On Liberty - Common Book Roundup 1

This year marks the sesquicentennial of the publication of John Stuart Mill's most notable work.  We're reading the rather prescient book 150 years later as the first in our LIB Common Book Project.

After the break, Steve S and Brad V chat about the first chapter and its continuing relevance to the contemporary American political landscape.  Please feel free to join the conversation in the comments.

Steve S: So, we've been reading On Liberty for about a week now, and I've been struck with how very single-minded a work it is. It's a small book as it is, but the thesis is so central, and so focused, that it could probably be only half that length, and still say really the same thing. But I think its single-mindedness helps; certainly, it helped crystallize for me a budding libertarianism when I read it in college. The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs or impede their efforts to obtain it. -- this was that aha moment for me.

A question for you all: Mill describes governments, on page one, thus: The rulers were conceived... as in a necessarily antagonistic position to the people whom they ruled... To prevent the weaker members of the community from being preyed upon by innumerable vultures, it was needful that there should be an animal of prey stronger than the rest, commissioned to keep them down. Does government regulation of, for example, health get us back to the point that Mill describes as pre-liberty? Does a smoking ban set the government as ur-vulture? Does a carbon tax make the government necessarily antagonistic to its own people?

Brad V: Well, I think there's a key distinction in that authority in the "pre-liberty" paradigm was wholly unelected.  A king of vultures was necessary to keep the other vultures at bay, sure.  But the king of vultures would eat a wounded cub, too, even while protecting the carcass from the other vultures. There wasn't even a facade, outside of Athens and the few republics in the history book pages, of popular sovereignty.  So the question of whether the American federal government today still fits Mill's bill is at least tempered by the fact that we now choose the "animal of prey stronger than the rest," as Mill himself notes.

That's why I think your image of the "ur-Vulture," Steve, is rather appropriate.  The federal government today isn't a straight up stronger animal of prey, not a king of vultures, in the sense that it is not an unelected monarchical sovereign.  But it is, in many ways, an entity grown far beyond the limited government of enumerated powers conceived by the Framers.  And, while it has permitted greater liberty in some ways, its growth has done just what Mill's "minor harpies" did - infringe upon the lives and liberties of individuals.  This was no king of vultures, but because it was elected, it just kept growing larger and larger, unchallenged, acting like the petty vultures we have always sought to stop, and attaining, at the same time, the potency of the original king of vultures through its expansive commerce clause, its expanded taxation powers, its entitlement programs, its FED and its czars.

As to the specific policies you reference, I think Mill's distilled conception of liberty is increasingly endangered in the modern era by society's emphasis on viewing systems, harms, and individual goals as completely interrelated parts of a global whole.  Today, we are seen, at every step, to be depriving and impeding others, it seems.  Everything is viewed in collective terms.  Perhaps that's an unavoidable development along Malthusian lines, but I think the deplorable 1942 Supreme Court case of Wickard v. Filburn (where the court barred a farmer from using wheat he'd grown on his land for his own private consumption because it would impact national prices) illustrates that much of the modern problem lies in how government frames issues, how it makes it appear as though it's abiding by Mill's maxim you quoted above in a given situation where liberty is at stake.

The ur-vulture, these days, is rarely trying to protect us from vultures.

Steve S: I like your point about the power of the modern elected legislature, Brad. And there's this from Mill, that I think relates to our point about the increasingly-popular czars: Let the rulers be effectually responsible to [the will of the people], promptly removable by it, and it could afford to trust them with power of which it could itself dictate the use to be made. But with the increasing use of bureaucrats to manage an ever-growing list of things the President feels he must meddle in, I wonder if that accountability to the people is even there any more.

Brad V:  True enough, Steve - I'm wondering the same.  And while Mill is a decent prophet, I wonder if he ever conceived of the full, tremendous technological and regulatory power that modern government would bring to bear over individuals.  He certainly emphasizes a crucial distinction in the first chapter of the book - the separate coercive powers of law and opinion, the latter concept seemingly referring to general social mores and standards.  I think government today has largely given up on the force of opinion and retreated increasingly to law to solve what it perceives as problems - that applies equally, I think, to the socially conservative Right in American politics, as well as the progressively altruistic Left.

I also wanted to touch on one key clarification of Mill's statement that "the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized commmunity, against his will, is to prevent harm to others."  Now that, on its face, would seem to give a foundation to policies like smoking bans in bars.  But, importantly, Mill notes that even some activities that affect others are outside the sphere of societal restraint if those activities affect others "with their free, voluntary, and undeceived consent and participation" - e.g., stepping into a bar or choosing to work in one.