The Magazine

Mill of the Gods

He knew that the best people know what's best for you.

Jun 15, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 37 • By BARTON SWAIM
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For the liberal, using that term in the American sense, political freedom isn't freedom from governmental coercion but freedom from moral and social convention.

It is the obliteration of everything that stands in the way of personal fulfillment, and if that means forcing people to countenance what they abhor, or outlawing practices that are second nature to them-then so be it. That is the notion of freedom entertained by at least a third of American citizens, and the great majority of Europeans. John Stuart Mill did not invent this view, but he did more than any other writer to lodge it in the minds of educated people as the only possible way to understand political freedom.

Everybody knows the story of Mill's precociousness-how, coached by his father, James Mill, he began learning Greek at age three; how he read Hume and Gibbon at four; Xenophon, Lucian, and Plato at eight; Aristotle, Sophocles, Euripides, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, and Cicero at 12. But the key moment in Mill's early development happened at age 15 when he read Jeremy Bentham for the first time. He fell into a sort of intellectual hallucination.

"The feeling rushed upon me," he recalled in his Autobiography, "that all previous moralists were superseded and here indeed was the commencement of a new era in thought. .  .  . The 'principle of utility'"-the principle that all laws and moral precepts should provide for the greatest happiness of the greatest number-"gave unity to my conception of things. I now had opinions; a creed, a doctrine, a philosophy; .  .  . a religion."

Within a few years, to his credit, Mill came to see the moral vacuity of Bentham's "principle of utility." But that feeling of superiority encouraged by seductive ideologies marked his outlook permanently. Mill was a god in his own eyes; those of whose ideas he disapproved, barely human. Robert Peel, the great prime minister, was a "third-rate man." Of David Hume he could write that "regard for the truth formed no part of his character." Macaulay-for whom Mill reserved a special hatred-was "an intellectual dwarf." It is entirely appropriate that Mill is known today for calling the Conservative party "the stupid party"-or more correctly, "the stupidest party" (the remark appears in a footnote in Considerations on Representative Government). He was never able to accept the possibility that opinions differing from his own were anything but the result of imbecility.

Mill is often thought of as a dry, lifelessly rational creature. But although he seems to have been personally a bore, his prose is not dry at all but splendidly incisive and often sizzling with indignation. Nor is he the strictly logical writer one might expect-or prefer. Taken as a whole, his writings contain cogent analysis, inconsistencies, and spectacularly bad arguments in more or less equal measure.

The fact that, for generations, he has been quoted as an authority by both libertarians and socialists is itself an indication that his writings lack the level of congruence one expects in a writer lauded as a great political philosopher. Some of his more remarkable inconsistencies may be excused on the grounds that he changed his mind over time; we all do. In other instances, however, opinions intrinsically opposed to each other could co-exist in Mill's mind quite comfortably. In Principles of Political Economy (1848), an enormously popular and influential work in his day, he championed free trade and the free exchange of ideas, but also state ownership of property.

His most enduring work, of course, is On Liberty (1859). Mill's wife Harriet died just before it was published. Whether the book was as much a collaboration with his wife as Mill claimed, it is difficult to know; but he considered the text sacred and refused to alter or add to it. He should have both altered and added to it: It is a deeply flawed book, as even Mill's most ardent admirers have admitted for one reason or another. He states his argument with clarity and force:

The object of this essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control. .  .  . That principle is that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection.

This simple idea-the idea that the only sufficient justification for government to abridge individual freedom is to prevent harm to others-appeals to many people instinctively. The trouble begins the moment you ask the questions, What is "harm"? And who decides? That On Liberty has frequently been summoned to support the opinions of both those who favor and those who oppose anti-smoking laws gives one some idea of the argument's essential impracticability.

The first thing to know about On Liberty is that it isn't the uncomplicated paean to individuality it's often described as being. Mill writes at length about the need to safeguard the right to "eccentricity," but he wasn't interested in eccentricity among ordinary people. He never argued for any intrinsic or metaphysical right to eccentric thought or behavior; he valued liberty rather because he thought it the state most likely to allow great minds to flourish.

"When the opinions of masses of merely average men are everywhere become or becoming the dominant power," he wrote, "the counterpoise and corrective to that tendency would be the more and more pronounced individuality of those who stand on the higher eminences of thought." Chief among those who stood "on the higher eminences of thought" was, as you might guess, John Stuart Mill. On Liberty, really, has very little to do with the liberty of citizens as citizens; rather, it's an argument for the liberty of an intellectual aristocracy to rule everybody else.

One of the book's most alluring arguments is one that foreshadows today's obsession with "diversity" and the hypocrisy so frequently visible in its promotion. The argument is that all beliefs, even beliefs agreed upon by everybody, or almost everybody, benefit from criticism. In fact, says Mill, beliefs in the absence of contrary beliefs are worthless and possibly corrupting:

However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that, however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.

Indeed, so vital are counter-
arguments to even the most rock-solid doctrines "that if opponents of all important truths do not exist, it is indispensable to imagine them, and supply them with the strongest arguments which the most skillful devil's advocate can conjure up."

All this may be true at some rarefied altitude. But it means nothing in the real world of human relations. Mill showed no patience with those who questioned what he believed to be obvious and well-established truths. Nor did his opponents. Nor does anyone.

Indeed Mill himself provided the best illustrations of this idea's uselessness. In 1866 he informed James Martineau that he, Mill, would support his rival, George Croom Robertson, for a professorship in logic at University College London. "Though I have no reason to think his claims [i.e. competence] superior to yours in any other respect, [Robertson] would certainly teach doctrines much nearer than yours to those which I myself hold on the great philosophical questions."

Never mind the intrinsic value of dissent and criticism, the supposed merits of clashing opinions: Mill wanted his own man in the job because he liked his views better than those of the other fellow. He seems to have sensed his hypocrisy and attempted to justify himself by claiming that his own views did not have "their fair share of influence in the public teaching of this country." Put another way: Since his own opinions lacked their "fair share of influence" in the public, promoting diversity of opinion and shutting out contrary opinions were one and the same activity.

So it is always with those who suppose that diversity of belief is, in all circumstances, a good thing, that dissent is always healthy, and that beliefs, no matter how widely assumed to be true, must always be questioned. The trouble with that line of thinking is that it always applies to other people, never to oneself. Its adherents naturally believe their views are in the minority-who doesn't?-and that views they detest are everywhere prevailing. And the only way to uphold their commitment to "diversity" is to impose, within their sphere of influence, a rigid ideological conformity.

The world envisioned in Mill's famous book exists in its purest form on today's university campuses. It's a world in which entire departments are composed of faculty who hold exactly the same views on all important questions, and in which democracy is countenanced only insofar as it affords power to busybodies with postgraduate degrees. And these, of course, are the same citadels of sameness in which young people are censured and ridiculed if they fail to embrace the virtues of "diversity" with sufficient zeal.

Rather a curious legacy for the
philosopher of liberty.

Barton Swaim is the author of Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere: 1802-1834.