosperity of the state depended upon money; hence, the rational sovereign would provide the space necessary for the citizens to maximize their economic potential. Let people focus on making money and acquiring goods, Hobbes argued, and there will be no need for virtue.

This vision of society as consisting of a public realm ruled by the Sovereign's laws and a public area of Negative Freedom raises an immediate question: Where do we draw the line between these two realms? This becomes a significant political problem for the first time because for the first time private liberty to do as one wants (Negative Freedom) is seen as important (the idea would have been ridiculous in the society of the Odyssey, Exodus, or Morte D'Arthur). Hobbes himself was deeply suspicious of what human beings would get up to in the way of public mischief if they were given too much personal freedom (especially in religion), so he tends to restrict individuals a good deal in things like public speech, freedom to associate, and public worship (but we need to remember Hobbes had direct experience of the religious wars). Other thinkers following in Hobbes's footsteps were less immediately suspicious of what individuals might do with their freedom, and so the modern liberal state which began to develop after Hobbes very gradually made room for increasing private freedoms, especially in religion.

Mill's On Liberty

Mill's On Liberty was written almost two hundred years after Hobbes's masterpiece (The Leviathan), and, as Mill says at the very beginning of his argument, by that time some liberal principles, like freedom of the press, are now so firmly entrenched that he feels no need to defend them. Certainly in America and in England, the liberal tradition deriving ultimately from Hobbes (via John Locke) had become the organizing principle of government (it is important for an understanding of Canadian law to recognize that our non-aboriginal traditions have no roots other than in modern liberalism: this helps to explain some basic things about what we believe and how we live).

Mill, however, is worried that the present development of liberalism does not create enough room in the private realm, and his essay (of which we are reading only a short condensation) is a detailed and sustained argument for maximizing personal freedom in the modern liberal state. He feels the need to do this because he perceives two great threats to the modern liberal state: excessive power of the government and its written codified laws and excessive power of public opinion and its unwritten laws (what Mill calls, borrowing the phrase from de Tocqueville, a French political thinker, the "tyranny of the majority").

The central thrust of Mill's argument is very straightforward, but it is easily misunderstood. His aim, as he tells up right away, is to make the case that we should permit individuals to say and do what they want as much as possible, subject to only one limitation, namely, that they should inflict no direct harm on other people. In all other cases, individuals should be left free to say and to do what they want, with no legal or social barriers. Only if this happens can the best people develop fully and society prosper.

It is particularly important to notice the basis of Mill's argument. He does not argue that we have a basic right to these freedoms or that the government is under some sort of moral obligation to maximize our freedom, or that such freedoms are divine commandments. His argument is a thoroughly utilitarian one: he argues that adopting his principles will bring direct social benefits for everyone, they will permit faster progress in all sectors of society, in ideas, in education, in business, in everything else.

Without such principles, Mill believes, society is in danger of stagnating. In other words, maximizing the freedom of all is in the best interests of every one in society. Unlike Hobbes, Mill believes that people will not threaten the stability of society if we give them much more freedom than they presently possess. Put in the terms introduced earlier in this lecture, Mill's position is that maximizing negative liberty will provide direct practical benefits to everyone. In making the case for increasing personal liberty, he is appealing directly to our self-interest. Where Hobbes' main concern is civil security (avoiding the dangers of civil war), Mill's is social stagnation. Thus, Hobbes is prepared to limit negative liberty in the name of security, Mill wants to maximize it for the sake of progress.

And the basis of Mill's faith in such progress comes from a central claim that, in a tradition established by the Greeks (to whom Mill appeals), liberty will breed competition and variety and these, in turn, will better foster excellence. Only by competing with each other in the realm of ideas and practical experiments for living and in trade will our society improve. For example, in the realm of ideas, free speech is essential for a number of reasons. Without it we may stifle some ideas which may be true. Or, if the minority ideas are not true, then we lose the opportunity to have our ideas challenged and to think through how we can defend them. Any attempt to stifle the expression of any idea for whatever reason is an assumption of infallibility and runs the risk of making us complacent about our beliefs and thus prevents us from improving our ideas or even understanding them as fully as we might.

This is not a simple plea for tolerance, for the permissive society which lets anything go; nor is it moral relativism, which thinks that all ideas are equally valid. Mill firmly believes that tolerance is not enough, for tolerance is essentially a negative attitude: I don't like your opinion, and I would prefer a situation where you were not around, but since I cannot easily eradicate your opinions, I will not object to or aim to prohibit you from expressing them. Mill sees free speech as a much more proactive element in social interaction. It is a matter of constant debate: we must allow all opinions a public hearing so that we can engage with them, debate them, sharpen ourselves in a constant testing and refinement (and improvement in) our beliefs. Mill's essay is a call to make possible a constant strenuous conflict in the realm of ideas, with no interference from the government or from public opinion.

The same reasons that prompt Mill to argue for freedom of speech lead him to argue for freedom to live our lives as we see fit, without interference (so long as we do not contravene the harm principle). This is essential if our society is to improve and progress. It's not the case that everyone (or even the majority) will make good or wise decisions, but the variety in choices will generate debate, and that will lead to a healthy competition and improvement. And it will permit the few excellent people, those with creative genius, a chance to flourish. Again, the emphasis is utilitarian: we should have these freedoms not because it is our right or because God has told us to institute such freedoms, but because the best hope for our society is the competitive variety which is produced through such freedoms.

Mill realizes that in such a thoroughly competitive society some people will succeed better than others, many will not succeed at all, and thus material inequality will be an inevitable result.  In fact, Mill's main concern in many places is clearly his desire to create a space in which the relatively few people of great talent, an intellectual, artistic, and business elite, can operate freely. That may at first glance appear to contradict the utilitarian basis of his argument.  How can measures designed to promote a wide gap between members of society work towards the greatest good for the greatest number?

 Mill's answer to this potentially troubling point is clear enough: the creative efforts of the few excellent people in society may well benefit them disproportionably, but their efforts enable society to progress and thus bring benefits to everyone.  The poor may end up very much worse off than the rich, but the endeavours of the rich will raise the standard of society for all.  Indeed, Mill suggests that that is the best way in which we can avoid the stagnation in which everyone may be far more materially equal but at a much lower level of development.

Take, for example, the development of expensive medical procedures (like heart by-pass surgery or organ transplants).  At first, these procedures, developed by the private enterprise of medical specialists, were extremely expensive and thus available only to the very rich (obviously contributing to large inequalities in the medical care system).  But the competitive entrepreneurial spirit of private medicine helped to improve these procedures and dramatically lower the cost, so that now they are far more affordable and accessible, so that in the end both rich and poor benefit.  Without the freedom to experiment and to profit and to compete, Mill would argue, the development of such popular and necessary procedures would be seriously hampered.  There is no way a government monopoly of such development would achieve such progress so rapidly.

The Harm Principle

Mill's Harm Principle is generally fairly easy to understand. And it's really important to notice that Mill is offering us that principle as a practical tool for resolving arguments, as something we can use to sort out particular social problems where there is a debate about who should attend to them, to determine whether a certain activity falls in the private sphere (outside of any interference from government or public opinion) or in the public sphere. In fact, Mill argues that his essay will be of direct practical use to us in our daily political deliberations. What we have to ask ourselves in any particular case is the question: Does this activity constitute harm to others? If the answer is no, then, no matter how much we deplore the activity, we have no right to interfere.

Allowing someone to do something, however, does not mean that the government cannot set up certain regulations. At times we do have the right to impose certain hindrances, like taxes on poisons or registries for purchasers of guns or limitations on the hours of sale of alcohol. These are, in Mill's view, sometimes regrettable, but necessary (for generating revenue, among other things). However, they don't amount to a direct prohibition. That we must avoid, because it will hurt society if we simply rely upon governmental law to control people whose behaviour and opinions cause us distress.

So, for example, society has no right to protect an individual against himself. We do have good reason to warn, instruct, advise, but not to prohibit. If individuals wish to drink too much, take opium, engage in sexual practices of which we disapprove, engage in risky ventures, and so on, they are perfectly at liberty to do so, provided they are adults and inflict no direct harm on others. So, for example, a person who drinks and ruins his health should suffer nothing from society; if in pursuit of his drinking he neglects his financial obligations to his family, society can punish him, but only for the neglect of his family duties, not for the drinking.

Mill would, I think, point to the success of his recommendations in the case of smoking. That is self-destructive behaviour, and Mill would certainly claim that individuals should be free to pursue it (as they have been). Society, however, has a right and perhaps a duty to warn, to seek to persuade, to tax, and to place limitations on smoking. It is largely through such a campaign of warning and persuasion that smoking and smoking-related diseases, significant as they still are, have declined so dramatically in the last twenty years. And I suspect he would wonder why we do not apply the same successful liberal procedures to our treatment of narcotics.

Mill's notion of harm is more robust than some of us may be willing to admit. For example, he generally holds to the notion that, while sticks and stones may break my bones, words will never hurt me. Thus, his defence of free speech is very strenuous: he defends not only the right to hold and publicize any opinion, but also the freedom to express that opinion in any language whatsoever (short of libel and incitements to riot). The best example of what Mill wants to occur is, I think, the Internet, and Mill, I suspect, would be strenuously opposed to any attempts to censor the Internet simply because a good deal of what is found there is pornographic or hate literature and video (although he would agree to the duty of parents to protect their children from it).

Mill admits that the harm principle is not exact, that there are gray areas where we are not sure whether the government should intervene or individuals should be left to themselves (students should remember this point: just because there are many areas where the harm principle does not lead to immediate clarity does not mean that it is not very useful in dealing with other problems). One of the greatest strengths of Mill's essay is his willingness to consider difficult practical examples, like prostitution, drugs, alcohol, guns, and education.

And Mill is by no means ham fisted.  He freely admits that some cases are difficult. But he urges us not to be too quick automatically to assign responsibility for all problems to the government, because in his view the government stifles initiative and generally does not deal with issues as well as private individuals might. Of course, the government has a legitimate role.  No one claims that no governmental regulation in the public sphere is necessary. But, Mill warns us, we have to be careful about how government and public opinion can stifle creativity and energy, and thus in the conclusion of his essay he offers us as a guideline the advice that if we are in doubt about any particular activity, we should err, if necessary, on the side of liberty (i.e., keep away from government interference).

Students frequently point out that a great deal of human activity where there is no immediate harm to other specific individuals nevertheless constitutes an expense (i.e., harm) to society. A person who smokes or who does not wear a seat belt or drinks too much (without hurting his family financially), it can be argued, imposes on society the expense of looking after him, should his mistreatment of himself lead to difficulties. Hence, it is alleged, the harm principle is of limited use in many of those areas where Mill wishes to apply it—harm to oneself leads to expenses society has to bear.

In fairness to Mill, however, we can make two points. He might argue that society has no immediate obligation to pay for the medical or other repairs a person's harm to himself may bring about. Many of the arguments about all human behaviour potentially involving social obligations on others would not be valid in Mill's case, since for him society has no such automatic obligation to assist him. In his famous example of the man crossing the unsafe bridge, there is no sense that society has a duty to rescue him, should he fall in (we hear an echo of this point of view when people argue that the Canadian Medicare system should not pay the medical expenses of long-term smokers or that adventure seekers who require the expensive assistance of rescue parties should have to pay for the service).

Secondly, Mill concedes that in some cases there may well be harm to others but that by insisting that the government deal with the problem we may be increasing rather than decreasing that harm. The harm principle indicates we should not let the government intervene in such cases. An obvious modern example would be the problem of narcotics. This obviously involves people harming themselves, and we could make the case that frequently the narcotics trade involves harm to others. But in handing the problem over to the government, an advocate of Mill could reasonably point out, we may have reduced such harm (maybe), but we have created two new sources of harm—an enormously profitable criminal enterprise and vastly stronger police powers (and the abuses that go with them). Mill wants us to think about this issue before we increase the government's powers because we want a particular issue dealt with.

The Example of Education

A particularly interesting social issue for an examination of Mill's liberal principles (their strengths and potential weaknesses) is education (something he obviously thinks is important, as well). This is especially relevant because in Canada we have largely ignored Mill's principles; whereas, in the United States (as we might expect) his vision of education is more influential (though the American system is still far from what Mill recommends).

Given Mill's views on the importance of competition, variety, and liberty, his recommendations about the education of citizens are logical enough: it should be largely a private affair, with parents required to pay to educate their children, some provisions being made by the government for those families who cannot afford the tuition fees. The role of government in education, however, must be kept to a minimum, because, for Mill, the great danger posed by a governmental control of the curriculum and the school system is uniformity and the consequent lack of competition, variety, experimentation, and clash of different possibilities.

Government does have one important role in Mill's system, namely the establishment of standards for entry into the professions (i.e., by setting examinations or establishing other ways of testing the competence of those who wish some form of certification in order to pursue their individual career ambitions). But he is firm that the government should not prescribe how a student prepares to meet that standard—implicit in his system is the idea that the student could follow a variety of ways of preparing to prove himself, say, a teacher, doctor, nurse, engineer, and so on.

Now, it's worth asking ourselves this question: Why in Canada and most other countries based on liberal principles has this vision of education been largely ignored and a huge bureaucratic, government-sponsored and controlled system put in place at enormous expense? Why, when we have so eagerly embraced Mill's principles in other areas of our societies have we drawn the line at education?

There are, I think, two main reasons, both instructive. First, we did not have Mill's confidence that the competition and variety which an entirely private system would produce would be as socially beneficial as he thinks. We (I mean North Americans here) were afraid that such variety might well entrench religious and cultural differences and help promote civil unrest (between Catholics and Protestants, for example, or between black and white people).  The strong emphasis in legislation which specifically prohibits the promotion of religious doctrine in public schooling reveals just how important this reason has been in the past century and a half. Second, some people (especially in Canada) recognized that Mill's system would promote and entrench deep social inequalities, since the quality of schooling would be a direct function of what the parents could afford to pay. And Mill's doctrine of individuality depends upon the ability to participate in the public debates (and that, in turn, rests on a certain education, so that one is sufficiently literate and knowledgeable to participate).

Does this mean that we are right to have rejected Mill's recommendations in this regard? Well, I don't propose to answer this question, but it's worth considering how some of the major problems we are experiencing in public education are precisely those Mill points to as the likely outcome of handing over an important pubic service to the government.

First, of course, is our frustration with the expense and inefficiency of public education, an important issue now that we are growing aware of the extent to which we simply cannot afford to provide all those things we have expected from government. In response to this problem, we have shifted (and are shifting) various segments of the curriculum out of the system into private schools (e.g., a great deal of post-secondary vocational training), and as the conditions in the public system deteriorate, we are witnessing increasing pressures for more emphasis on private schooling.

Second, we have an enormous conformity throughout the system (this is especially true in Canada, where citizens have always had a great deal more confidence in government than have citizens in the United States, where education at all levels does manifest a much greater variety, thanks largely to the much great emphasis on private schools and private universities). Within that system there are virtually no significant experiments going on, the curriculum is firmly in the hands of government bureaucrats or their appointees, teachers—the administrators of the curriculum packages—are prepared in more or less standard ways, and so on. Of course, this enforced conformity has brought with the guarantee of a certain standard (if we don't have the competition which breeds excellence, we don't have the corollary to that excellence, namely, abysmally inadequate schools), but, as Mill reminds us, there's a price we pay.

Third, the stranglehold the universities exert on entry into the professions is inflicting harm in all sorts of ways, because it gives the public university an enormous power to lengthen the time a person needs in order to become a functioning professional (that is, to earn a living). Entry into professional life is now determined, not by a test of competence impartially administered, but by the accumulation of university credits, and there is more than a little evidence to suggest that, in determining the number of credits necessary for professional certification, the public university's main interest is increasing enrolments (i.e., lengthening the time a student has to stay in school and thus the amount of money she has to pay). The implementation of Mill's recommendation that entry into the professions should require only a demonstration of competence (no matter how acquired) would empty many a graduate and professional school overnight. Imagine how liberating it might be to be able to become a professional without having to go to university!  Imagine how that might shake things up for the better in the universities!

Finally, we have increasing dissatisfaction expressed by many citizens with the lack of options within the public system. Such dissatisfaction may stem from a desire for more religion in the curriculum, or more attention to gifted students, or more attention to different classroom arrangements or curriculums, or better facilities, and so on. And this dissatisfaction is fuelling in some quarters a demand which might come right out of the pages of Mill himself—the parents' right to choose an appropriate school from a variety of options (public and private).

None of these points "proves" that we were right or wrong to reject Mill's views on education (or, in Canada, to set up our Medicare system, about which one might make similar comments). But they should indicate that his analysis provides an important way to understand the problems and to re-think some of our most cherished assumptions about who does harm to whom. For it's certainly the case that our government control of schooling (and, in Canada, of medicine) does involve harm to others. We should not complacently assume, however, that such harm is far outweighed by the harm that would be inflicted if government handed over more and more of its responsibilities in this area to the private sector (indeed in the coming years our political situation is not going to allow us to become complacent about this matter).

[Parenthetically, one might observe here that, while in Canada we have not followed Mill's recommendations in education or health care, we have endorsed his views in aspects of our judicial system.  When one has to go to court, one pays for one's legal representation.  Those who have no money have access to public legal defenders (in Canada called Legal Aid), but, by common agreement, this overburdened system hardly provides the same service as expensive private lawyers (the service is chronically underfunded).  There seems to be compelling evidence in North America that a major factor in determining whether one is convicted or not is the quality of one's legal representation, so that in this area we see gross inequalities at work.  This is not to suggest, of course, that requiring everyone to be represented by a government-paid lawyer would necessarily produce better justice, although the system would certainly be more equal).

A Common Objection to Mill

The most common criticism of the position Mill argues in On Liberty and of the liberal tradition derived most directly from Mill is this: What room does his model of society have for those who are excluded from the competitions he favours because they have no access to the competitive arenas or to the training facilities necessary to equip them for the competition?

Consider, for example, the issues of free speech and argument, the engines that are going to drive society's progress. Where are the forums for these debates? Mill would no doubt argue that these are to be found in all sorts of places—in the newspapers, legislatures, public meetings, universities, novels, plays, and so on—in short, in the political, social, and literary culture all around everyone.

But one might still raise some objections about ownership of these forums. Someone controls access to the newspapers and legislatures, so how do those who have no stake in such ownership or who are expressly barred from such forums or who cannot afford to enter participate in the process which will lead to social progress? Without direct government interference to change the regulations governing access or the economic arrangements which make access possible, how will things change?

Mill's answer would be, I think, a re-emphasis of his basic points. Yes, it may be difficult, but the individuals concerned must speak their opinions, join the debates to the extent they can, and seek, through persuasion, to change the situation, without any arbitrary actions by the government or physical harm to others. They need to create their own forums, raise their voices by all the means at their disposal, limited though these may be.

An excellent example of what Mill would suggest might well be the history of modern feminism, in which, for the most part, those who were excluded from many forums made a concerted effort lasting many years to state their views, argue their case, and persuade others (in all sorts of ways—pamphlets, novels, newspaper articles, films, radio broadcasts, public protests, and so on). Social progress was achieved and is still being achieved by the ways in which these spokespersons persuaded society to improve. The debate has led to a re-orienting of priorities and significant changes in access to all sorts of things for women, without (for the most part) any harm to others or heavy-handed government interference and legislation before the fact (other than certain affirmative action policies, of which Mill would almost certainly disapprove, although he was an ardent champion of women's equality).

How persuasive is that reply of Mill's? Well, that depends. While it's true that the modern women's movement represents a significant progress for some women, one might well argue (as many Marxists have argued) that increasing access is not much of an improvement if it does not lead to significant economic progress. What use is access to university education or to the professions to a woman who is still desperately poor and cannot afford to benefit from that access or who quickly runs into a pink ceiling? What does Mill's vision have to offer someone who is going to lose out in any social competition (and every competition requires losers as well as winners, with the former vastly outnumbering the latter)?

That question (and others like it) have made some people very suspicious of Mill's argument, seeing in it a defence of the status quo, a justification for the existing state of affairs in which those most able to prosper (like John Stuart Mill himself) are given all sorts of freedom to live their own lives, while those who suffer under the present arrangements are told that the best thing for them is to participate more fully in the system which oppresses them and locks doors in their faces. Is it really enough to say, as Mill does, that allowing the most successful and creative spirits more freedom will in the long run benefit everyone (even those at the bottom)? In the long run, as John Maynard Keynes observed, we are all dead. What about justice now?

For that reason, in modern liberal democracies we have not fully endorsed Mill's principles in many significant areas, because we are more immediately concerned about equality (especially equality of training and opportunity, and, in Canada, of medical care) at the expense of liberty. In addition, we have given government a massive role in regulating and planning our economies (to cope with some of the nastier effects of liberty, like pollution and poverty). That has not, however, taken Mill's position off the table, since a constant feature of our political debates is the role of government in all sorts of areas, and in those debates the points Mill makes are frequently put forward, especially by those who, like Mill, want more freedom to compete. The argument they make is exactly the one he makes: competitive variety in a social climate of freedom helps to create a better society for everyone. In recent years this argument, derived from the pages of On Liberty, seems to be gaining momentum (in Free Trade debates and the increased pressures for a private medical system in Canada, for example) and many western democracies are dismantling various attempts to ease the strains of the competition Mill favours (e.g., National Health Care, affirmatives action programs, quota systems, and so on).

Some Consequences

It should be clear that here in Canada we are very much direct heirs of Mill's doctrines. We believe in freedom of speech and freedom to live with a very large scale of private liberty in all sorts of matters: how we speak, what we believe, how we dress, where we live, and so on (many of us take those liberties for granted). We accept that others have the same freedoms within the harm principle.

At the same time, Canadians, as I have mentioned, are generally not so willing as Mill to limit government control: unlike Mill we expect the government to play the major role in education and medical care, and we directly require the government's limitations on certain kinds of speech. At the moment we are all aware of a sharp conflict over the clash between Mill's principles of free speech and our desire to control speech (a relatively recent major news story was the ruling about the possession of child pornography, a decision in which a Vancouver judge determined that condemning someone for such possession was a violation of our right to free speech). And we all still remember an APEC hearing in which the central issue was the government's interference with the right of citizens to protest.

Some people are also deeply concerned about how the creation of certain native self-governing communities or Quebec separation may lead to social structures in which the individual liberty of the participant is unduly interfered with (this is a fascinating conflict between the two versions of freedom: the freedom to live as a self-governing people over against the freedom to do as one likes within the limits of the harm principle).

And at a time when we expect the government to fix so many things and to take care of so many public issues, reading Mill is a very useful and often persuasive reminder that trusting the government to take care of so much may have social consequences we will regret. His essay is a plea for faith in the imaginative energies and creativity of those who are capable of transforming society and for the continuing defence and extension of those liberties essential to the full expression of such creativity. If that means we have to put up with hateful opinions, odd conduct, often self-destructive behaviour, and (let it be said) significant inequalities, that is a price which, Mill claims, is, in the long run, well worth paying.

Mill's argument generates some interesting criticisms, of course. I've mentioned a major one above. We will be considering some of these next week in our study of The Communist Manifesto. But the strength of his argument is worth considering and learning from. For freedom of speech and the liberty to choose our own lifestyle are not invulnerable: there are always people (and governments) wishing to take away or restrict those liberties (we notice how quickly, in the aftermath of the September 11 World Trade Centre terrorist attacks, the government moved to restrict our negative liberty, arrogating to itself all sorts of new powers of arrest and detention. Many observers are justifiably worried that this is more than just a temporary trend).

John Stuart Mill's argument is worth pondering as an eloquent and frequently very persuasive defence of many of the most valuable features of our way of life—and may help to explain why we have faith in many of those freedoms too many people simply take for granted. It also serves to remind us what we have to do if we wish actively to defend and promote those freedoms we cherish.



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