Wrapping up “On Liberty”

The last chapter of On Liberty discusses how the principles of the first four might be put into action, looking at subjects that put the maxims of personal sovereignty and public responsibility in tension. He looks at the regulation of economic activity, whether people should be permitted to run prostitution and gambling businesses, and the government’s power in relation to families. The reader can really see Mill’s utilitarianism at work in his argument that government has the power to require education (though he does not want public education to predominate) and the ability to support children before allowing marriage, and his bewilderment that anyone would object to these assertions. Traditional conceptions of the rights of a family do not mean much to him. He even writes that “in a country either over-peopled or threatened with being so, to produce children, beyond a very small number, with the effect of reducing the reward of labor by their competition, is a serious offence against all who live by the remuneration of their labor.” This fits into the pattern in On Liberty where rights are defended based on the good consequences of protecting them rather than their divine or secular basis.

Mill ends with some observations about why limits on the authority of government are important, even in areas where liberty is not menaced. His argument against increasing the power of government where it is not needed, which ends the essay, is quite good.

This chapter will probably be easier to discuss in the comments if you have read it, so I’ll end my series on this work here.



  1. Well said, Scott.

    Mandating education didn’t surprise me but requiring a license to have children did. Mill says that fornication must be tolerated but marriage may be contingent upon demonstrating the ability to support children? That strikes me as inconsistent and perhaps a seed for our modern issues.

    That part you quote also nicely encapsulates the common flaw of consequentialist reasoning: it is necessarily simplistic and unable predict all the consequences. Ironically, that’s actually an argument for liberty, but, as you say, Mill assumes the outcomes are obvious.

    As applied to this case, Mill was apparently unable to predict the tendency for population growth to naturally decline in advanced societies. Also, Mill’s economics are oddly and simplistically zero-sum, so he’s given to thinking that there are only a fixed number of jobs to go around as the population grows.

    Of course, Mill made a bunch of good points, too. If education is to be mandated, his parameters for testing basic skills and avoiding state control and propaganda sounds good.

    Mill also does a good job exposing the bureaucracy which tenaciously survives transformations in government. And his glowing description of Americans being able to improvise government and never letting bureaucracy control them made me feel kind of proud and sadly nostalgic, though this would be pre-Civil War, I guess.

    Mill seems to desire federalism, but his concept of central control is somewhat vague and contradictory to me. Nevertheless, his basic premise that the State’s job is primarily to require and share information and advice between localities is compelling.

    Sorry I was so far behind you in finishing this up! Mill’s style was a struggle at times, but all in all, On Liberty was a good read that gave me greater understanding of the path that liberalism took and the tendencies and exceptions to liberty that are still maintained. Thanks for suggesting it, Scott!

  2. I enjoyed discussing it too, even though it was ponderous.

    You wrote: “Mandating education didn’t surprise me but requiring a license to have children did. Mill says that fornication must be tolerated but marriage may be contingent upon demonstrating the ability to support children? That strikes me as inconsistent and perhaps a seed for our modern issues.”

    Provocative point!

    Thanks for the Volokh links. I am looking forward to reading them soon and commenting back here on them.

  3. I enjoyed the Volokh links. I think that something from Jacob Levy’s post (http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2013/07/bleeding-heart-kansas/) pointed to the complicated legacy of racism, efforts to address it, and the Civil War:

    Freedom of private association is important. As southern apartheid finally came under belated assault by the federal judiciary and Congress, it became a veil to get thrown over Jim Crow institutions that had been created and upheld by affirmative state power as well as by officially sanctioned terrorist violence for decades. ”The 14th Amendment prohibits racial discrimination in public schools? Oh, look, no public schools around here any more; we just switched to a system of private academies in the same buildings and employing the same teachers and receiving the same taxpayer funding…” By the end, breaking the apartheid system required overriding the normal freedom of private association. The entanglement of state racial power and private racial power had gone on for too long and been engineered too deliberately for equality before the law to coexist with the normal extent of that freedom.

  4. I agree, and that succinct part stood out to me, too, though I’d challenge him on a couple of points:

    “Overriding the normal freedom of private association” was the most expedient way of “breaking the apartheid system”, but I question whether it was “required”.

    The problem, is I don’t know how long it would take social pressures, migration, competition, etc. to shift behavior. But that is generally the problem with liberty: it provides few guarantees, making it hard to suffer through the short-term, even though the results are better long-term.

    “… and receiving the same taxpayer funding” struck me as the main problem: the government shouldn’t be able to pay a private party to do what it itself is not permitted to do. So, it’s not clear to me that attacking the freedom of private association was necessary.

  5. Right, the opportunity cost is rarely examined. What might have been without the interventions as they happened?

    I actually meant by quoting that to show that interventions can lead to attack on freedom of private association. So we were actually coming at it from the same direction. 🙂

    I imagine you saw this post on Popehat, but it shows some of the issues raised:

    I liked the approach that you took in the last part, that a more surgical strike against state-sponsored racism was possible.

  6. Ah, thanks for explaining, I’m glad we agree. 🙂

    I’ve been hit and miss with my feed reading, so thanks for pointing out that Popehat post. I missed it.

    I agree with Ken: as a matter of consistent moral principle, people should have the freedom to discriminate on any issue. Society will take care of shaming and voluntary boycotts.

    Of course, legally, religion has been given special exemptions, so discrimination against gay marriage might be supported on those grounds. Now, I think it’s also inconsistent to give religion this preference, since religion is really whatever we say it is, but we stake out liberty where we can.

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