Liberty champion’s birthday

John Stuart Mill was born on May 20th, 1806. Although he engaged in many subjects, it is his 1859 essay “On Liberty” that is regarded as the foundation text for all who espouse individual freedom. In that essay Mill justifies the right of individuals to make their own decisions, rather than have these imposed by state power, or social control, or be subject to the will of the majority. The individual, in Mill’s view, must be allowed to be different.

Mill does not base this on any concept of natural or pre-determined rights, but on the favourable outcomes this produces. He justifies liberty on the basis of its consequences, rather than trying to establish it from first principles. Free speech and debate is necessary if we are to achieve the desirable goals of intellectual and social progress. If we silence some opinions, we might be shutting down ones that contain an element of truth. Whereas if we allow free debate, we reinforce our beliefs by having them tested and strengthened. No-platformers should take note.

Mill is adamant that the only justification for exercising power over people is to prevent harm being done to others, and he makes it clear that he means actual violence or the serious risk of it. Causing offence is not enough, upsetting though some may find it. Snowflakes should take note.

There is no justification for interfering with people’s free choices in order to protect them from harming themselves, says Mill. We can advise them about risks, but the choice is theirs if they wish to accept those risks. We can post a sign warning about a rickety bridge, but if people wish to cross it, we have no basis for preventing them from doing so. People gain more from making their own decisions than they do from being made to do what others think is wise. Nanny staters should take note.

Mill stresses the gain we have by allowing divergent practices. We can learn from those that are successful, and learn to avoid those that are not. Why are the European nations so successful, he asks? It comes from “their remarkable diversity of character and culture. Individuals, classes, nations, have been extremely unlike each other: they have struck out a great variety of paths, each leading to something valuable.” Their strength is in their variety, not their uniformity. He observes that “Europe is, in my judgement, wholly indebted to this plurality of paths for its progressive and many-sided development.” European Unionists should take note.

It is part of Mill’s success that freedom has been so highly thought of that when people wish to restrict it in order to achieve other goals, they dress up those other goals in liberty’s language by calling them “real freedom,” or “true freedom.” The truth is that they are not freedom at all. Freedom means making your own decisions about your life and your actions, unrestricted by the arbitrary power of other persons. So long as you do not impose or risk physical harm to others, freedom means that you should be allowed to behave as you wish.