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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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.