Revisiting On Liberty: Magnificent Guide in Troubling Times

By Nick Deiuliis

The year 1859 was eventful. Construction on the Suez Canal began, Darwin published The Origin of Species, John Brown raided and was subsequently executed in Harpers Ferry, Colonel Drake drilled the world’s first oil well in Pennsylvania, and Charles Dickens published A Tale of Two Cities.

Yet for classic liberals and libertarians, the year marked another significant milestone and a cause for celebration: the philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill published On Liberty.

The masterpiece was an attempt by Mill to balance the safeguarding of liberal rights with utilitarianism (the greatest good for the greatest many).

On Liberty presents a powerful case for maximum individual freedom, so long as others are not directly harmed by the individual’s actions.

Mill famously states, “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

Today the Left tramples the individual. Society desperately needs a refresh of On Liberty.

On Liberty’s Core Premises

In a democracy, how does one protect the people from a government of themselves? How does one protect the minority from the majority?

Mill recognized that in a republic or a democracy, the tyranny of the majority can deny the rights of the minority or dissenter. Individuals can easily be oppressed within a climate of collective opinion and by values that may be popular but that haven’t been critically tested.

Mill presents a simple, powerful belief. The individual is not accountable to society for actions if they concern the interests of no one else. Society is free to express its dislike for the views or actions but should not suppress the individual from expressing or acting.

Suppressing individual action cannot be justified because it would be for the individual’s supposed own good. The individual decides and chooses what’s best, and speaks freely, because freedom of speech and thought is requisite for individual freedom.

Only when the individual’s actions directly harm others is the individual justly subjected to social or legal punishment, and only if society feels such are needed for its protection. That doesn’t mean that damage to the interests of others alone justifies interference. Competitive commerce yields winners who gain and losers who suffer loss. Society or the state does not have the right to impede or interfere in such endeavors.

Louis Brandeis would famously sum up On Liberty’s core premises with: “The right to be free is the right to be left alone.”

The Key Question

Mill asks how much power society can legitimately exert over an individual. That simple question has confounded and divided for eons.

Just because a government is elected by citizens and its representatives are from the people, does not mean threat to individual liberty is absent. Political power can be used by one class to coerce another. And it doesn’t matter if the oppressor is a king or an elected president/legislature.

Mill highlights that government should not coerce the individual even when the majority agrees with government. If everyone save for the single individual were of one view, they do not have the right to suppress the opposing view/desire of the single individual any more than the single person has the right to suppress the view/desire of everyone else.

At times, society can be more oppressive to the individual than even government. And there is a potential massive societal cost to suppressing individual thought and action: the beneficial results that would’ve catalyzed, inspired, and advanced society but for the oppression are not realized.

But libertarians and classic liberals recognize some rational level of rules of conduct are needed in a stable society. Throughout history, societies debated where the best balance was to be found across a spectrum of possibility.

On Liberty in America Today

On Liberty is timely and strongly correlates to contemporary issues, as evidenced by the following critical thoughts and insights offered by Mill:

Collective feelings should never trump reason when setting the level of individual freedom and dissent in society.

Serving as a great reminder every time the radical environmental movement shrieks ‘denier’ to silence those daring to voice dissent.

The only situation where coercion of the individual (whether stopping them from doing something or compelling them to do something) is justified, whether by government or society, is to prevent direct harm to others…The individual is sovereign over themselves, in body and mind, and denying such means society oppresses.

I wonder how Mill would feel about vaccine mandates today? And interestingly, you can see both sides of the abortion debate latch on to Mill’s premise to justify and bolster their stance.

Mill sees altruism as the enemy of liberty, and that forcing others to be like you so they may better themselves is anti-liberty.

That sounds like something out of an Ayn Rand essay.

Suppressing an opinion robs not just the individual expressing it, but also society from hearing what might be truth. If the suppressed view is not true, it prevents society hearing the falsehood disproven so that society becomes more assured of truth.

Think of today’s suppression of opinion by the expert class, social media, and Anthony Fauci of gain-of-function views with Covid.

Mill uses religion as an example of why society should not suppress individual rights. Societies and its majorities can be passionate about religion. Yet religion is typically assigned at birth and by coincidence as to where and when one is born. Not because it is the religion that has been proven to be the right one.

Today’s efforts to force an official religion by the Right (requiring school prayer) or to shun certain religions by the Left (institutionalizing the mocking of Christianity) threaten liberty.

There is a big difference between thinking something is true because it has not been disproved by dissent versus thinking something is true to justify oppressing dissent to it.

When Al Gore or John Kerry speak of the need to censor climate ‘disinformation’ on social media and the web, they fail to heed Mill’s sage advice.

Sometimes society or government wrongly protects certain beliefs from critique not because they are true, but because they are deemed important.

The current battles over ‘woke’ culture are a perfect parallel to Mill in 1859.

History shows the law is used to destroy noble individuals and their noble ideas. The noble individual died, but the noble ideas lived on. We laud Socrates but his society and law put him to death for what was thought as a sound reason at the time: daring to dissent. The same is true for Jesus, who was killed by society and the system because he was different from the norm, and most everyone thought it sound judgement.

Marcus Aurelius was a great man, espousing virtue, yet he persecuted Christians who were displaying the very behavior he espoused. It made sense to the Romans but looks illogical today. Mill challenged the reader: if they think they are wiser than Marcus Aurelius to go ahead and persecute what they are convinced is wrong and that society agrees is wrong.

Unfortunately, many today feel confident enough to do so. Today, we condemn those who killed Socrates and Jesus, but we might be making the same mistakes.

Truth is often defeated by persecution, truth doesn’t always prevail, and the same truth can be killed over and over.

Consider the myriad of energy transition myths forced upon economies today: zero carbon electric vehicles, reliable wind and solar power, low-cost battery storage, etc. Reality is now helping to expose these myths and may eventually resurrect scientific fact. But in the meantime, truth is murdered over and over.

Individuals lose moral courage when society suppresses free expression and dissent, which is a huge price to pay for preserving the intellectual status quo. Free thinkers must camouflage ideas by blending them in with safer concepts.

That’s what many contemporary business leaders do when speaking on controversial issues where they disagree with the majority view. In public they speak in vague code while in private they speak bluntly and transparently. Many decline to speak at all.

Great thinkers must follow their intellect to logical conclusions, and if society wants to know all it can, it must allow all to be published and accessed.

Thus, the Left censoring on social media or the Right banning books is wrong-headed.

The worst offense for society is holding individuals with opposing views as immoral.

Sadly, today’s ideological thought police offer too many examples to list.

Society benefits from genius, but genius requires individuality and freedom. Everyone appreciates genius in art. But many disdain contemporary genius that disrupts political, economic, religious, or scientific status quo and power.

Consider how many thought-leaders today run risk of being labeled fascist or reputationally ruined the moment they dare to diverge from the majority consensus or elite ideology.

In politics, public opinion rules, not the free thinker. That often leads to mediocrity and policy paddling in wrong directions for too long.

Heed this every time you hear that ‘the science is settled’ or ‘experts agree’ when it comes to policy prescriptions.

Nonconformity requires social and institutional tolerance, and if the state blindly follows public opinion, progress is held back.

Remember when our universities served as the marketplace of ideas to nurture nonconformity and progress? Now academia rigidly worships the religion of the Left, with the ivory towers serving as the churches and the professors as the priests.

Society will reach a tipping point where diversity of thought can’t survive.

The Left’s indoctrination across education, media, and government makes diversity of thought a rare attribute of modern society.

Many consider as an injury to themselves conduct that is distasteful or hurts feelings, which then serves as justification to suppress. Moral police are used to encroach on the liberty of the individual.

Mill predicted today’s microaggressions, speech codes, and triggering found on campuses.

Using a social right to suppress an individual right is a dangerous threat to freedom and can falsely justify suppressing personal liberty.

The environmental justice movement, vaccine mandates, and disinformation censoring campaigns are examples of such dangers.

Attempts by the state to bias the views of citizens on disputed subjects are evil.

We must be living in incredibly evil times when one considers the ‘whole of government’ effort thrown at the so-called existential threat of climate change, draconian pandemic shutdowns, and open borders.

America Desperately Needs an On Liberty Redux

Mill could be contradicting in his thoughts and publications. He could be controversial and prejudiced.

But On Liberty, in totality, is a brilliant illumination on the importance of the individual to thrive. Conformity leads to decline of civilization.

Tyranny of opinion kills eccentricity, innovation, and progress.

Government should refrain from acting in arenas where the individual acting is superior. And even if individuals may not do something particularly well, it is superior to government action because the individual grows capacity and capability by doing.

Capitalism serves the individual and commerce is a social act. Thus, restriction on trade is wrong, and only a few discrete exceptions justify such restraint.

Restricting the interference of government avoids the danger of unnecessarily growing government power. Mill points out that if the roads, railways, banks, universities, and charities become effective extensions of government, even a free press and a sound constitution would be ineffective in preserving freedom.

He also worried if core businesses fell into the control of government, everyone would look to government for direction and decisions. And the ambitious would want admitted into the bureaucracy of government.

In such a situation, even the president and Congress become slaves to the bureaucracy. Which is what we see today: the modern bureaucracy’s ‘resistance’ to a combative Trump, ignoring the plain language of Congress, and puppeteering an oblivious Biden.

Toward the end of On Liberty Mill reminds us that the worth of the state in the long run is the worth of the individuals composing it. The state that suppresses the individual and makes people small-minded will yield no great accomplishments.

Perhaps it’s time that the individual once again reigns supreme in the United States of America.

Revisiting On Liberty: Magnificent Guide in Troubling Times