Maarten Maartensz

Text Philosophy - Mill - On Liberty - Chapter V
 



Notes to: CHAPTER V
APPLICATIONS


Note on these notes

These notes are from 2006, based on notes in my paper copy of "On Liberty" that date from 1977.

The format is that I quote the text of Mill that I comment in blue, and write my own notes in black, with a "Back" at the end of every note that moves the reader back - provided he or she is on line, or has downloaded the relevant files in similar directories,or uses a CD of my site - to the beginning of the quotation the note is concerned with. (See also the TOC.)

The result is that my quotations + my notes take more space than Mill's original text, but one advantage of the procedure I use is that the reader can read my quotations + my notes independently from the text, yet be moved thence - provisos as above - with a single click.


[1] "The few observations I propose to make on questions of detail, are designed to illustrate the principles, rather than to follow them out to their consequences. I offer, not so much applications, as specimens of application; which may serve to bring into greater clearness the meaning and limits of the two maxims which together form the entire doctrine of this Essay and to assist the judgment in holding the balance between them, in the cases where it appears doubtful which of them is applicable to the case."

I have selected this to clarify Mill's purpose with this last chapter, and to show that the chapter's title, then, is somewhat misleading.     Back.


[2] "The maxims are, first, that the individual is not accountable to society for his actions, in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself. Advice, instruction, persuasion, and avoidance by other people, if thought necessary by them for their own good, are the only measures by which society can justifiably express its dislike or disapprobation of his conduct."

We have seen quite a few different statements by Mill of this principle, some of which may be regarded as mere rewordings, while other formulations may not strike everyone as equivalent.

I have commented several times on these formulations - see e.g. ..... - and here merely remark that in all human societies all adult persons who were not slaves have been regarded as both having some interests that concern only themselves and as entitled to having these, and besides that this is hardly avoidable in general, apart from a police state where all spy on all.

Apart from this, I also agree with Mill that in principle this is a good thing; that it ought to be a right in some sense that one can do as one please in some respects and some circumstances; that this is the foundation and precondition of many things and acts that count as civilized; and that indeed it can be seen as one of the reasons for humans to form societies: To be able to do what only or primarily concerns themselves (and/or their family and friends) in a better way than would be possible without cooperating with others.     Back.


[3] "Secondly, that for such actions as are prejudicial to the interests of others, the individual is accountable, and may be subjected either to social or to legal punishments, if society is of opinion that the one or the other is requisite for its protection."

As I have remarked before, I have two problems with this formulation.

First, since I hold that "society" has neither opinions nor feelings, as these are the prerogatives of individuals only, this needs reformulation, though the basic idea is clear:

  • That others have the right to interfere with one only to the extent that one's acts or ommissions interfere with the interests of others, and especially where this  concerns bodily harm or loss of property.

Second, and supposing for the moment the last reformulation, the problem is to draw the boundary or boundaries between the interests of the one and the others. This is not easy, and is the more difficult in that many - indeed most - persons are inclined to believe, or at least to pretend to believe, in many circumstances, that they have the right to impose their version of another's rights and duties onto another person, and that they are perfectly capable of deciding for others what is good and bad, and how the others should behave.

But one reason to state the precisification in my first point is that - the genuine risk of - actual bodily harm or loss of property seem to be the main morally legitimate reasons to interfere with another person's acts or ommissions.

And it may be added here, in accordance with what Mill said in an earlier chapter, that mere differences of opinion, of feeling or of value are not sufficient reasons to interfere with another person, and that this includes religious, political or moral beliefs. Your having certain beliefs or values, whatever they are, however well-intentioned they may be, are not a sufficient ground to make it reasonable that you interfere with somebody else, who does not have your beliefs or values.      Back.


[4] "In the first place, it must by no means be supposed, because damage, or probability of damage, to the interests of others, can alone justify the interference of society, that therefore it always does justify such interference. In many cases, an individual, in pursuing a legitimate object, necessarily and therefore legitimately causes pain or loss to others, or intercepts a good which they had a reasonable hope of obtaining. (...) succeeds in an overcrowded profession, or in a competitive examination; whoever is preferred to another in any contest for an object which both desire, reaps benefit from the loss of others, from their wasted exertion and their disappointment. But it is, by common admission, better for the general interest of mankind, that persons should pursue their objects undeterred by this sort of consequences."

Indeed, but this does imply considerable trouble for Mill's principles. This is one reason to reformulate it explicitly in [3] in terms of bodily harm or loss of property.     Back.


[5] "But it is now recognized, though not till after a long struggle, that both the cheapness and the good quality of commodities are most effectually provided for by leaving the producers and sellers perfectly free, under the sole check of equal freedom to the buyers for supplying themselves elsewhere. This is the so-called doctrine of Free Trade, which rests on grounds different from, though equally solid with, the principle of individual liberty asserted in this Essay."

My main reason for lifting out this quotation is to note Mill's opinion that free trade and economic liberalism are related to liberty in a wide sense, but not to the principles of "individual liberty" that are the subject of Mill's essay.

Free traders and economic liberals sometimes pretend or believe otherwise, and indeed with some justification, when they speak of state socialism as practised in the 20th century in Russia and China.     Back.


[6] "As the principle of individual liberty is not involved in the doctrine of Free Trade so neither is it in most of the questions which arise respecting the limits of that doctrine: as for example, what amount of public control is admissible for the prevention of fraud by adulteration; how far sanitary precautions, or arrangements to protect work-people employed in dangerous occupations, should be enforced on employers. Such questions involve considerations of liberty, only in so far as leaving people to themselves is always better, caeteris paribus, than controlling them: but that they may be legitimately controlled for these ends, is in principle undeniable."

This is quoted mostly to show that Mill was rather realistic, and because of the statement of a basic feeling and conviction: "leaving people to themselves is always better, caeteris paribus, than controlling them".

This may well be called a basic liberal feeling shared by many of liberal convictions, but it also should be supplemented by the two factual considerations that, first, completely apart from liberal convictions or feelings, as a matter of fact in all societies all free adults have had considerable freedoms of various kinds, and second, that it is very difficult to control all the people all the time in all respects, if one were willing to try this. And the ethical objection to such a wish is that those who control are as human as those who are controlled, and are as liable to err and to abuse their power.     Back.


[7] "On the other hand, there are questions relating to interference with trade which are essentially questions of liberty; such as the Maine Law, already touched upon; the prohibition of the importation of opium into China; the restriction of the sale of poisons; all cases, in short, where the object of the interference is to make it impossible or difficult to obtain a particular commodity. These interferences are objectionable, not as infringements on the liberty of the producer or seller, but on that of the buyer."

I believe that, in Mill's time as in previous centuries, it was in England relatively easy and cheap to buy laudanum i.e. tincture of opium, and this was widely used as a sedative or painkiller.

The risk of addiction was well-known and described at length, e.g. by De Quincey, but it seems to have not been a major risk, though some fell prey to it, like De Quincey and Coleridge.

At present, most habit-forming drugs - heroine, amphetamine, cocaine etc. - are forbidden, or are only available by medical recipe, supposedly "in the interest of the public". The main effect, as Mill already made clear, is that it makes these drugs more expensive, more dangerous, because illegal and uncontrolled, and the main effect of governmental interference and interdiction is that these measures help to keep the profits of illegal drugstraffickers and -dealers high; keeps the prices of the drugs high and their contents uncontrolled, and therefore makes it all the more risky and dangerous to use these drugs.      Back.


[8] "One of these examples, that of the sale of poisons, opens a new question; the proper limits of what may be called the functions of police; how far liberty may legitimately be invaded for the prevention of crime, or of accident. It is one of the undisputed functions of government to take precautions against crime before it has been committed, as well as to detect and punish it afterwards. The preventive function of government, however, is far more liable to be abused, to the prejudice of liberty, than the punitory function; for there is hardly any part of the legitimate freedom of action of a human being which would not admit of being represented, and fairly too, as increasing the facilities for some form or other of delinquency."

Indeed, and one way to limit this "preventive function of government" is by reference to Mill's first principle, as qualified in [3]: The government also, like ordinary persons, of which it is composed, does not have a right to interfere in matters where there is no appreciable chance of bodily harm or loss of property for a considerable proportion of the public.

And as regards the abuse of - possibly addictive or habitforming - drugs, continueing the previous note, it seems fair and reasonable not to forbid this, but to allow it to anyone who can afford it, and to legalize these drugs, and control their quality and contents. If one wants to pursue drug-induced artificial ecstasies, at no risk to another person, one should be free to do so, if one can afford them.     Back.


[9] ".. for liberty consists in doing what one desires .."

This I selected because it both is realistic and fundamental, and because it shows how close liberty and power are, for a correct definition of power amounts to the statement that one has power over another to the extent that the one can make the other do as the one desires. Again, both are strongly related to happiness, which is widely regarded as being caused usually and normally by "doing what one desires".

Thus it also follows, given these precisifications, that liberty involves not being in the power of someone else.     Back.


[10] "Similar considerations, applied to such a question as the sale of poisons, may enable us to decide which among the possible modes of regulation are or are not contrary to principle. Such a precaution, for example, as that of labelling the drug with some word expressive of its dangerous character, may be enforced without violation of liberty: the buyer cannot wish not to know that the thing he possesses has poisonous qualities. But to require in all cases the certificate of a medical practitioner, would make it sometimes impossible, always expensive, to obtain the article for legitimate uses. "

See [7] and [8], and note again that Mill is in fact concerned with a person's chances to obtain something - in this case: some medicine or drug - that may help or alleviate some complaint he has, and that will only be risky to himself.     Back.


[11] "The right inherent in society, to ward off crimes against itself by antecedent precautions, suggests the obvious limitations to the maxim, that purely self-regarding misconduct cannot properly be meddled with in the way of prevention or punishment. Drunkennesses, for example, in ordinary cases, is not a fit subject for legislative interference; but I should deem it perfectly legitimate that a person, who had once been convicted of any act of violence to others under the influence of drink, should be placed under a special legal restriction, personal to himself; that if he were afterwards found drunk, he should be liable to a penalty, and that if when in that state he committed another offence, the punishment to which he would be liable for that other offence should be increased in severity. The making himself drunk, in a person whom drunkenness excites to do harm to others, is a crime against others. "

Drunkenness was a huge problem in Mill's England, and also in 18th century England. Having discussed drugs in [7], [8]and [10] let me here remark that it would seem to me that the there is very good evidence for the proposition that, at least in Western Europe, the forbidding of habit-forming drugs such as opiates, other than on medical recipe, for medical reasons, and the forbidding of recreative drugs like marihuana, has done much more harm than good, and has been the main reason for an enormous growth in power of the drugs-mafia in Western Europe.     Back.


[12] "Again, there are many acts which, being directly injurious only to the agents themselves, ought not to be legally interdicted, but which, if done publicly, are a violation of good manners, and coming thus within the category of offences against others, may rightfully be prohibited. Of this kind are offences against decency; on which it is unnecessary to dwell"

I guess that what Mill had in mind here were mostly things like walking naked, alone or in public, and so-called indecent exposure. One problem here is that the opinions about "decency" vary widely: In Mill's own time ladies of his own class were supposed not to show their legs or ankles at all, whereas some Muslims hold that a woman can only show herself decently in public when completely covered.

In either case, the basic objection is that these practices and the norms they are based on are prejudices or superstitions few human beings have shared who did not live in these groups.     Back.


[13] "If people must be allowed, in whatever concerns only themselves, to act as seems best to themselves at their own peril, they must equally be free to consult with one another about what is fit to be so done; to exchange opinions, and give and receive suggestions. Whatever it is permitted to do, it must be permitted to advise to do. The question is doubtful, only when the instigator derives a personal benefit from his advice; when he makes it his occupation, for subsistence, or pecuniary gain, to promote what society and the State consider to be an evil."

I like the principle that "Whatever it is permitted to do, it must be permitted to advise to do", but since the permissions and forbiddings of the law are by no means unobjectionable or morally perfect, I see no reason to limit the possibilty of advice to things that are legally permitted.

Besides, here the same distinction applies as I drew earlier: Talking about doing something, even advicing someone to do something, is not at all the same as doing it. And one often can only find out about the various consequences something may lead to by talking about it.     Back.


[14] "Fornication, for example, must be tolerated, and so must gambling; but should a person be free to be a pimp, or to keep a gambling-house? The case is one of those which lie on the exact boundary line between two principles, and it is not at once apparent to which of the two it properly belongs. There are arguments on both sides. "

Besides, there is another relevant point here, apart from "arguments on both sides" whether one is "free to be a pimp, or to keep a gambling-house", namely that whoring and gambling have been very widespread in virtually all known societies, whether this was allowed legally or not.

Therefore it is a relevant argument that since these practices are evidently so human, and exist also when they are forbidden, it is better to attempt to regulate them than to forbid or exterminate them. As with drugs, there is very good evidence that forbidding or persecuting these things only increases the problems.     Back.


[15] "Still less ought the common operations of buying and selling to be interfered with on analogous grounds. Almost every article which is bought and sold may be used in excess, and the sellers have a pecuniary interest in encouraging that excess; but no argument can be founded on this.."

Note that Mill's reason in the end is his principle that every individual is and ought to be free to do as he pleases if doing so only touches his own interests, and that this also covers the cases where doing what he pleases involves harm or damage to himself, or the chance of it.      Back.


[16] "A further question is, whether the State while it permits, should nevertheless indirectly discourage conduct which it deems contrary to the best interests of the agent; whether, for example, it should take measures to render the means of drunkenness more costly, or add to the difficulty of procuring them, by limiting the number of the places of sale. On this as on most other practical questions, many distinctions require to be made. To tax stimulants for the sole purpose of making them more difficult to be obtained, is a measure differing only in degree from their entire prohibition; and would be justifiable only if that were justifiable. "

Mill has a sensible discussion of the probems involved here in his text. I have selected this passage to have an occasion to repeat that the pleasures of drinks, drugs and sex have been so widely pursued by so many men and women in so many societies that it is very evident that, first, the best way to deal with the problems these cause is not to forbid them but to regulate them, and that, second, the best way to cause problems relating to drinks, drugs and sex is to forbid them.     Back.


[17] "The limitation in number, for instance, of beer and spirit-houses, for the express purpose of rendering them more difficult of access, and diminishing the occasions of temptation, not only exposes all to an inconvenience because there are some by whom the facility would be abused, but is suited only to a state of society in which the laboring classes are avowedly treated as children or savages, and placed under an education of restraint, to fit them for future admission to the privileges of freedom. This is not the principle on which the laboring classes are professedly governed in any free country; and no person who sets due value on freedom will give his adhesion to their being so governed, unless after all efforts have been exhausted to educate them for freedom and govern them as freemen, and it has been definitively proved that they can only be governed as children."

Yes, but there are several related problem here, that perhaps do not so much apply specifically to the qualities of "the laboring classes" as to the qualities of the adult population on average, and to the qualities of that part of the population that tends to become State bureaucrats (and for the latter see [34] and [40]).

See the Democracy Plan and the Bureaucracy Plan in my Philosophical Dictionary.     Back.


[18] "It was pointed out in an early part of this Essay, that the liberty of the individual, in things wherein the individual is alone concerned, implies a corresponding liberty in any number of individuals to regulate by mutual agreement such things as regard them jointly, and regard no persons but themselves."

Note this also covers a case of principle that is rather important, namely where the individuals come to a "mutual agreement" what does and does not "regard no persons but themselves".

Again, there is another important distinction here, namely that there may be quite a few things a person does or may do that concerns the interests of certain other persons, but these other persons - e.g. the parents, or friends, or associates - may agree that that person, or any person in that group of persons, may do various things that concern various interests of various persons in the group.     Back.


[19] "The ground for thus limiting his power of voluntarily disposing of his own lot in life, is apparent, and is very clearly seen in this extreme case. The reason for not interfering, unless for the sake of others, with a person's voluntary acts, is consideration for his liberty. His voluntary choice is evidence that what he so chooses is desirable, or at the least endurable, to him, and his good is on the whole best provided for by allowing him to take his own means of pursuing it. "

Here the fundamental argument is again that only a person himself or herself feels his or her own feelings and knows his or her own mind directly.     Back.


[20] "The principle of freedom cannot require that he should be free not to be free. It is not freedom, to be allowed to alienate his freedom. These reasons, the force of which is so conspicuous in this peculiar case, are evidently of far wider application; yet a limit is everywhere set to them by the necessities of life, which continually require, not indeed that we should resign our freedom, but that we should consent to this and the other limitation of it. The principle, however, which demands uncontrolled freedom of action in all that concerns only the agents themselves, requires that those who have become bound to one another, in things which concern no third party, should be able to release one another from the engagement:"

This is taken from a discussion of the problem whether a man should be free to sell himself into slavery.      Back.


[21] "Baron Wilhelm von Humboldt, in the excellent Essay from which I have already quoted, states it as his conviction, that engagements which involve personal relations or services, should never be legally binding beyond a limited duration of time; and that the most important of these engagements, marriage, having the peculiarity that its objects are frustrated unless the feelings of both the parties are in harmony with it, should require nothing more than the declared will of either party to dissolve it. "

Mill has a sensible discussion of this opinion of Von Humboldt, who indeed was married and had relations with other women on the side. And unlike Mill, it seems, I am one of those who hold that marriages exist especially for the interests of the children.     Back.


[22] "I have already observed that, owing to the absence of any recognized general principles, liberty is often granted where it should be withheld, as well as withheld where it should be granted; and one of the cases in which, in the modern European world, the sentiment of liberty is the strongest, is a case where, in my view, it is altogether misplaced. A person should be free to do as he likes in his own concerns; but he ought not to be free to do as he likes in acting for another under the pretext that the affairs of another are his own affairs. "

Here we have a fundamental problem, in general, and for Mill's position: "A person should be free to do as he likes in his own concerns; but he ought not to be free to do as he likes in acting for another under the pretext that the affairs of another are his own affairs."

The problem is how to tell the difference. See [3] for one answer, or part of it.     Back.


[23] "This obligation is almost entirely disregarded in the case of the family relations, a case, in its direct influence on human happiness, more important than all the others taken together. The almost despotic power of husbands over wives needs not be enlarged upon here, because nothing more is needed for the complete removal of the evil, than that wives should have the same rights, and should receive the protection of law in the same manner, as all other persons"

In Mill's time, this was not the case, and in fact in Europe women got the vote and other individual rights only in the 20th century. Incidentally: Personally I think quite a lot can be said in favour of the feminism of Mary Wollstonecraft or Emma Goldman, but hardly anything at all for that of Betty Friedan or Germaine Greer, whose feminism seems to have been a variant of ethnicism ("women come from Venus, men from Mars").     Back.


[24] "Consider, for example, the case of education. Is it not almost a self-evident axiom, that the State should require and compel the education, up to a certain standard, of every human being who is born its citizen? Yet who is there that is not afraid to recognize and assert this truth? Hardly any one indeed will deny that it is one of the most sacred duties of the parents (or, as law and usage now stand, the father), after summoning a human being into the world, to give to that being an education fitting him to perform his part well in life towards others and towards himself. But while this is unanimously declared to be the father's duty, scarcely anybody, in this country, will bear to hear of obliging him to perform it. Instead of his being required to make any exertion or sacrifice for securing education to the child, it is left to his choice to accept it or not when it is provided gratis! It still remains unrecognized, that to bring a child into existence without a fair prospect of being able, not only to provide food for its body, but instruction and training for its mind, is a moral crime, both against the unfortunate offspring and against society; and that if the parent does not fulfil this obligation, the State ought to see it fulfilled, at the charge, as far as possible, of the parent."

I agree mostly, but Mill forgets at least two things in this passage.

First, if the measures of "the State" are what keeps a considerable part of the population poor, it should not be the poor who have also to bear the cost of the children they put in the world, but "the State" itself.

Second, sex really is one of the things nearly all men and women have a very strong urge for, and again the poor will have the worst chances of getting the means to prevent pregnancy or of getting an abortion.     Back.


[25] "Were the duty of enforcing universal education once admitted, there would be an end to the difficulties about what the State should teach, and how it should teach, which now convert the subject into a mere battle-field for sects and parties, causing the time and labor which should have been spent in educating, to be wasted in quarrelling about education."

Yes, this seems fair, and in my own country there still is a battle about education which mostly centers around the issue of which religious superstitions are allowed to indoctrinate their children from a very young age in schools that teach the faith of their parents.

I think that is a grave mistake, that is also immoral: One should not impose religious upbringing on children, and certainly not in schools.     Back.


[26] "The objections which are urged with reason against State education, do not apply to the enforcement of education by the State, but to the State's taking upon itself to direct that education: which is a totally different thing. "

Yes, but I suppose many will incline towards "Who pays the piper tells the tune", and will believe that it is apt and moral if the State not only enables an education, but also its contents. Mill is right that this is neither apt nor moral. He explains why in the next selections.     Back.


[27] "That the whole or any large part of the education of the people should be in State hands, I go as far as any one in deprecating. All that has been said of the importance of individuality of character, and diversity in opinions and modes of conduct, involves, as of the same unspeakable importance, diversity of education. A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation, in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body."

Here Mill speaks of a "general State education" in the double sense that the State provides both the means for and the contents of the education.      Back.


[28] "The instrument for enforcing the law could be no other than public examinations, extending to all children, and beginning at an early age. An age might be fixed at which every child must be examined, to ascertain if he (or she) is able to read. If a child proves unable, the father, unless he has some sufficient ground of excuse, might be subjected to a moderate fine, to be worked out, if necessary, by his labor, and the child might be put to school at his expense. Once in every year the examination should be renewed, with a gradually extending range of subjects, so as to make the universal acquisition, and what is more, retention, of a certain minimum of general knowledge, virtually compulsory."

Yes, this seems a good idea, and I am one of those who is not at all happy with schools and forced schooling, as schools and teachers tend to be, nearly always and everywhere.

Especially gifted children have a great interest in learning at their own speed, directed mostly by their own desires, and it is no accident if a very great proportion of extra-ordinarily gifted people turn out to have been educated at home or privately. An ordinary school is more certain to destroy or corrupt extra-ordinary talent than to develop it.     Back.


[29] "To prevent the State from exercising through these arrangements, an improper influence over opinion, the knowledge required for passing an examination (beyond the merely instrumental parts of knowledge, such as languages and their use) should, even in the higher class of examinations, be confined to facts and positive science exclusively. The examinations on religion, politics, or other disputed topics, shouLd not turn on the truth or falsehood of opinions, but on the matter of fact that such and such an opinion is held, on such grounds, by such authors, or schools, or churches. "

Precisely - and see [25]: Children should not be schooled in the faith of their parents, but in science. When they are old enough, and have learned enough about science, history and philosophy they should choose themselves what if any faith they prefer, instead of having imposed a faith on them when they cannot properly defend themselves against it.     Back.


[30] "All attempts by the State to bias the conclusions of its citizens on disputed subjects, are evil; but it may very properly offer to ascertain and certify that a person possesses the knowledge requisite to make his conclusions, on any given subject, worth attending to. "

Again I completely agree - and religious readers should realize that all but the most fanatical religious believers must agree upon the greatest part of science, including the fact that science does not oppose any religion specifically or in principle, even though it happens to conflict with some teachings of all religions. Besides, science has at least one property all religions lack: it works its - technological - wonders also for non-believers.     Back.


[31] "The examinations, however, in the higher branches of knowledge should, I conceive, be entirely voluntary. It would be giving too dangerous a power to governments, were they allowed to exclude any one from professions, even from the profession of teacher, for alleged deficiency of qualifications:"

I take it that what Mill means here is that no one should be disqualified from an academic degree or position because he does not have a certain religious faith or is not an adherent of a certain political creed.     Back.


[32] "The fact itself, of causing the existence of a human being, is one of the most responsible actions in the range of human life. To undertake this responsibility to bestow a life which may be either a curse or a blessing unless the being on whom it is to be bestowed will have at least the ordinary chances of a desirable existence, is a crime against that being."

I tend to agree, but one must be realistic, and note that, first, the desire for sex is an extra-ordinarily strong desire, that easily disposes to irrational behavior; that, second, it is hard to be certain of such "chances" as one gets for "a desirable existence"; that, third, absolutely everybody gets conceived and born without any choice of their own in it; and that, fourth, it seems more realistic to expect that, as long as there are men and women as they have been throughout known history, they will make babies, even in extra-ordinarily difficult circumstances.     Back.


[33] "The laws which, in many countries on the Continent, forbid marriage unless the parties can show that they have the means of supporting a family, do not exceed the legitimate powers of the State: and whether such laws be expedient or not (a question mainly dependent on local circumstances and feelings), they are not objectionable as violations of liberty. "

See [24]: This may be doubted as fair for the England in which Mill lived, for it would seem as if on Mill's ruling by far the largest part of "the laboring classes" would have been denied the right to put children in the world.

The sort of measure Mill proposes seems fair only if the great majority of the population does have a fair chance for a fair income that allows them to raise children and pay for their needs.     Back.


[34] "The first is, when the thing to be done is likely to be better done by individuals than by the government. Speaking generally, there is no one so fit to conduct any business, or to determine how or by whom it shall be conducted, as those who are personally interested in it. This principle condemns the interferences, once so common, of the legislature, or the officers of government, with the ordinary processes of industry."

Indeed, and it this is one important reason to be in favour of small goverments: No good and intelligent man becomes a state bureaucrat except by necessity, and most state bureaucrats are not at all interested in the work they do, but only in the advantages of their function. If "all power corrupts", all bureaucracy dehumanizes.     Back.


[35] "The management of purely local business by the localities, and of the great enterprises of industry by the union of those who voluntarily supply the pecuniary means, is further recommended by all the advantages which have been set forth in this Essay as belonging to individuality of development, and diversity of modes of action. Government operations tend to be everywhere alike. With individuals and voluntary associations, on the contrary, there are varied experiments, and endless diversity of experience. "

This can be fairly seen as a restatement of part of [34]: "Speaking generally, there is no one so fit to conduct any business, or to determine how or by whom it shall be conducted, as those who are personally interested in it."

This is true, but there are two important reasons for state involvement in many projects, namely that individuals and small groups of individuals often lack either the money or the power to do the good they wish to do and would try to if they had more money or power.     Back.


[36] "The third, and most cogent reason for restricting the interference of government, is the great evil of adding unnecessarily to its power. Every function superadded to those already exercised by the government, causes its influence over hopes and fears to be more widely diffused, and converts, more and more, the active and ambitious part of the public into hangers-on of the government, or of some party which aims at becoming the government. If the roads, the railways, the banks, the insurance offices, the great joint-stock companies, the universities, and the public charities, were all of them branches of the government; if, in addition, the municipal corporations and local boards, with all that now devolves on them, became departments of the central administration; if the employes of all these different enterprises were appointed and paid by the government, and looked to the government for every rise in life; not all the freedom of the press and popular constitution of the legislature would make this or any other country free otherwise than in name. "

It is properly speaking an impossible and anachronistic question, but one may well ask what Mill would have thought of e.g. the England of the last quarter of the 20th Century. My guess is that he would have held that the government was far too powerful and influential.     Back.


[37] "In countries of more advanced civilization and of a more insurrectionary spirit the public, accustomed to expect everything to be done for them by the State, or at least to do nothing for themselves without asking from the State not only leave to do it, but even how it is to be done, naturally hold the State responsible for all evil which befalls them, and when the evil exceeds their amount of patience, they rise against the government and make what is called a revolution; whereupon somebody else, with or without legitimate authority from the nation, vaults into the seat, issues his orders to the bureaucracy, and everything goes on much as it did before; the bureaucracy being unchanged, and nobody else being capable of taking their place."

This corresponds fairly well to many things that happened in the 20th Century. And Mill is right in his suggestion that one of the main evils of the State is its bureaucracy. See [17].     Back.


[38] "It is not, also, to be forgotten, that the absorption of all the principal ability of the country into the governing body is fatal, sooner or later, to the mental activity and progressiveness of the body itself."

Indeed, and one can go further: Men and women of great ability should not work for the government, except in special circumstances. Good government rarely requires great mental gifts, but always require decency, fairness and character - which are qualities that are rare enough to explain in principle why good government is such a seldom occurence. ("If men were willing and capable to have a good society, they would have had it a long time.")     Back.


[39] "the sole check to these closely allied, though seemingly opposite, tendencies, the only stimulus which can keep the ability of the body itself up to a high standard, is liability to the watchful criticism of equal ability outside the body. It is indispensable, therefore, that the means should exist, independently of the government, of forming such ability, and furnishing it with the opportunities and experience necessary for a correct judgment of great practical affairs. If we would possess permanently a skilful and efficient body of functionaries above all, a body able to originate and willing to adopt improvements; if we would not have our bureaucracy degenerate into a pedantocracy, this body must not engross all the occupations which form and cultivate the faculties required for the government of mankind."

In fact, this seems to mean that Mill pleads for a sufficiency of privately educated academics with enough individuality, and hopefully also with enough social security against persecutions, to state their own ideas in public.     Back.


[40] "To determine the point at which evils, so formidable to human freedom and advancement begin, or rather at which they begin to predominate over the benefits attending the collective application of the force of society, under its recognized chiefs, for the removal of the obstacles which stand in the way of its well-being, to secure as much of the advantages of centralized power and intelligence, as can be had without turning into governmental channels too great a proportion of the general activity, is one of the most difficult and complicated questions in the art of government. It is, in a great measure, a question of detail, in which many and various considerations must be kept in view, and no absolute rule can be laid down."

Well, there is one "absolute rule" here that applies, and it was formulated by Lord Acton: "All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

And this may also be the place to articulate a relevant principle, also in connection with [34] and [35].

The main reason the State is or gets involved in many good works of many kinds is that there are no individuals or other organizations that have the money or the power to do them. And the main reason why the State should be involved in the doing of good works that are otherwise left undone is that through it, namely through its taxation, the general population is and gets involved. Here then is the principle:

Ceteris paribus, it is far better that the State provides the money so that private people or non-state organizations can do some good work that without that money will be left undone, than that State bureaucrats do the work - for most good works are blighted and corrupted when run by State bureaucrats.      Back.


[41] "A government cannot have too much of the kind of activity which does not impede, but aids and stimulates, individual exertion and development. The mischief begins when, instead of calling forth the activity and powers of individuals and bodies, it substitutes its own activity for theirs; when, instead of informing, advising, and upon occasion denouncing, it makes them work in fetters or bids them stand aside and does their work instead of them. The worth of a State, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it; and a State which postpones the interests of their mental expansion and elevation, to a little more of administrative skill or that semblance of it which practice gives, in the details of business; a State, which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes, will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished; and that the perfection of machinery to which it has sacrificed everything, will in the end avail it nothing, for want of the vital power which, in order that the machine might work more smoothly, it has preferred to banish."

Mill's "On Liberty" is and was a defense of individual liberty - and this last paragraph of it can be seen as a very perceptive glimpse of the dangers of socialist governments, and also of what the European well-fare states would bring: A modicum of happiness for the many small men in it who conformed and cooperated, but few great individuals, and very little great civilization. On the plus side, it may be noted that although science did not blossom it also wasn't murdered, and that most men were mostly free to do and say as they pleased. Finally, Mill ends like he began, in the spirit of Von Humboldt:

The grand, leading principle, towards which every argument unfolded in these pages directly converges, is the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity.
    - Wilhelm von Humboldt: Sphere and Duties of Government. (see I-1.)

     Back.

[End]