This year marks the 150th anniversary of John Stuart Mill’s famous essay “On Liberty.” Originally published in 1859, it remains one of the most enduring and powerful defenses of individual liberty ever penned. Both advocates and enemies of personal freedom have challenged either the premises or the logic in Mill’s argument. They have pointed out inconsistencies or incompleteness in his reasoning. But the fact remains that a century and a half after its appearance, few essays continue to justify being read and pondered with the same care and attention as “On Liberty.”
Mill’s essay takes on particular significance and importance at the present time when governments around the world, including in the United States, are hell-bent on extending their power and control over the economic and social affairs of ordinary men and women.
Everywhere we look, government is claiming the duty and responsibility to care for our old age; manage our health care; regulate our industry and the wages we earn through the presidential appointment of various political planning “czars.” The government controls what we eat; oversees what we buy; paternalistically supervises with whom and how we interact with others in society. The government also educates our children and determines what they learn. And the government may soon subsidize and therefore influence what we read in our local newspapers.
John Stuart Mill focused on several dangers to our liberty. He started with the importance of freedom of thought, and went on to analyze the dangers from the tyranny of the minority, the tyranny of the majority, and the tyranny from rigid customs and traditions that stifle the individual’s ability for self-expression and action.
Mill defended freedom of thought on several grounds. First, we should accept the fact that none of us can claim an infallibility of knowledge or a final and definite insight into ultimate truth. Thus, we should value and defend liberty of thought and argument because a dissenter or a critic of conventional and generally accepted views may offer reasons for disagreeing that correct our own errors of knowledge and mistakes in judgment about the truth of things.
Second, sometimes the truth about things exists as half-truths held by different people, and through controversy the truth in the parts can be made into a great unified truth of the whole.
And, third, even if we are really certain that we have the truth and a correct understanding of things, unless we are open to challenging and rethinking that which we take for granted, our ideas and beliefs can easily become atrophied dogmas. The people in each generation must be taught to think and reason for themselves. If ideas and beliefs are to remain living and meaningful, people must arrive at their own conclusions through reflection and thought.
Mill not only defended freedom of thought but liberty of action as well. To make men conform to a uniformity in their conduct would prevent that which is an inherent hallmark of each of us as a human being: our individuality. The libertarian political philosopher and free-market economist, Murray Rothbard, once neatly expressed Mill’s point on this theme:
"If men were like ants, there would be no interest in human freedom. If individual men, like ants, were uniform, interchangeable, devoid of specific personality traits of their own, then who would care whether they were free or not? Who, indeed, would care if they lived or died? The glory of the human race is the uniqueness of each individual, the fact that every person, though similar in many ways to others, possesses a completely individuated personality of his own. It is the fact of each person’s uniqueness — the fact that no two people can be wholly interchangeable — that makes each and every man irreplaceable and that makes us care whether he lives or dies, whether he is happy or oppressed. And, finally, it is the fact that these unique personalities need freedom for their full development that constitutes one of the major arguments for a free society...."
Every man must have freedom, must have the scope to form, test, and act upon his own choices for any sort of development of his own personality to take place. He must, in short, be free in order that he may be fully human.
Classical liberals have often pointed out that a weak link in Mill’s argument is the vagueness or inconsistency in how he defines the arena within which the individual may claim protection from political infringements on his individual freedom of action.
But in the broadest sense, Mill defines the range of a person’s right to unrestrained liberty over his own choices as extending to that point at which his actions would infringe upon and violate the equal rights of other people to their freedom.
And the weakest point in Mill’s defense of individual liberty is his failure to clearly align his case for human freedom with the right to private property and its use in all ways that do not violate the comparable individual rights of others.
But within the context of his own premises, Mill was a fairly strong advocate of much of what today we usually call civil liberties. Thus, for example, he opposed the attempt by some to prohibit the consumption of alcohol by others, insisting that it was an inappropriate restraint on individual freedom of choice.
Men of the most honest intentions and goodwill may reason with their fellow human beings and offer their own lives as examples of better ways of living. But it would be an unjustifiable violation of another’s personal freedom to coercively attempt to prevent him from ingesting some substance that he — however wrong-headedly from the critic’s perspective — finds desirable, useful, or pleasurable.
But Mill, unfortunately, conceded to the government as necessary responsibilities far more powers of intervention into social and economic affairs than most modern classical liberals and libertarians consider justifiable.
Three forms of tyranny
And this gets to the issue of what can stifle or prevent an individual from exercising his personal freedom in the manner he wants. Mill argued that there were, historically, three forms of tyranny that have endangered liberty through the ages.
The oldest was the tyranny of the one or the few over the many. A single dictator or an oligarchy imposed prohibitions on or commanded certain forms of behavior over the majority of the society. The spontaneous individualism and individuality of each person was denied. The one or the few determined how others might live and what they might say and do and, therefore, in what forms their human potential would be allowed to develop.
The newer form of tyranny, Mill said, was the rule of the many over the one. The revolt against the tyranny of the one or the few resulted in the growing idea that the people should rule themselves. And since the people, surely, could not tyrannize themselves, the unrestrained will of the people became the ideal of those who advocated unlimited democracy.
But in practice this inevitably became the rule of the majority over the minority. Individual freedom was denied purely on the basis of numbers, that is, on the basis of which group or coalition of groups formed that larger number of people dominating the political process. Their ideas, ideals, and values were to be imposed on all those representing less than 50 percent of the electorate.
But whether it was the tyranny of the few over the many or the many over the few, the source of their tyrannical power was the control and use of political coercion. State power is what enabled some to deny liberty to others. The threat or the use of force by government is what enabled freedom to be taken away from individuals who believed in ideas, ideals, or values different from those holding the reins of political power.
The “tyranny” of custom and tradition
Mill also said that there was a third source of tyranny over the individual in society, and this was the tyranny of custom and tradition. He argued:
The despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement, being in unceasing antagonism to that disposition to aim at something better than the customary, which is called, according to circumstances, the spirit of liberty, or that of progress or improvement.... Custom is there, in all things, the final appeal; justice and right mean conformity to custom.... All deviations ... come to be considered impious, immoral, even monstrous and contrary to nature.
Mill argued with great passion that societal customs and traditions could, indeed, very often be the worst tyranny of all. They were binding rules on conduct and belief that owed their force not to coercion but to their being the shared ideas of the right and proper held by the vast majority in the society. They represent what the ancient Greek Pericles referred to as “that code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace.”
Customs and traditions weigh down on the individual, they stifle his sense and desire to be different, to experiment with the new, to creatively design ways of doing things that have not been tried before, and to break out of the confinement of conformity. Custom and tradition can be the straitjacket that restricts a person’s cry for his peaceful and nonviolent individuality.
But while customs and traditions may hold such power over men, because of their fear of disgrace and ostracism by family, friends, and neighbors, they are still not coercion. No matter how strong a hold custom and tradition may have over men’s minds and therefore their conduct in society, an individual can still choose to go his own way and be the eccentric and outcast, if he is willing to pay the price in terms of the disapproval of others in his community. Political force is not the weapon that ensures obedience. The power of custom and tradition comes from social and psychological pressure and the human desire to avoid being shunned by those whose association is wanted.
Private property and the free market
What Mill does not give emphasis to or fully appreciate in his essay “On Liberty” is that what enables an individual to follow his own path even in the face of strong customs and traditions is the institution of private property and the free and voluntary relationships of the market economy.
Private property gives an individual ownership and control of a portion of the means of production through which he may then choose how and for what purposes he will live his life. Private property gives him a “territory” that is under his own jurisdiction for a degree of “self-rule.” In his home and on his property, in the free society he can design his one-person “country” to fit his values, ideals, and desires. What the customs of others consider eccentric can be lived as the norm and the normal on the territory of his private property.
It is true that no man is an island. Unless an individual wishes to attempt existence in self-sufficient isolation, he must participate in the interdependent social system of the division of labor.
But the advantage of the market economy is that an individual can choose how and in what form he will find his niche in the nexus of voluntary exchange to acquire those things that will enable him to fulfill his own vision of the good life and its purposes.
This will not come without a cost. To earn the income that permits him, as a consumer, to buy the things that will enable him to live that unconventional life may require him to work as a producer at tasks he finds irksome or unattractive.
On the other hand, he can choose to earn a living doing something he enjoys more, but then he may have to forgo the higher income that he could have earned if he had produced and supplied something that potential customers might have valued more highly.
The market economy also offers the individual a degree of anonymity that helps shield and guard him from prying eyes and the imposed values of others.
Rarely do the consumers of multitudes of market-supplied goods and services know or care about the values, beliefs, or lifestyles of those in the production process who participate in bringing demanded commodities to the buying public.
A person can earn a living making a product to finance his personal vision of the good life, even when many of the buyers of his product would, perhaps, radically disapprove of the way he leads his life with the income he has earned serving their wants.
It is precisely this type of freedom that the market economy makes possible to all its participants that arouses the disapproval and anger of those who resent the ability of some to flaunt the customs and traditions believed in and practiced by many if not most of the other members of society.
The danger to liberty arises when those who resent breaches of tradition cry for coercion to be used to impose obedience to custom. Only then does the tyranny of custom, as understood by Mill, become the coercion of the many over the few. Only then is freedom denied, indeed suffocated, by politically enforced conformity.
It is the misuse and abuse of political power — the threat or the application of legitimized force by a government within a geographical area — that always has been the greatest threat to liberty. All tyranny, whether it be the few over the many or the many over the few, results from the use of force to make others conform to the conduct desired by the rulers, even when those being coerced have done nothing to violate the rights of others.
That John Stuart Mill failed to sufficiently see this and defend liberty on this basis does not detract from the fact that “On Liberty” remains one of the greatest works that has been written in behalf of individual freedom during the last 150 years.
And with the continuing growth of "Big Government" in our own time, his classic essay remains as fresh and relevant as when it first appeared in 1859.
(An slightly different version of this article originally appeared in Freedom Daily (February 1993) published by the Future of Freedom Foundation, Fairfax, Virginia.)