Friday, 17 April 2009

Liberty and Individual Sovereignty

John Stuart Mill prefaces his essay, On Liberty with an introduction on the nature of liberty. As he puts it, his inquiry is about "the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual" (1929, p.1). For Mill this has been a live feature of human history more or less since day one. Authority has always sought to subordinate the individual to its will, and the individual has struggled to preserve liberty as protection against authority's capricious tyranny.

This has traditionally been done in two ways. First, liberty has meant imposing certain obligations on rulers in the shape of rights and immunities granted to their subjects. Therefore it would be a break with this obligation if the sovereign infringed them. Secondly there has been the crystallisation of these checks into a series of constitutional limits placed on the sovereign's power, which in turn are overseen by a body independent of it. As far as Mill was concerned, the Europe of his day had realised liberty in the first sense but constitutional guarantees were still an objective of liberal campaigners.

There had been other significant gains for liberty too. The advancing tide of democracy had seen a dispersal of sovereignty. Despite autocracy being alive and well in 1859, the days of the ruler standing over and apart from the people were numbered. Liberal democracy was making a serious claim to be the preferred form of bourgeois governance. Sovereignty now lay in the state itself and was exercised by representatives revocable via elections. Under these circumstances it could be argued the concern with liberty no longer applies. The new rulers were drawn from the ranks of the people and won elections on the basis of who best reflects the national will. If the state now reflects the aspirations of the electorate, doesn't the concern with tyranny and liberty become superfluous?

No.
It was now perceived that such phrases as "self-government" and "the power of the people over themselves" do not express the true state of the case. The "people" who exercise the power are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised; the "self-government" spoken of is not the government of each by himself but of each by all the rest. The will of the people, moreover, practically means the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority: the people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number, and precautions are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of power. The limitation, therefore, of the power of government over individuals loses none of its importance when the holders of power are regularly accountable to the community - that is, to the strongest party therein. (1929, pp.4-5)
If anything the tyrannical potential of the majority is greater than that exercised by the autocrats of the past. There are fewer means of escape when society "decides" to do something, because these decisions can extend beyond the political and encompass general conduct. As Mill puts it "there is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensible to a good condition of human affairs as protection against political despotism"(p.6).

This for Mill is the fundamental principle. But the difficulty lies in establishing the limits. History has bequethed a large body of customs, rules and laws that have arisen through millenia of mundane practices. But also conduct can be derived from a society's attachment or aversion to its rulers and its Gods, in other words the extent to which its morality is rooted in servility. For Mill norms and laws articulate society's likes and dislikes (or fears).

Mill argued that the English politics of his day were, among other things, characterised by a general regard for the protection of private conduct and a popular view of an opposition between the government's and public's interest (an opposition still with us, if recent press coverage is anything to go by). Where the government exercises its powers, invariably there will be an invasion of the sphere set aside for private conduct, and if this is impingeing on areas not to have felt government interference before opposition is more or less a given. But again there are no general principles guiding either government action or public reaction - some would welcome administrative action because it is designed to salve a particular social ill. Others would argue the persistence of that same ill is a price worth paying vis a vis the greater danger of a government expanding its scope. How this opposition is played out is purely conjunctural.

On Liberty aims to remedy this:
The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. The principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection (p.11).

For Mill this is the only principled basis for interference. Apologies that fall short of this such as, for example, "we interfered for their own good" provide no justification. This might offer grounds for arguing and remonstrating with an individual about their conduct, but it falls short of compulsion. The forcible "protection" from harm is in fact forcing harm upon another. In short, if an individual is neither a child or has some sort of impairment, then leave alone.

But On Liberty's idea of the sovereign individual is not a manifesto for the war of all against all. There is such a thing as society. Liberty and society are in tension, but society can find ways of compelling its members without injuring their liberty. For Mill society can reasonably expect individuals to participate in court proceedings and other projects of benefit to society as a whole. Its members are obliged to prevent various ills, such as save a life or defend someone from attack. The rights liberty confers on individuals is balanced by a set of responsibilities. But these are the limits of society's interests. The "portion of a person's life and conduct which affects only himself, or, if it also affects others, only with their free, voluntary and undeceived consent and participation" (p.14) is off-limits. This is the region of liberty over which society has no rights. Here, liberty, if it means anything, is the liberty of conscience, thought and opinion; the liberty of pursuing one's tastes and pursuits free from interefence; and the freedom to combine with others provided such combinations are voluntary and do not desire to cause others harm. If a society does not guarantee these liberties, regardless of the rhetoric it employs, it cannot be free.


Mill's statement on liberty has the virtue of being simple and clear, but for all that it is problematic from a socialist standpoint. For example the treatment of society here is nebulous and is a million miles from what Victorian capitalism was like, with its stratification, patriarchy, class conflict and competing class fractions. Of course all philosophical statements deal with abstract notions of what society is, but one should always be watchful when abstractions conceal more than they reveal. To be fair Mill's Introductory does nod toward the influence of class on morality - he acknowledges the tendency for it to reflect the ascendent class and how the popularity of a moral code is likely to fall if a pre-eminent class is in decline, but that is as far as it goes here. But a full Marxist critique is beyond the scope of this post and will be returned to down the line.

Somewhat surprisingly given the piece's tone, Mill is able to justify significant infringements of liberty in the name of progress. Despite describing history as a conflict between liberty and authority, strangely, liberty only becomes operative at a certain stage of development, when humanity is able to advance through what Mill calls "free and equitable discussion". Liberty therefore does not apply in "backwards states of society". To demonstrate:

The early difficulties in the way of spontaneous progress are so great that there is seldom any choice of means for overcoming them; and a ruler full of the spirit if improvement is warranted in the use of any expedients that will attain an end perhaps otherwise unattainable. Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end (p.12).
How many times have similar sentiments been voiced by Stalin apologists? It's no qualitative leap to justify imperialism, be it of the colonial or "humanitarian" kind, in these terms either.

Nevertheless Mill was a man of his times and the case could be made to excuse his arguments on that basis. After all, Marx and Engels were known to use racial epithets and, in some circumstances, justify colonialism from the standpoint of the development of the productive forces - that didn't necessarily invalidate their work. And so it is true here. Mill's refusal to extend liberty to everyone does not mean he had nothing of value to say about liberty per se. And it is this liberty per se as it applies to thought and discussion that will be dealt with in the next post in this series.

Edit: A complete list of posts on On Liberty can be found here.

7 comments:

Phil BC said...

The previous piece on On Liberty - A Short Note on Liberties, Liberalism and Socialism can be read here.

ad said...

When Mill says "despotic" government, does he mean an arbitary givernment or an undemocratic one?

Maoist China and colonial Hong Kong (for example) both had undemocratic governments, but there was an important difference in the way they treated their subjects.

Phil BC said...

I take Mill to mean regimes who were hangovers from feudal times. For example, he might have been annoyed about infringements of liberties In Britain and France (the latter having already experienced periods of liberal democratic governance prior to Napoleon III), but he would have been okay with modernisation from above from the Russian Tsar and the Japanese aristocracy - and colonial authorities too.

So, from my reading, despotisms would be all right in nations that had not already known the rule of law.

vengeanceandfashion said...

Another excellent post, very valuable to examine other philosophical traditions, something I certainly have neglected.

The problem with theories that provide loopholes is who determines whether the conditions for the loophole have been met? I'm thinking of the 'progress' escape clause.

Mill certainly made some interesting and valuable contributions, but a bus can be driven through this loophole, particularly as Mill recognises the existence of classes in society, and their influence on events.

Does he justify the 'progress' get out in any further detail? It sounds similar to Locke's get out clause for the right of private property, namely that if it isn't being exploited productively, it can be claimed by those who can (an argument for the dispossession of the colonised by the colonisers used by Europeans in America to Israelis in Palestine.

Phil BC said...

I know nothing about Mill's works on political economy, so perhaps someone who does might be able to put some flesh on the progress bones.

But in On Liberty, progress is about reaching that stage of history when progress can, erm, progress through discussion and the exchange of ideas. This is the point where Mill's comments on despotism no longer apply.

Btw, on a fairly related note, I'm thinking of having a look at Burke some point down the line.

ad said...

Well, in that case I have some sympathy for Mills argument. One of the minimal requirements of any form of representative government must be that the electorate have some means of judging what their elected representatives have got up to.

And if there are no means of finding out what those representatives have done and why, that requirement would not be met.

Phil BC said...

I can understand where he was coming from and makes sense if we abstract political systems from their socio-historical settings. But to say his idea of liberty does not apply, even though he says history is a struggle between authority and liberty, well, he's dug himself a bit of a hole with that one.