August 23, 2014


John Stuart Mill: False Prophet of Liberty (Bruce Frohnen, 8/21/14, Imaginative Conservative)

As long as there have been "libertarians," there has been hero worship of John Stuart Mill. This Nineteenth Century utilitarian author, most famously of On Liberty, has been looked to as a kind of fount of holy writ for individualism. And Mill was an individualist. Unfortunately, he was not a supporter of liberty in any meaningful sense.

It is somewhat odd, frankly, that Mill should enjoy the reputation he does, given the depth and breadth of the written record of his opinions and proposals advocating an administrative state with unchecked power to regulate people's daily lives. What is more, excellent studies by Joseph Hamburger and, more recently, Linda Raeder, have shown the character and statist intentions of his life's work. Still, some of the many passages so frequently quoted from his works might give evidence, to those who do not read more and with moderate care, that he was a friend to individual freedom and reasoned, principled service to mankind.

There is a pride evinced in Mill's work that appeals to his readers' own pride, especially if they consider themselves to have sacrificed material gain for principles--and particularly if they are academics or otherwise committed to what we somewhat self-servingly refer to as "the life of the mind." Thus, Mill's catchphrase, "one person with a belief is equal to ninety-nine who have only interests," is the stuff of dorm room walls and faculty office doors across America. Commitment to "principle," be it justice, freedom, or toleration, and however defined, makes us feel good about ourselves. That such principles, stated in the abstract and held by their adherents more or less abstractly, may serve as cover for hypocrisy as well as inhumane zealotry is a well known problem of long standing--and one that generally is ignored until long after it is too late to prevent moral enormities of various kinds.

Nonetheless, almost all of us not residing in asylums want to believe that we live according to principle rather than mere self-interest. Moreover, we should not forget that the Golden Rule itself is a kind of master-principle of virtue, though one freighted with cultural context in its admonition, not to "do unto others so as to serve the greatest good of the greatest number" but, rather, to do unto others as we, in light of our varying circumstances and needs, would have done by us.

Of course, the Golden Rule assumes innate recognition of certain permanent goods beneficial to us all. Utilitarianism, the belief that societies should be seen as mechanisms for the gathering of "good things" defined as good by those seeking them, holds no such view. Yet, idealism has the power to invest with at least an apparent nobility even the extreme vision Mill has of the good of individual autonomy, in which liberty itself is defined in terms of self-mastery: "The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good, in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it." The "sovereign" self in this view is what matters. And what makes that self truly matter is sovereign, that is self-willed, autonomous choice. Thus, the principle that Mill would serve is the liberty to do as one wills, making the will itself a governing principle for us all.

Another aspect of Mill's writing that has endeared him to many is his seeming love of eccentricity. The individual who dares to be different in the face of the conformist mob appears to be his greatest hero, just as it is for those hordes of non-conformists populating the halls of academe (and, of course, juvenile halls everywhere). To break the chains of tradition and social authority seems, to Mill, to be a moral duty to oneself and to mankind. As Mill succinctly claimed, "the despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement." If only, he seems to argue, we would dispatch custom to the ash heap of history, we might get down to some serious reasoning about how to make life better for everyone.

The problem with this vision, as we have learned to our great loss, is that unthinking opposition to the wisdom of the ages, made concrete in a people's practical habits and ways of living, produces, not ordered liberty, but social chaos. Individuals are, indeed, unprincipled "followers" and "self-interested" morally flawed beings, at least more so than they are the kind of grand idealists Mill would have us be. That is to say, people are social creatures, not abstract calculators of public interest. If they do not follow good customs, they will follow bad habits--including the contemporary habit of disparaging settled modes of living and even the most basic of social institutions.

Posted by at August 23, 2014 7:49 AM

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