Robert Nisbet’s critique of John Stuart Mill

In The Quest for Community, Robert Nisbet argues that the modern state and modern political and economic thought have consistently assaulted smaller-scale social groups and institutions — the family, religious groups, local communities, labor associations — that can mediate between the state and the individual, often in the name of freeing the individual from the limits imposed by these groups. Yet these assaults have resulted in the increasing power of the modern state, which itself tries to fulfill the sense of belonging that these smaller associations provided.

Nisbet also writes that while modern liberal thought treats individuals as autonomous, modern liberals did not realize that much of what they took for granted about individual motivation and behavior was taught by the groups that people belonged to, rather simply existing in the individual. Here is his commentary on John Stuart Mill:

By almost all of the English liberals of the nineteenth century, freedom was conceived not merely in terms of immunities from the powers political government but, more significantly, in terms of the necessity of man’s release from custom, tradition, and from local groups of every kind. Freedom was held to lie in emancipation from association, not within association.

Thus in what is perhaps the noblest of individualistic testaments of freedom in the nineteenth century, John Stuart Mill’s essay On Liberty, there is the clear implication that membership in any kind of association or community represents an unfortunate limitation upon the creative powers of the individual. It is not Mill’s definition of individuality that is at fault. This is matchless. The fault lies rather in his psychological and sociological conception of the conditions necessary to the development of individuality.

Mill is generous in his praise of localism, association, and the “smaller patriotisms” when he is discussing administrative problems of centralization. But in matters pertaining to the nature of man and motivations he is too much the child of his father. For him as for the elder Mill, individuality is something derived from innate qualities alone and nourished solely by processes of separation and release. (page 211 in the 2010 ISI edition)


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