Sunday 2 August 2009

Mill's Applications of On Liberty

In the final section of On Liberty, John Stuart Mill muses on some of his philosophy's applications regarding social behaviour, trade, intoxicating substances, and the limits of the state. In political times where the the only liberal thing about the present government is the willingness to dish out ASBOs and pass authoritarian pieces of legislation, another look at Mill's positions is timely.

Mill starts off with a recap of the kernel of his argument. In sum, the individual is not responsible to society for their actions as long as those actions pertain only to their interest. As long as this remains the case, the only right society has is to argue against or morally disapprove "deviant" conduct. It can take corrective legal action only when this activity threatens society and/or transgresses its laws.

But what about when one's activities necessarily impact on the life of others? Chief among these for Mill is trade, which he rightly sees as a social act that affects the general interest. But here, as with any sort of activity independent of the state, left to itself the economy - operating on the principle of a buyer being able to choose among competing sellers - has proven to be efficient and self-organising. It regulates price, it determines quality, and it provides employment without the need for the state's directing hand. But what about the negative consequences of business on the person, is this not in tension with liberty? For Mill, this partly holds up. If a business fraudulently deals with its customers and employees or abuses them in ways contrary to the law then obviously the means of legal redress need to be in place. But short of this there cannot be injury to liberty when one enters into a contractual relationship with a business. If, for example, one's employer is awful to work for one always has the liberty to leave - no one is being forced to stay. Because of this regardless of how restrictive work practices are and how petty and authoritarian management is, because all this takes place with the employee's consent liberty as such is unscathed.

Are there grounds where society can legitimately exert its influence over markets? For example, can the state discourage the consumption of legal but intoxicating substances via indirect taxation and placing limits on where they can be sold while remaining compatible with liberty? As far as Mill is concerned this prohibition through the back door - extra taxes merely prohibit those who cannot afford to pay for them from enjoying the same liberties as the better off. Therefore, in these circumstances such policies are only justifiable to the same degree a ban is justifiable. In other words, are the costs to society greater if it allows intoxicants to be freely available than it would from enforcing prohibition? (See this
excellent post at The Devil's Kitchen for a cost/benefit analysis of the war on drugs, for example). However, if one is a heavy drinker or drug user, as long as their obligations to society are discharged then it has no right to intervene and prevent their habits. Mill does concede the state has the right to limit the sale of certain commodities to especially licensed premises for policing purposes but as a general rule not go beyond that.

For Mill there are very good reasons for limiting the scope of the state's activities, even if it poses no immediate danger to liberty. His first observation is that any kind of enterprise (in a wide sense) can be best taken care of by the parties with an immediate interest in it. Secondly, even if there is a legitimate case for state interference on grounds its actions would be more efficient than the alternative, it is better from liberty's standpoint that individuals undertake it because of the capacity building effects. Self-reliant activity in conjunction with others not only encourages political education and less dependence on the state, it also creates the conditions for civic engagement by developing the need for voluntary associations to come together. Thirdly, if the state's power is expanded its influence over society is strengthened, the chief consequence of which is the danger it could become the repository of hope and perceived as the main agency of change. Instead of trying to overcome problems themselves, the citizenry are more likely to turn to the state - a situation that, in the long run, could prove injurious to liberty. This in itself increases the confidence of the state, which now has the green light to expand its bureaucracy and becomes contemptuous of whatever democratic checks upon its power exist. Lovers of liberty have a definite interest in making sure the power of the state is tightly circumscribed. To avoid the evils of an authoritarian state, Mill argues for "the greatest dissemination of power consistent with efficiency; but the greatest possible centralisation of information and diffusion of it from the centre" (1929, p.142).

There are many criticisms that can be made of these positions. What is particularly glaring from a Marxist point of view is Mill's considerations of liberty and the economy. But leaving that aside for now, given the attitudes Marxists have concerning the capitalist state and the role the socialist state plays in the transition from class society to the free society, are socialist politics in fundamental contradiction with Mill's formulation of liberty? Or is it more the case that socialism could build upon more consistently? These are the issues that will be addressed in the final forthcoming post on
On Liberty.

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