How John Stewart Mill twisted the idea of liberty

Mistaken On Liberty

The False Logic of John Stewart Mill

By Gwydion M. Williams

John Stewart Mill is celebrated for writing ‘one of the founding texts of liberalism and one of the most important treatises ever written on the concept of liberty.’ [A]  If he were viewed just as a good man for his times, I’d say fine.  But we’re nowadays told that his ideas have been vindicated and those of Marx discredited.  This despite the very limited spread of liberalism beyond its home base in Mill’s day, whereas Marx’s ideas have transformed whole societies and given them a pattern for modern living.

On Liberty comes across as very plausible.  Familiar values apparently derive from deep underlying principles, much as Plato and his pupils used epicycles to reassure everyone that the Earth was the centre of the universe.  Everyone who took an interest knew that the planet Venus is a morning star and evening star and never a ‘midnight star’.  This was a tremendous clue that Venus was actually orbiting the sun.  Ancient Greeks like Aristarchus of Samos did indeed work this out, though their developed arguments are lost to us.  All we know is that Plato’s neat reassuring ideas were much more popular, though it needed a ludicrous set of coincidences for Venus to stay close to the sun while actually orbiting independently of it. [D]

Aristotle could have discovered that objects in motion continue in motion, just by asking his Macedonian pupils what happened when your horse stopped suddenly. But he preferred to elaborate nonsense, gloss over whatever sounded wrong to him.  And Mill was a thinker in the same tradition.

The British Victorian middle class was certain that it was the centre of the moral universe, just as Plato and his followers were sure the Earth was central physically.  This class saw itself as the ‘end of history’, the culmination of humanity’s long rise.  They were actually blundering wastrels who threw away the unique heritage of Britain’s Georgian era.  Neglected science in favour of snobbery.  Neglected industry in favour of country houses with a wasteful mass of servants, a taste copied by those below them in the social hierarchy.  To be middle class in those days meant to have at least one servant, and the biggest wasters were the most admired.

Victorians didn’t even do much for the Empire, despite all the ballyhoo they made about it.  Almost all of the useful possessions were already secured when the teenage Victoria came to the throne.[E]  The chance to grab California was neglected in the decades before the USA stole it from Mexico.  The vigorous heretical Christianity of the Taiping in China was viewed as a minor threat to trade, not a tremendous opportunity to re-mould China along Western lines.

Mill used a rigged definition of liberty that justified the selfish lives of the middle class in a Britain.  The richest country in the world, in his day.  But also a place where poverty and squalor shocked many visiting foreigners.


“The principle is this: The only end for which people are entitled, individually or collectively, to interfere with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection. 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

“The person’s own good, whether physical or moral, is not a sufficient ground for interference with his conduct. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do something or not to do something because it would be better for him to do so, because it would make him happier, because in the opinions of others it would be wise, or would be right. These are good reasons for protesting to him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or begging him, but not for compelling him or giving him a hard time if he acts otherwise. To justify that – i.e. to justify compulsion or punishment – the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be likely to bring harm to someone else. The only part of anyone’s conduct for which he is answerable to society is the part that concerns others. In the part that concerns himself alone he is entitled to absolute independence. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign”  [B]

This famous principle is immediately qualified to make it adults-only:

“I hardly need say that this doctrine is meant to apply only to human beings when they have reached the age of maturity. We are not speaking of children, or of young persons below the age that the law fixes as that of manhood or womanhood. Those who still require being taken care of by others must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury.”

A few sentences later, Mill further qualifies his apparent philosophical absolute, making it clear that he did not suppose that his ideal liberal order could condense spontaneously out of a mass of wandering primitives, in the way Rousseau had supposed.  Mill was in many ways a typical Englishman, well aware that the state had been a key factor since at least the days of Alfred the Great.  Unlike most Britons, he was willing to agree that the same should apply to foreigners:

“Despotism is a legitimate form of government in dealing with barbarians, provided that it aims at improving things and it uses means that actually do bring improvement. Liberty, as a principle, doesn’t apply to any state of affairs prior to the time when mankind become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then, there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate as to find one – i.e. to find a despot so wise. But in all nations with which we need to concern ourselves here, the people long ago became able to be guided to self-improvement by conviction or persuasion; and once that stage has been reached, compulsion is no longer admissible as a means to their own good”.

He doesn’t say how long ago.  A lot of his audience would have regarded Cromwell as a wise despot, and some of them would have said the same of Napoleon.  I don’t think Lenin, Stalin or Mao ever quoted Mill: they stuck to Lenin’s pretence that a despotism with progressive aims was actually a spontaneous popular government.  If they had looked to Mill and justified it as a stage to something else, Leninism might have had the same general benefits with rather less cost.

But a stage to what?  By 1917, things had gone far beyond the world Mill was protesting against. Britain in 1859 was not yet a democracy.  Only in 1884 did a majority of adult males get the vote.  No women till 1918, and not equal to men till 1928.  White colonies were made self-governing, but the vast non-white population of the British Empire was kept subordinate.

Mill wanted to extend the vote and other rights to women, but he was quite comfortable with the situation as it was:

“In politics it almost goes without saying that public opinion now rules the world. The only power that deserves the name is that of masses, and of governments when they act out the tendencies and instincts of the masses. This is as true in the moral and social relations of private life as in public transactions. Those whose opinions go by the name of ‘public opinion’ are not the same sort of public in every country: in America they are the whole white population, in England chiefly the middle class. But they are always a mass, that is to say, collective mediocrity”.  (On Liberty).

“We have a warning example in China – a nation of much talent, and even much wisdom in some respects. This is due to China’s rare good fortune in having been provided at an early period with a particularly good set of customs that were partly the work of men to whom even the most enlightened European must grant the title of sages and philosophers (with certain limitations). The Chinese are remarkable, too, in the excellence of their apparatus for implanting (as far as possible) the best wisdom they have in every mind in the community, and seeing to it that those who have acquired the most of that wisdom occupy the positions of honour and power. Surely – you might think – the people who did this have discovered the secret of human progressiveness, and must have kept themselves steadily at the head of the movement of the world. On the contrary, they have become stationary – have remained so for thousands of years – and if they are ever to be further improved it must be by foreigners.”  (Ibid.)

China had actually invented printing, paper, gunpowder and the magnetic compass. Europe’s global expansion and industrialisation would have been slower or perhaps impossible, without various inventions that the Chinese devised after the stabilisation of their politics under the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD.)  Mill also gives no reason why China needed to be changed by foreigners, rather than Chinese inspired by the West’s example.  Or left alone, as Kant had suggested.  19th century Chinese and Japanese who got a good look at the West mostly decided that what they had was better.  It was only fear of conquest that forced change.

In China, the Westernised Nationalists tried to implement Mill’s notion of modernisation by an enlightened despot.  Sun Yat Sen drew up a very sensible program for gradual transition under an enlightened despot, once he saw that and immediate leap to parliamentary democracy had not worked.  (Votes are often sold, but only in the first few years of China’s republican parliament were the prices openly quoted.)  Sun’s scheme might have worked, but he left no competent successor.  Chiang Kai-Shek was assuredly a despot, but not enlightened and not good at anything except hanging onto power.

Four decades of Westernised Nationalism, more than half of with Chiang as ‘Generalissimo’, produced no overall improvement. China was just as poor when he fled as it has been when he came to power.  Only under Mao did China grow, and seriously uproot the reassuring but stifling Confucian customs that the ancient Han Dynasty had imposed.

Mill mentions China as a warning to Europe, a society where public opinion had stabilised the social order.

“Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first feared primarily as something that would operate through the acts of the public authorities, and this is how the man in the street still sees it. But thoughtful people saw that society itself can be the tyrant – society collectively tyrannizing over individuals within it – and that this kind of tyranny isn’t restricted to what society can do through the acts of its political government.”  (Ibid.)

In Mill’s own case, he was dealing with a society in which the vast majority took Christianity very seriously and saw it as a truth they could and should impose on others.  Mill himself viewed Christianity as just another thread in history’s tapestry:

“To speak only of religious opinions: the Reformation broke out at least twenty times before Luther, and was put down… In Spain, Italy, Flanders, the Austrian empire, Protestantism was rooted out; and it would probably have been rooted out in England too if Queen Mary had lived longer or Queen Elizabeth had died sooner. Persecution has always succeeded except where the heretics were too strong a party to be effectively persecuted. No reasonable person can doubt that Christianity could have been wiped out in the Roman empire. It spread and became predominant because the persecutions were intermittent, lasting for only a short time and separated by long intervals of almost undisturbed Christian propagandizing.”  (Ibid.)


For Mill, society was a crowd of individuals who should be left alone for as long as they respected the liberties of others:

“The maxims are, first, that the individual is not accountable to society for his actions, in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself. Advice, instruction, persuasion, and avoidance by other people, if thought necessary by them for their own good, are the only measures by which society can justifiably express its dislike or disapprobation of his conduct. Secondly, that for such actions as are prejudicial to the interests of others, the individual is accountable, and may be subjected either to social or to legal punishments, if society is of opinion that the one or the other is requisite for its protection..”  (Ibid.)

By this logic, all illegal drugs should be freely available to adults, including heroin.  Which rather overlooks the reason why they were banned in the first place.  People who in the beginning had freely decided to use drugs found later that they were destroying themselves and not able to stop.  They formed the opinion that others should be prevented from making the same error.

Mill’s principles would not, however, suggest that there was any right to own firearms.  If my neighbour is slowly killing themselves with drugs, I am supposed to be indifferent.  One would think a man or woman subhuman if they were really indifferent to a neighbour slowly killing themselves with drugs, but this is the idea that Mill chooses to uphold, at least in the abstract.  But if my neighbour shoots me, my liberty has clearly been infringed.  Likewise if I am intimidated by their possession of firearms – and this will apply even if I am equally well-armed, supposing that I am sane enough to prefer to yield some of my rights than get into a gun-fight.  Nor is their any guarantee that I won’t be shot at random by someone who doesn’t know me, if firearms are widespread.  I don’t know if Mill ever commented on the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution: it was probably not such a big issue in his time.  But his stated principles would suggest that it was no inherent right to have mass killing-power.[F]

Mill’s habit of logical thinking might also have led him to propose that the gun-sanctifying Second Amendment be repealed, rather than interpreted in a surreal way to deny the citizens of some US states a right that the constitution does clearly give them.  As I read the Second Amendment, US citizens have a clear right to equip themselves with machine-guns, battle-tanks, surface-to-air missiles and atomic bombs.  If this seems a bad idea, the sensible answer is to change the constitution, as was done with slavery.  Not for judges to set up ludicrously false readings of a venerable old document, as was also done with slavery and has been done by US courts almost from the beginning of the state.

Mill was also ready to let the state interfere with people’s right to have children, if this seemed expedient:

“In a country that is over-populated or threatened with being so, to produce more than a very small number of children is a serious offence against all who live by the pay they get for their work, because every new child threatens wage-levels by adding to the competition for work. The laws which in many countries on the European continent forbid marriage unless the parties can show that they have the means of supporting a family don’t exceed the legitimate powers of the state: and whether such laws really are advisable (which mainly depends on local circumstances and feelings), they are not objectionable as violations of liberty.”  (Ibid.)

China’s controversial one-child policy turns out to be in line with the principles of John Stuart Mill.  It is of course better if populations can be limited voluntarily.  But necessary that they be limited somehow. [G]


Mill does not extend his own principle to economics, in the way the modern Libertarians do.  A factory that produces goods cheaper and better than dozens of independent craftsmen cannot be considered to be engaging in some deplorably yet permissible ‘private vice’: the matter is public.

“Again, trade is a social act. Someone who undertakes to sell goods of any kind to the public is doing something that affects the interests of other people and of society in general; and so his conduct does in principle come within the jurisdiction of society; which is why it used to be thought the duty of governments, in all cases that were thought important, to fix prices and regulate the processes of manufacture. But it is now recognized, though only after a long struggle, that the best way to get good products at low prices is to leave the producers and sellers perfectly free, as long as the buyers are free to get their supplies from elsewhere. This is the so-called doctrine of Free Trade. The case for it is different from the case for the principle of individual liberty defended here, but it is just as solid. Restrictions on trade, or on production for purposes of trade, are indeed restraints; and restraint as such is always bad; but the restraints on trade that are in question here affect only that part of conduct that society is in principle entitled to restrain, and they are wrong purely because they don’t really produce the results they are meant to produce.”  (Ibid.)

I haven’t read what Mill wrote about Political Economy: even his admirers mostly agree that he had nothing new to say on the matter.  What he believed was based on doctrine, not history—a doctrine I’ve already studied in detail in the work of Adam Smith.  The British economy industrialised itself behind strong tariff barriers, which were only lowered after Britain had a powerful manufacturing base that could produce much cheaper goods than the older industrial centres.  In the decades after 1859, both the USA and Germany used tariff barriers to create their own industrialisation. Germany had begun to overtake Britain in 1914.  The USA used the two British-German wars as a means to give itself global hegemony, and only then started arguing for ‘Free Trade’ – which however does not include freedom for foreigners to take over industries that the USA cares about!

Japan caught up with the USA under a system of regulations and tariffs. China is the world’s fastest growing economy under a systems of state interference, tariffs and a currency that can’t be converted. China has an extreme form of the ‘Crony Capitalism’ that the West loudly denounced in the Asia Tigers after their economies were wrecked by Western speculators. China now ignores Western advice.  The nations of the former Soviet Bloc opened themselves up to Free Trade and Deregulation, and suffered an astonishing economic shrinkage in the 1990s.

Mill is factually wrong on a lot of matters, but he is honest and interesting in a way that none of the New Right ever are.  Talking about equality for women at a time when this was very controversial, he also makes an interesting general point:

“Any sentiment of freedom which can exist in a man whose nearest and dearest intimacies, are with those of whom he is absolute master, is not the genuine or Christian love of freedom, but, what the love of freedom generally was in the ancients and in the middle ages—an intense feeling of the dignity and importance of his own personality; making him disdain a yoke for himself, of which he has no abhorrence whatever in the abstract, but which he is abundantly ready to impose on others for his own interest or glorification.”  [C]

I’d say that “an intense feeling of the dignity and importance of his own personality” is the core of the New Right idea of freedom.  Also the Classical Greek and Roman idea of freedom, which is why they could be slave-owning conquerors and also lovers of freedom.  Very much the same thing was behind the Confederate States of America: Give Me Liberty And Give Me Slaves.  Mill indeed was clear on the point, even over-the-top, denouncing the Confederates as ‘ enemies of mankind’.[H]  Not a remark that gets quoted a lot nowadays: nostalgia for the Confederate abomination has provided the voting-fodder for the New Right in the USA, and effectively stalled Civil Rights.  ‘Dixie Liberty’, freedom for us and slavery for others, is an old and valid idea of freedom.  The ideal of most Classical Greeks and of Republican Rome.  An idea of freedom that I am happy to set myself against.

I haven’t said much here about what I am for.  Briefly, I’d say that freedom is only every about areas of freedom.  Critics of liberalism can always score cheap points by noting that it cannot offer unlimited freedom.  They overlook the other side of the case: that Britain and the USA have extended areas of freedom that are much wider at a personal level than most of the world. France has maybe done more: France wanted to make everyone else ‘Free & French’, while Britain was happy to support tyranny just so long as Britons were not slaves.

It is definitely an advantage to be a white male with a secure income, and this was much more true 100 years ago.  But life in one or other of the liberal societies has advantages for anyone who was born here or can get in.

I am not a knocker of John Stuart Mill.  If it’s wrong to credit everything to dead white males, it is also wrong to deny them credit where credit is due.  Mill’s influence within the Anglosphere has been positive and some of his principles can be used to sleight the doctrines of the New Right.  He even had some interesting things to say about socialism, which he discussed intelligently in some of his last writings.  But these topics are large matters in themselves: I’ll deal with them in a future article.


[A] []

[B] On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill, 1859.

[C] The Subjection of Women, by John Stuart Mill.  This and other texts can be found at []

[D] Plato sets out a basic geocentric model in his Republic.  His pupil Eudoxus of Cnidus is believed to have elaborated it as a system of a set of nested concentric spheres, though Eudoxus’s works are lost.  You can find an animation of the developed Ptolemaic version at []

[E] Victoria was just 18 when she came to the throne.  Since she reigned for more than 63 years, it is her older image that dominates.

[F] I originally wrote this just before the Virginia Tech massacre – which was just one in a long chain of such events.

[G] China’s one-child policy is reckoned to have worked quite well, see [[]]

[H] The Contest in America – an essay downloadable at []

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