Sunday, September 23, 2007

Why John Stuart Mill is the greatest Liberal

I was asked to review Reinventing the State for Liberator. The word limit was 1800 and I found that I could not to do it justice in that space.

So I decided to write something else instead, and this article on Mill was the result. You can find it in Liberator 321 - the issue that was on sale at Brighton.

A few days later Comment is Free offered to pay me to review Reinventing the State in 400 words. Magically, I found it was possible.

Grist to the Mill?

More than 200 years after his birth, John Stuart Mill remains the most important philosopher for Liberal Democrats. It is fashionable to name check L.T. Hobhouse and T.H. Green, but I suspect that few who do so have really read their works. Hobhouse’s Liberalism is approachable, but hardly profound when set against Mill, while Green is next to unreadable. In part this is because Green’s heyday came during that brief period in the late nineteenth century when Idealism was the dominant force in British philosophy, and it is hard for we 21st-century realists to make much of him as a result. Equally, however, there was a tension in Green’s thought between his espousal of liberty and the enthusiasms, such as Temperance, which he derived from his religious views. The suspicion must be that he sometimes found it convenient to take refuge in obfuscation.

The greatest 20th century liberal thinkers are Karl Popper and Isaiah Berlin, and both are splendidly lucid. It would be wrong to dismiss either as a Cold War philosopher, but the fact that (perhaps unwisely) we no longer feel the same urgent need to defend democracy against tyranny means that their work is not as compelling as it once was. More recently Richard Rorty made an attractive attempt to reconcile the most avant-garde postmodern theory with a defence of the institutions of the Western liberal democracies, but the Mill of On Liberty still reigns supreme.

Yet something strange has happened to the way we remember On Liberty. Reading the new collection Reinventing the State, for instance, I came across two references to the work, and from them one could be forgiven for thinking that Mill was chiefly concerned with delineating the ways in which liberty must be circumscribed.

Writing on liberal environmentalism, Ed Randall cites Mill’s harm principle. This holds that what individuals do, as long as it does not harm others, should go unregulated by the state. He then argues that our modern understanding of the effects of economic activity on the environment means that the boundaries of the area of life that can be left to individual decision must be drawn more tightly than Mill imagined, but he seems unsure as to whether to claim Mill’s blessing for this new interventionism or to dismiss him as naive.

It is true that there are good reasons for seeing Mill as an early advocate of environmental politics. In his Principles of Political Economy he looked forward to the coming of the "stationary state" - not to be confused with the stationery state, which would be a dictatorship run by manilla envelopes - where the expansion of the economy would cease. He wrote:
I am inclined to believe that it would be, on the whole, a very considerable improvement on our present condition. I confess I am not charmed with the ideal of life held out by those who think that the normal state of human beings is that of struggling to get on; that the trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other's heels, which form the existing type of social life, are the most desirable lot of human kind, or anything but the disagreeable symptoms of one of the phases of industrial progress.
Yet we should remember that there are those in the green movement who never much liked liberty in the first place and are happy to seize upon anything which gives them a pretext for curbing it. In an earlier generation they would have been Marxists and preached the need for centralised planning as capitalism was bound to collapse through its internal contradictions.

A second author in Reinventing the State quotes John Stuart Mill. Writing of the tolerance that liberalism has inherited from its Nonconformist roots, David Boyle says:
It is a tolerance that believes people’s conscience, and therefore their freedom to act, is sacrosanct - limited as always by the philosophy of John Stuart Mill.
This is only a throwaway remark, and it comes from one of my favourite modern liberal writers, but it is odd to see Mill’s philosophy remembered for prescribing limits to liberty.

It seems we have become obsessed by Mill’s harm principle. Yet it is only a small part of On Liberty: the essence of that work is not concerned with curbing liberty at all but is a glorious hymn in favour of its expansion.

Writing in Prospect magazine last year, Richard Reeves put it well:

for Mill, liberty consists of much more than being left alone. It requires choice-making by the individual. "He who lets the world… choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation," he writes. "He who chooses his plan for himself employs all his faculties." For Mill, a good life must be a chosen life.

Or as The Levellers said more recently: "There's only one way of life, and that's your own, your own, your own."

The other problem with the harm principle is that it is often not clear which decision it should lead us to in practice. We have already seen that Ed Randall thinks it can be extended to justify wider government intervention in the economy, and Reeves notes that Simon Jenkins appealed to it while arguing against a ban on smoking in public places and Chris Huhne appealed to it while arguing in favour of one.

So let’s set the harm principle aside and look at Mill’s arguments in favour of an expansion of liberty.

He first looks at liberty of thought and discussion, and offers two pragmatic arguments in favour of it. The first is that the opinion the authorities wish to suppress may be true, and that even if it is true only in part then its assertion and the subsequent debate will help move prevailing opinion nearer to the truth. Karl Popper made this insight the basis of his philosophy, arguing that the institutions of a free society and the growth of human knowledge are intimately connected.

Mill’s second argument is that a failure to examine and argue for the beliefs we hold can render them mere dogma and lead to their meaning becoming enfeebled or lost. This shows great practical insight. A large part of the reason that the Labour Party was never able to mount an effective challenge to Thatcherism was that in the 1970s it had become impossible in Labour circles to question the party’s programme without being called "anti working class" or "racist" or insulted in some other way. It was an early form of what we now lazily call political correctness. When the Conservatives directly challenged Labour’s views, the party’s members found it difficult to argue for them. Those views had become, in Mill’s eloquent language, "a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience".

In a similar vein, Nick Cohen has written:
When conservatives complain about the undoubted liberal bias of the BBC, they assume some kind of socialist plot when it is geography not ideology driving attitudes. A young middle-class BBC type in London is unlikely to meet anyone socially who is, say, against abortion or pro-war. Because they don't confront opposing ideas, they can't put themselves into the minds of people outside their consensus and ask questions from another point of view.
Mill then moves on to argue the need for individuality of character, with the emphasis on the freely chosen life that Reeves notes. Here the arguments are less pragmatic: for Mill, as they should be for all liberals, authenticity and autonomy are good in themselves:
If it were only that people have diversities of taste, that is reason enough for not attempting to shape them all after one model. But different persons also require different conditions for their spiritual development; and can no more exist healthily in the same moral, than all the variety of plants can in the same physical atmosphere and climate.
And in the third of the substantial theoretical chapters Mill looks at the collision between individuality and wider society. He looks in particular at questions around the sale of alcohol and is critical of those who seek to curb its sale because of the disorder it causes and the costs it imposes on the taxpayer. He accuses them of holding the view that
it is the absolute social right of every individual, that every other individual shall act in every respect exactly as he ought; that whosoever fails thereof in the smallest particular violates my social right, and entitles me to demand from the legislature the removal of the grievance.
As Mill says, "So monstrous a principle is far more dangerous than any single interference with liberty; there is no violation of liberty which it would not justify."

You can see that behind the rolling Victorian prose, which it is so tempting to quote at length, lie very contemporary concerns. Mill’s suspicion of social rights can be taken far beyond questions of licensing laws and seen as a condemnation of Labour’s current authoritarianism.

There is another aspect of On Liberty which has contemporary resonance. We are inclined to think of the Victorian age as one of great confidence and perhaps the last in which it was possible to believe in "Great Men" in an uncomplicated fashion. Was it not an age of mighty public intellectuals - Ruskin, Carlyle, Mill himself - who have no equivalent today?

Yet if you read On Liberty, you find a very different tone. Mill is deeply pessimistic about the way the times were heading and feared the extinction of individuality altogether. He wrote of the tendency of public opinion in those times to prescribe a standard of conduct and expect every one to conform to it:
And that standard, express or tacit, is to desire nothing strongly. Its ideal of character is to be without any marked character; to main by compression, like a Chinese lady’s foot, every part of human nature which stands out prominently, and tends to make the person markedly dissimilar in outline to commonplace humanity.
The Victorians were a lot less "Victorian" than we moderns believe - they did not cover up piano legs out of a concern for decency and they were a lot more relaxed about male nudity, at least, than we are in the 21st century - but maybe Mill was right in that he was seeing the passing of the more relaxed Georgian era. It was, after all, Melbourne, Queen Victoria’s first prime minister, who said "This damned morality will be the death of us all."

And there is no doubt that Mill speaks to us today in a world of mass culture, chain stores and reality television when liberals are again tempted to be pessimistic about the prospects for individuality. So read Rorty, Popper and Berlin. Read L.T. Hobhouse if you want and pretend to have read T.H.Green if you must. But above all read the Mill of On Liberty. Then you will see how wrongheaded it is to plead his name in aid of attempts to curb our liberty. Mill’s is the most powerful voice ever raised in support of the expansion of liberty.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There is a pos tabout J S Mill and Europe on dLiberation a new blog created in the first instance to cover the deliberative poll of European citizens next month. You can get to it by going to OurKingdom,
You'll see the dLiberation button on the left. Or go straight to the post itself at

Its a great initiative