On Liberty - John Stuart Mill

After reading How to be a Liberal, I decided to go back to the original source material. J.S. Mill is pretty much the founder of liberalism, and people seem to love this book.

Not gonna lie, it was hard work. The language is what you'd expect from the mid-nineteenth century, with three-page paragraphs, and chapters that fill a third of the book. Sentences run on like a marathon, and take several attempts to parse correctly, while your brain gently strangles itself. Perhaps I should be trying to just immerse myself in the prose, but in my current state it was something of a battle.

Not all of the battle was with the wording, but also with the approach. The intent is to be a self-contained argument in favour of liberalism, including defenses against common counters. As such, you get to wade through a large number of answers to objections that you probably don't have, and can already see the flaws in.

I got the most value out of thinking of it in terms of an historical document. It covers no social issues, being the liberalism of rich white dudes wanting to do their thing. This is ok - this is still a step up from what went before! And, of course, Mill was in favour of equality of the sexes, even if his approach is laissez-faire. The examples are drawn from contemporary events now largely irrelevant. There's a strong Christian bias even as it pushes for freedom of religion, and even hints at maybe, possibly, not looking down too much on atheism. Knowledge of classical references is assumed.

In many ways, it reminds me of the Lions' book on early Unix. It provides excellent historical context, and helps us understand how we got to where we are today. It provides a simplified version of where we are now that can help (and sometimes hinder) understanding the current state of the world. In the end, though, its direct application to the world now is limited.

I'll now take a quick skim through the content, on a chapter-by-chapter basis....

After the introduction is a chapter on liberty of thought and discussion. Much of the chapter feels like an absolute argument in favour of free speech - Voltaire-style stuff. In light of what we've seen since, the questions of misinformation and hate speech come up. Hate speech is addressed in the next chapter - incitement to violence is not on. Misinformation is not discussed - how does a liberal society defend against those who deliberately undermine it? I guess this is only something you think about as you experience it.

The book moves on to "individuality", which is really more about extending that liberty to action. This does feel like a fight against the constraints of a Victorian society - I feel modern society is somewhat better at letting people be themselves, with a few raised eyebrows. It's also interesting to see China used as an example of uniformity, pre-revolution. Something so culturally strong that it persists well over 150 years later, after a revolution!

I wonder how Mill would approach contemporary issues. He seems to be against deliberately censuring those you disagree with, even if this is not illegal, and only applied at a social level. I feel he would be somewhat against "cancel culture", although he was not dealing with issues of equality and the more social aspects of liberalism as understood now.

There's some discussion of how variety is important in order to generate new ideas and innovate - and this variety includes variety in education level, wealth, etc. Effectively, Mill is arguing for inequality at this point. I feel this is well-refuted now: By giving opportunity to a wider set of people, they will have the ability to contribute and innovate in areas that they otherwise would not. The world is rich enough, and people varied enough, that offering everyone the same opportunities doesn't lead to uniformity, it leads to diversity as people specialise and follow their personal dreams. Equality, done correctly, does not lead to uniformity, but is liberating.

The following chapter is about the limits to society's authority over people. He defends Mormonism on a liberal basis, even if he's not a fan. He deems their polygamy acceptable, as long as people are able to leave Mormon society, so that they're freely choosing to partake in it or not, despite the obvious sexism involved. This seems a weakness. Despite spending much of the book talking about the legal and social aspects of limiting individuality, there's little acknowledgement that leaving a social group you've spent your entire life in, where all your family are, is not easy. Avoiding polygamy by giving up all you've ever known is not a reasonable trade - so is polygamy acceptable after all? In modern times, the question of FGM is a similar topic - so much social pressure means that even if it were optional in some societies, it may not be in practice. I don't think liberalism need accept things so loaded with social pressure.

Following up on the issue of disinformation, towards the end of the chapter is the idea that a liberal society that falls to barbarism is already weak, and that liberalism needs no defense against barbarism. The rise of fascism and communism in the early 20th century, and contemporary nationalism and disinformation hints that... maybe liberalism is almost permanently weak?! The idea that liberalism is naturally robust is... speculation, and poor speculation at that. Surely a politics that expresses little certainty, that encourages variety, and is fundamentally honest and optimistic, is a ripe target for disinformation and abuse, unless deliberately defended? Liberalism needs an immune system. It must not assist in its own disassembly.

Finally, there are some applications. They're an interesting insight into the contemporary issues of the mid-nineteenth century. A lot of Mill's opinion could be described as "go for it!". There's an assumption that people are good judges of risk, and can make rational decisions. This is... clearly not true. Classical liberalism is Unix. You asked for it, you got it. Sorry you lost everything (not sorry). I believe the modern liberal approach is safety catches. If someone, clearly and rationally-enough wants to do something stupid and dangerous that doesn't hurt others... I guess that's ok, but there should be a few hoops to jump through first.

In a similar vein, Mill thinks it's acceptable to sell poisons like arsenic, as long as a register is kept of sales, since there are non-murderous uses. I find this interesting because of the degree of externalities involved - being murdered is a huge constraint on your liberty, so limiting the supply of arsenic, even given the inconvenience on non-murderers, no longer seems like an unreasonable trade-off. I imagine Mill would have been in favour of US-style gun laws, despite them looking distinctly sub-optimal now, at least from this side of the Atlantic.

Mill also decides that people should not be able to sell themselves into slavery. They are not at liberty to give up their own liberty. I think a further implication is that suicide should not be legal - as this is another form of giving up one's liberty to act - but I find it most interesting that the subject is not raised. I don't know if this is because it's too tough for a mid-Victorian book to handle (after all, it tries to steer clear of atheism as much as possible), or just because Mill hasn't been thinking about these cases.

My suspicions lie with the former. There's a strange irony that a book that deals with being free to say whatever you like, in order to sell its own thesis, cannot itself be fully candid.

As I say, reading this was hard work. There were parts that were interesting and thought-provoking, but mostly because their simplicity revealed the complexity of the modern world. To some degree, I begrudge the time I spent reading it. Maybe I get to look a little more erudite for having done so? Probably not.

Posted 2021-07-13.