May 19, 2006


Thoroughly Modern Mill: A utilitarian who became a liberal--but never understood the limits of reason (ROGER SCRUTON, May 19, 2006, Opinion Journal)

According to Mill...[t]he law does not exist to uphold majority morality against the individual, but to protect the individual against tyranny--including the "tyranny of the majority." Of course, if the exercise of individual freedom threatens harm to others, it is legitimate to curtail it--for in such circumstances one person's gain in freedom is another person's loss of it. But when there is no proof of harm to another, the law must protect the individual's right to act and speak as he chooses.

This principle has a profound significance: It is saying that the purpose of law is not to uphold the will of the majority, or to impose the will of the sovereign, but to protect the will of the individual. It is the legal expression of the "sovereignty of the individual." The problem lies in the concept of harm. How can I prove that one person's action does not harm another? How can I prove, for example, that other people are not harmed by my public criticism of their religious beliefs--beliefs on which they depend for their peace of mind and emotional stability? How can I prove that consensual sex between two adults leaves the rest of us unaffected, when so much of life's meaning seems to rest on the assumption of shared sexual norms? These questions are as significant for us as they were for Mill; the difference is that radical Islam has now replaced Scottish puritanism as the enemy of liberal values.

Mill's defense of liberty, which was enunciated with great force and seeming clarity, soon followed the path taken by his defense of utilitarianism, and died the death of a thousand qualifications. "On Liberty" sees individual freedom as the aim of government, whose business is to reconcile one person's freedom with his neighbor's. "The Principles of Political Economy" by contrast, while pretending to be a popular exposition of Adam Smith, accords extensive powers of social engineering to the state, and develops a socialist vision of the economy, with a constitutional role for trade unions, and extensive provisions for social security and welfare. The book is, in fact, a concealed socialist tract. While "On Liberty" belongs to the 18th-century tradition that we know as classical liberalism, "Principles" is an example of liberalism in its more modern sense.

Mill's hostility to privilege, to landed property, and to inheritance of property had implications which he seemed unwilling or unable to work out. His argument that all property should be confiscated by the state on death, and redistributed according to its own greater wisdom, has the implication that the state, rather than the family, is to be treated as the basic unit of society--the true arbiter of our destiny, and the thing to which everything is owed. The argument makes all property a temporary lease from the state, and also ensures that the state is the greatest spender, and the one least bound by the sense of responsibility to heirs and neighbors. It is, in short, a recipe for the disaster that we have seen in the communist and socialist systems, and it is a sign of Mill's failure of imagination that, unlike Smith, he did not foresee the likely results of his favored policies.

Taking "On Liberty" and "Principles" together we find, in fact, a premonition of much that conservatives object to in the modern liberal worldview. The "harm" doctrine of "On Liberty" has been used again and again to subvert those aspects of law which are founded not in policy but in our inherited sense of the sacred and the prohibited. Hence this doctrine has made it impossible for the law to protect the core institutions of society, namely marriage and the family, from the sexual predators. Meanwhile, the statist morality of "Principles" has flowed into the moral vacuum, so that the very same law that refuses to intervene to protect children from pornography will insist that every aspect of our lives be governed by regulations that put the state in charge.

Mill famously referred to the Conservative Party as "the stupider party," he being, from 1865, a member of Parliament in the Liberal interest. And no doubt the average Tory MP was no match for the brain that had conceived the "System of Logic"--an enduring classic and Mill's greatest achievement. Yet Mill suffered from the same defect as his father. He never understood that wisdom is deeper and rarer than rational thought.

As if on cue, there was an especially silly bit of libertarian nonsense in Tech Central Station this week, The Family vs. the State (Arnold Kling, 16 May 2006, Tech Central Station)
There are a number of issues that provide sources of friction between market libertarianism and "family values" conservatism. They concern personal behavior, morality, and the law.

Should gambling, prostitution, and recreational drugs be legalized? Market libertarianism answers in the affirmative, but "family values" conservatives would disagree.

Another potential source of friction is abortion. It is not a coincidence that the abortion issue became prominent during the sexual revolution of the late 1960's and early 1970's. That was a period in which social attitudes about sex-without-consequences underwent a reversal. Prior to 1960, sex-without-consequences generally was frowned upon. By 1975, sex-without-consequences was widely applauded. In that context, abortion rights were considered a victory for sexual freedom. Libertarians tend to take the pro-choice side.

Gay marriage is another legacy of the sexual revolution. Again, it tends to divide libertarians from "family values" conservatives.

One compromise, which Morse generally endorses, is to use persuasion rather than government in the family-values struggle. That is a compromise that I would favor, although unlike Morse, I approach the issue primarily as a libertarian.

If one views a strong state and a strong family as incompatible, then a case can be made that taking the state out of issues related to prostitution or abortion or marriage actually helps serve family values. If people know that they cannot rely on the state to arbitrate these issues, then they will turn to families, religious institutions, and other associations within communities to help strengthen our values. [...]

I would contend that other forms of morality, like speech codes, are best reinforced by nongovernmental means. When we see moral decline, we ought to try to resist turning to government as the solution. Instead, we should view moral decline as a symptom of an adverse cycle of government expansion and family breakdown.

As is so often the case with libertarians, Mr. Kling has confused personal libertinism with political liberty, seemingly unaware that it is such license that creates a desire for greater state intervention in human affairs, precisely because the behavior of fellow citizens becomes so unreliable. Thus is secular humanism the handmaiden of a authoritarianism.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 19, 2006 4:32 PM

Very thoughtful and thought-provoking post.

But if license leads to tyranny, how do you restore personal responsibility without even more tyranny?

I tend to see the dynamic a little differently. Liberal types want to be entertained, they want life to feel good, they want to "feed their heads." In other words, they want to lie around in the grass fornicating, instead of putting in the hard work that creates wealth and builds communities.

And as society has gotten richer overall, this has created an opportunity for more and more people to pursue this kind of "consumer" lifestyle instead of a "producer" lifestyle. Then they use the majoritarian political system to vote to have the wealth of the producers redistributed so that they can enjoy their consumer lifestyle without working for it. Here we see the post-1960s wealth explosion, the sexual revolution, and the ever-growing welfare state all come together.

Take a look at federal income tax statistics. They are appalling -- only half of Americans pay any net federal income taxes, and the top 10% pays something like 50% (or more). In other words, huge numbers of citizens have *no* personal investment in the system. They are pure takers. This is what liberalism is all about, no? Letting others do the hard work, while you enjoy the fruits of their labor?

Hey, maybe I'll go read Atlas Shrugged . . . .

Posted by: Steven M. Warshawsky at May 19, 2006 6:29 PM

What tyranny?

Posted by: oj at May 19, 2006 6:34 PM

Go read Atlas Shrugged?

What are you, a masochist?

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at May 19, 2006 8:07 PM

Much of Mill, btw, reads like a blueprint for Bloomsbury.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at May 19, 2006 8:16 PM

Somewhat Shorter George W. Carey:

1. Society needs a high degree of order.

2. The impulse to order can come from within (the individual) or be imposed from without (authority).

3. To come from within, shared values must be internalized ... by definition.

4. Libertarian purists (a redundancy?) deny the need for internalized, shared values.

5. Ergo: Libertarian purists invite external authority. (With, I might add, no sense of irony whatsoever.)

Posted by: ghostcat at May 19, 2006 8:57 PM

We of course owe Mill a debt of gratitude for the honorific "The Stupid Party".

And certainly for this: "War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself."

But it seems to me that Mill is late to the game with this: "According to Mill...[t]he law does not exist to uphold majority morality against the individual, but to protect the individual against tyranny--including the "tyranny of the majority.""

The very question of whether or not to live under the rule of law is an act of the majority "forcing" its collective morality on the individual. And every law, rule or regulation ever written imposes someone's morality on someone else--including laws that begin "Congress shall make no law...".

Even Mill concededs in that "War" quote that there is something beyond mere self. The law exists to protect against both the tyranny of the majority AND the tyranny of the minority. We simply argue about where to draw the line.

Posted by: Noel at May 19, 2006 9:07 PM


The other 50% who may pay very little, if any, federal income tax do pay into the system. They pay a huge percentage of state/local property/sales taxes.

Posted by: Brad S at May 19, 2006 10:57 PM


No, actually, they don't. Income and property tax statistics where I live (NY) shows the same extremely skewed distribution. I'm quite confident that it's no different anywhere else in the country. Most of the people in this country simply do not pay a "huge proportion" of any taxes (well, except lottery proceeds, I imagine).

I'm not saying that the taxes that "ordinary" folks pay don't bite, but neither do they fund the enormous range of government programs and services that we see in this country.

Posted by: Steven M. Warshawsky at May 20, 2006 1:08 PM

Steven's is as good an example as you'll ever find of an internalized, shared value: the belief in taxing the piss out of anybody who makes more money than we do. Careful what you ask for, ghost.

Posted by: joe shropshire at May 20, 2006 9:09 PM

Steven, your description of what liberals want to do gave me quite a pause. Images of Pelosi, Reid, Hillary, Dean, the Rev and others of their ilk cavorting on the grass ... good thing I didn't have a coffee cup in my hand.

Posted by: erp at May 21, 2006 7:58 PM