Read with me: On Liberty, Part Five

Welcome to Part Five of this exploration into John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. We looked before at Chapter I, which introduced many of the key ideas and concepts of Mill’s theory, Chapter II, which argued that freedom of thought and discussion was essential to society, Chapter III, which argued that individuality was central to well-being, and Chapter IV, which identified the limits of the authority of state and society over the actions of the individual. This chapter applies the principles of the previous chapters to particular cases. As always, I will give an overview of the argument, and then offer my thoughts.

Chapter V: Applications

Mill offers in this final chapter to illustrate the main principles of his theory in practice. He recaps his two key maxims: firstly, that the individual is not accountable to society for actions that concern only himself – society can advise or instruct, but not forcefully interfere; secondly, the individual is accountable to society if his actions are prejudicial to the interests of others. For the latter, they can be punished socially or legally in order to protect society. In clarification, Mill points out that there are times where an individual’s pursuance of self-interest will harm others, such as when they are competing for a job. No one is owed immunity from this kind of suffering; they are, however, owed protection from fraud, treachery, and force. Another example is trade – one person buying something means that someone else cannot buy that same item. Even still, Mill asserts that the general good is maximised when people are allowed to trade freely (the economic system of Free Trade is justified on similar, but different grounds). With this clarification out of the way, Mill begins to discuss how his principles could be applied to particular cases.

His first point regards crime prevention. Mill agrees that governments may take precautions to prevent crime, as well as detect and punish it. This power may be subject to abuse, however – any action can be said to contribute to some delinquency. Things should be banned if their only use is to cause harm: “if poisons were never bought or used for any purpose except the commission of murder, it would be right to prohibit their manufacture and sale”. Other things, however, with “innocent” or “useful purposes” may be abused, but one would have to question whether or not to ban or control their use. A better method of crime prevention for these items would be the collection of “preappointed evidence”, which would be some contract or record of sale for reference if some crime was committed. This would include the name and address of the purchaser, and the quality and quantity of the item purchased. This process would indicate that there would be consequences if a crime were to be committed; there would be no impediment to obtaining the items, but it would discourage misuse.

The government or individuals might also take measures for accident prevention. You could forcibly prevent someone from walking on an unsafe bridge, for example; you can assume it’s not their desire to fall in the river. For most cases, however, it would be better, unless they are a child, delirious, or otherwise without full use of their faculties, for them to be warned, rather than forcibly prevented from performing an action. The government can force producers to label goods indicating they have a poisonous quality – giving people more information is not an infringement of anyone’s liberty. Indeed, giving more information is better than restricting the use of substances, for example by prescriptions from doctors, which may make drugs or medicines overly expensive to obtain for legitimate uses. The consumption of some articles, such as alcohol, might be banned for specific people if they prove themselves liable to commit crimes under the influence. Their decision to drink, with a known history of, say, acting violently under the influence, would put others at risk. In a similar fashion, while idleness would not be illegal, if through inaction one harms others, such as a parent through refusal to work leaves their children hungry, they may be forced to act. In this case, the parent may be forced to perform compulsory labour.

A second point of discussion concerns the right of people to advise others on what they might do. Under Mill’s principles, people would be free to perform an action that harms themselves, but which does not harm others. Should, however, they be free to advocate that others perform such actions? This issue is complicated further when the person takes money for such advocation. They become a class of person with an interest in undermining or diminishing public well-being. Gambling might be legal, for example, but should one be able to run a casino? Mill identifies this as a grey area between the two principles, and offers arguments both ways. In favour of toleration of such advocacy, Mill presents the argument that the act of taking money for that which would otherwise be admissible should not make it criminal: it should be constantly permitted or constantly prohibited; people should be as free to persuade as dissuade. Against tolerance, Mill presents the argument that the state, while not restricting individual action, should restrict actions that affect others if the action is partial, rather than disinterested, especially in a question where the state sees the action as wrong. The individuals are thus able to make a freer choice because they are not influenced by the self-interest of another. It would mean that private gambling and private gambling clubs would be allowed, but not public casinos open to all. Yet, indicating that Mill sides more closely with the former, he points out that all goods bought and sold have dangers in excess, and all sellers have an interest in encouraging excess; further, such a principle may encourage the state to intervene in other cases, too.

Mill’s third example concerns what are now referred to as ‘sin taxes’ – the use of taxation to dissuade certain behaviours considered to be harmful. Should the state be allowed to do this? Mill argues no: taxation to prohibit is only justifiable if total prohibition were justifiable, for this would be tantamount to a prohibition for the poorest. Some indirect taxation is, of course, necessary to help the state earn its revenue. This may be targeted at luxury goods or stimulants, but only in proportion to what the state actually needs. Connected to this, should the state be allowed to use licences to control the sale of goods? Yes, but only under particular conditions, so Mill asserts. Licences in public settings are useful. They help with monitoring sellers, and they can be revoked for indiscretions. No further restriction is justifiable, however: they should not be used to limit consumption.

The fourth topic of discussion is contracts and their limits. Here, Mill argues that contracts should not be completely binding. While people should keep the agreements they enter into, they should not do this at all costs. They should be permitted to withdraw from an agreement if keeping it would violate the rights of a third party, or become injurious to themselves. Further, a voluntary release should be present in all contracts (though those regarding money would be managed differently). His example here is marriage, where divorce should be permitted at any point, to be triggered by the declared will of either party to end it. Conditions would be put in place where children are involved – to have children is an obligation that must be fulfilled. Beyond that, however, individuals should be free to join together and disassociate as they wish. Further to this, Mill argues that no contract should supersede any legal rights. A person cannot sell themselves into slavery, for example: one cannot be free to not be free. Within this discussion of marriage and slavery, Mill confronts the issue of women’s rights (something he tackles in his later The Subjection of Women). He argues that husbands should not act for their wives as if they are acting for themselves, and that wives should have the same rights as their husbands.

His firth concern is education. He argues that, given that it is the duty of the parents to educate their children (and, further, that it would be a harm to the children should they not be educated), then the state should compel education. This would not mean that the state had to provide education – rather, the state should pay for the education of the poorest, but allow parents to send their children to an institution that teaches in whatever manner they like. This is important: drawing on his earlier arguments about individuality and diversity, Mill argues that diversity in education is important for diversity of individuals. A state education would make all people alike; it would cast them in the mould of the majority who had power, allowing them to assume a despotic position over the mind, which would allow them a despotic position over the body. If there is to be a state education, it should be one of many “competing experiments”, serving to raise standards and provide competitive stimulus. At any rate, a state education would be better than no education at all. The state could provide exams, and fine parents of underperforming children, and use the money to pay for education. This would set a minimum for the general knowledge that people need to know (though this should be restricted to “facts and positive science exclusively”). It would establish the facts upon which opinions are based. A student of philosophy, for example, should know Locke and Kant irrespective of who he agrees with. The same should be true of religion, and other matters.

Mill ends the chapter, and the book, by considering the numerous other ways that the state may, or may not, become involved in matters of life. The state may not, Mill asserts, exclude people from particular occupations because of a lack of qualifications. The state may prevent marriage if people cannot prove that they can look after a child; the state may prevent people from having children if the country is at risk of becoming overpopulated and draining society’s limited resources. To have too many children in this case is to injure others; to have children one cannot afford is to injure the children. There are issues of government interference that do not directly affect liberty, for example the provision of public services for public benefit. Opposition to this may be raised, however, if the activity is likely better performed by individuals, for example in the case of industry. Secondly, even if it may not be done better, if in attempting to do it it would benefit the individual then the state should step back. This would pertain, in this case, to citizens acting in juries, local governments, or voluntary associations for industry or philanthropy. Even if the state might do these better, communities would benefit because people would be drawn into public service, and join together. Keeping such institutions and businesses local would help promote individuality and diversity. The state should drawn on this diversity of experience and diffuse it, enabling experiments and sharing the results.

Indeed, it would be unwise to add unnecessarily to the government’s power. People would become overly dependent – if government controlled all aspects of life, people would cease to be free. The most talented people might be drawn into civil service, further increasing the people’s dependence on government. With talent concentrated, people outside the bureaucracy may be ill-equipped to criticise or improve it. Further, the bureaucracy may be able to prevent the exercise of government by refusing to do what they are told to by ministers, for they would be too powerful to be done away with. This would lead to dissatisfaction and revolution – a revolution that would not lead to change, because even if there is a change in government, there would still be the same bureaucracy. People become slaves to the order; progress stops because the bureaucracy becomes mired in routine. The bureaucracy, if it is to exist, must be lean, and not encompass all so that it leaves room for diversity of enterprise and innovation.

Where does the legitimate power and role of government end? This, Mill states, is an art. It should, however, function

with the greatest dissemination of power consistent with efficiency; but the greatest possible centralisation of information, and diffusion of it from the centre.

The central organ will know all that is done, and their advice would carry authority. It would, however, be limited in power to enforcement of general rules. In short, Mill concludes,

a government cannot have too much of the kind of activity which does not impede, but aids and stimulates, individual exertion and development. The mischief begins when, instead of calling forth the activity and powers of individuals and bodies, it substitutes its own activity for theirs; when, instead of informing, advising, and, upon occasion, denouncing, it makes them work in fetters, or bids them stand aside and does their work instead of them.

The state needs the individuals of the nation to be “more than docile instruments in its hands”, for otherwise it will find that “with small men no great thing can really be accomplished”.

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This is, for its exploration of actual cases, and for Mill’s willingness to admit the limitations of his ideas and explore its grey areas, makes this one of the book’s strongest chapters. There are several elements that jump out to me that I will discuss here. The first is the tension that the chapter implies between Liberalism and Libertarianism, and what this means for particular present-day issues, such as gun rights in the USA. Secondly, I will discuss Mill’s interpretation of facts and truth, and what this means for his broader argument. I then will consider the links between social liberty and the economy. Finally, I will discuss the relationships between his principles and the provision of welfare and charity.

One of the most interesting things about this chapter is the relationship that the text implies between Liberalism and other philosophies. Significantly, it suggests a marked difference between Liberalism and Libertarianism. Some of his recommendations would not go down well with those of a more Libertarian persuasion. Mill’s recommendation that some items or substances should require detailed information be given in return for purchasing in order to prevent crime would almost certainly be seen as a breach of privacy by some. Should it be the business of the state who buys what, regardless of whether or not crimes should be prohibited? What would be the negative consequences on people’s behaviour as a result of this type of surveillance? Similarly the suggestion that people might be forced into compulsory labour (for any reason, let alone the reasons he suggests), or that parents of underperforming children could be fined, will rub people the wrong way. These are powers that are liable to abuse, and strike me as particularly authoritarian, especially for a text that is a significant part of the Liberal canon. Most significant of these is his argument that the state should be allowed to regulate who can have children and who cannot. This is based on a Malthusian understanding of resource dependency, but even still would be considered a dramatic overreach of state power today – look at the West’s attitude towards China’s ‘one child’ policy, for example. Mill implies that this will have no bearing on people’s freedoms, and that some suggestions are a natural consequence of people’s obligations to one another, especially as it pertains to harm. It does indicate how Mill is interpreting harm (a problem that has plagued the book, and which, despite this, is still not adequately resolved), but it goes much further than some would like. Conversely, in some ways he is too Libertarian for some Liberals – the idea that people should not be excluded from a profession for a lack of qualifications would make many uncomfortable about visiting their doctors.

One of the most significant expressions of this tension, however, would be in the discussion of gun laws in the United states. Mill, though he does not go into the issue, provides a number of principles through which such regulation could be justified. The first is that, if such instruments are used for nothing other than murder, then they should be outlawed. This is the reason why no individual should ever have possession of, say, nuclear weapons. The argument for completely outlawing guns is that they are designed to cause harm to others – that they are an out and out weapon. The counter argument here is that they are used for sport. Regardless of the degree to which this is the case, the former is the stance that many countries have taken, with other (non-lethal) guns used for sport instead. Mill’s other principle, and the one that seems to have been adopted in the USA, is that sellers should obtain information about purchasers through which people could be tracked should a crime be committed. Mill also believes that licences, which might be issued to most people, but revoked in the case of misuse, are a perfectly plausible means of controlling the use of dangerous instruments. This has been more strongly resisted by gun rights advocates in the USA, further illustrating the tension between Liberalism and Libertarianism. This may well be Mill’s stance on gun laws, though given how the technology has progressed since the nineteenth century (and how the cultural context has changed), it is difficult to say what Mill would think now. Even still, he provides an important framework through which the issue can be understood.

Another point that I will address, and one that I have recognised in earlier chapters, is Mill’s apparent certainty that facts and truth can be distinguished easily from falsehood. This comes through in his discussion of education, where the state is tasked with setting exams that test people’s understanding of facts. That the state is allowed to decide what is and is not a fact, to my mind, sets a dangerous, and, dare I say, illiberal precedent. While this relates, of course, to the previous point, it also suggests that facts can be established with enough certainty that they can be enshrined into law as base things that people should know. It runs counter to his earlier chapter on freedom of thought, which argues that nothing can ever be known with enough certainty that any debate should be considered settled. He does not suggest that anyone should be silenced, however,  yet even the suggestion that some facts are well enough established that the government can examine people on them as if they are the accepted truth gives them an elevation that, it seems, contradicts his earlier intentions. Mill draws a sharper distinction between ‘opinion’ and ‘fact’, and how they interrelate with truth, than is warranted, and these words need to be more clearly defined for any potential conflict here to be resolved. On a related note, Mill’s final suggestion that the government becomes a central distributer of information about the various experiments being performed places a reliance on individuals to report their experiences honestly. If there are vested interests at stake – people’s careers, say – they may report their experiments as more successful than they really are. I see the value in Mill’s proposition, but it is more problematic than he acknowledges here.

It is also interesting to note this distinction he draws between the principles he outlines here and the principles that underpin the “doctrine of Free Trade”. He notes the parallels between the two, but makes it clear that On Liberty is a social philosophy, rather than an economic one. Contracts regarding money, for example, should be treated differently to other social contracts, such as marriage. Yet there are areas where the interrelation can be more closely drawn out. That people should organise themselves socially and politically in local institutions, and the benefits this brings, is also an argument for breaking up monopolies and placing more emphasis on local businesses that cater to local markets and local needs. Through localised patterns of consumption, with commercial activity a significant means though which people express themselves as individuals, people’s self-expression and individuality would also be greater emphasised.

Finally, it is interesting to note the principle that an activity which is better performed by individuals should not be performed by the state, and the secondary principle that, even if not performed as well, it would be better for individuals and communities to perform such activities for their own development. This relates strongly to the role of the welfare state, and its particular interrelation with charity. Should the state provide for people who are in difficult situations, or should that be left to charities? Are food banks a failure of government, or a success of communities to provide for others independently of government? I see the argument for both sides, especially given the resources the government has to mobilise resources to aid particular causes and alleviate suffering that should not be present in any country, let alone a developed one. Yet I also see Mill’s point that such dependence on government will reduce people’s sense of duty or community spirit. Some compromise is warranted here, perhaps in a public-private partnership, with government funds matching charitable contributions, and the process driven by local leaders. Either way, it makes one question the idea that government inaction on such matters is an inherent failure.

And so ends this read-along of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. I will post my summary of each chapter as an omnibus – some people might find it useful as a resource, given that it explains Mill’s ideas in a less verbose manner, typical as Mill’s writing style is of the nineteenth century. While Mill is undoubtedly eloquent (and I have tried to include some of his more aesthetically pleasing excerpts), it can be difficult for newcomers to read. I will also post a summary of my main take-aways from the book at a later date, which may also be of interest. Many thanks to those of you who have read along with me. I hope you have found it as enjoyable and intellectually stimulating as I have. As always, if there is anything I have missed, or if there is anything that struck you as important, interesting, or significant about this work, please let me know.

The copy I’m reading is an Oxford World’s Classics edition, with a forward by John Gray, published first in 1991, and reissued in 2008:

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty and Other Essays, edited by John Gray(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 104-128.

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One thought on “Read with me: On Liberty, Part Five

  1. Pingback: Five Key Take-Aways from JS Mill, On Liberty – Bucky's Book Reviews

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