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J.S. Mill vs the Post-Liberals
Why recent attacks on the foundations of liberal thought miss the mark.
One hundred and fifty years ago this month, John Stuart Mill died in his home in Avignon. His last words were to his step-daughter, Helen Taylor: “You know that I have done my work.”
He certainly had. During his 66 years of life, Mill became the preeminent public intellectual of the century, producing definitive works of logic and political economy, founding and editing journals, serving in Parliament, and churning out book reviews, journalism and essays, most famously his 1859 masterpiece, On Liberty. Oh, and he had a day job, too: as one of the most senior bureaucrats in the East India Company.
What is too often forgotten about Mill is that he was as much an activist as an academic. Benjamin Franklin exhorted his followers to “either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” Mill, like Franklin himself, is among the very few who managed to do both.
For Mill, liberalism did not only have to be argued for, it had to be fought for, too. He campaigned for women’s rights and was the first MP to introduce a bill for women’s suffrage into Parliament. He was a fiercely committed anti-racist, strongly supporting the abolitionist movement in the United States, and the North in the Civil War. Mill also led a successful campaign for the right to protest and speak in London’s public parks. In Hyde Park, the famous Speaker’s Corner stands today as a tribute to his victory.
And unlike many of his 19th century peers, Mill’s thought remains vividly topical even today. In fact, Mill is more in the spotlight now, and more needed now, than he was two decades ago. My own book about Mill was published in 2007 and although it received polite, even somewhat enthusiastic notices in the right places, back then, the case for liberalism, which Mill still makes better than any other, hardly seemed like a pressing concern.
What a difference a decade can make. On every front—economic, political, philosophical, cultural, the very idea of liberalism is being questioned, and threatened. Here I’ll just take on two of the challenges to Mill’s variety of liberalism: a growing skepticism of the value of free speech, and post-liberal attacks on liberal individualism.
Why does free speech matter? Mill believed that the pursuit of truth required the collation and combination of ideas and propositions, even those that seem to be in opposition to each other. He urged us to allow others to speak—and then to listen to them—for three main reasons, most crisply articulated in Chapter 2 of On Liberty.
First, the other person’s idea, however controversial it seems today, might turn out to be right. (“The opinion … may possibly be true.”) Second, even if our opinion is largely correct, we hold it more rationally and securely as a result of being challenged. (“He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.”) Third, and in Mill’s view most likely, opposing views may each contain a portion of the truth, which need to be combined. (“Conflicting doctrines … share the truth between them.”)
For Mill, as for us, this is not primarily a legal issue. His main concern was not government censorship. It was the stultifying consequences of social conformity, of a culture where deviation from a prescribed set of opinions is punished through peer pressure and the fear of ostracism. “Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough,” he wrote. “There needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling.”
Mill never pretended that this would be easy, either at a personal or political level. The humility and openness that is required is hard-won. Our identity as a person must be kept separable from the ideas we happen to endorse at a given time. Otherwise, when those ideas are criticized, we are likely to experience the criticism as an attack upon our self, rather than as an opportunity to think about something more deeply and to grow intellectually. That’s why education is so important. Liberals are not born; we have to be made.
That’s why it would be a good idea for all students to read Mill’s arguments for free speech (and there’s even a free illustrated edition, titled All Minus One available from Heterodox Academy, edited and with an introduction from Jonathan Haidt and myself, which I’ve drawn from a little here.)
Mill has become relevant again as the primary intellectual target for post-liberal scholars like Patrick Deneen and Adrian Vermeule. For them, Mill’s writings are the headwaters of an atomistic, anti-institutional liberalism that has led to a hollowed-out culture.
In his influential book, Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen is clear that Mill is the principal villain. “Society today has been organized around the Millian principle that ‘everything is allowed,’ at least so long as it does not result in measurable (mainly physical) harm,” he writes. “We live today in the world Mill proposed. Everywhere, at every moment, we are to engage in experiments in living…”
Yeah, no. That’s mostly not the world we live in. And it is certainly not the world Mill proposed. Deneen accuses Mill of being the “midwife” to a “deeper liberal imperative to equalize individuals' opportunity to be liberated from entanglements with others, particularly from the shared cultural norms, institutions, and associations that bind a people's fate together.”
Crediting Mill as a founder of progressive thought, Deneen goes on: “Progressivism aims above all at the liberation of an elite whose ascent requires the disassembling of norms, intermediating institutions, and thick forms of community, a demolition that comes at the expense of these communities’ settled forms of life.”
As a description of Mill’s moral philosophy this is absolute nonsense. It is of course true that Mill worried about the tyranny of custom. He wanted people to be reflective about the plan for their own life, and the extent to which it was compatible with customary forms of life. The claim that Mill wanted to set a wrecking ball on every custom, every institution, every tradition is one that could only be made by someone who has either not actually read Mill, or who is engaging in some egregious misrepresentation. It’s not even a straw man. It’s just a pile of straw.
Here’s what Mill wrote in On Liberty (with my emphases):
“No one’s idea of excellence in conduct is that people should do absolutely nothing but copy one another. No one would assert that people ought not to put into their mode of life, and into the conduct of their concerns, any impress whatever of their own judgment, or of their own individual character. On the other hand, it would be absurd to pretend that people ought to live as if nothing whatever had been known in the world before they came into it; as if experience had as yet done nothing towards showing that one mode of existence or of conduct, is preferable to another. Nobody denies that people should be so taught and trained in youth as to know and benefit from the ascertained results of human experience. But it is the privilege and proper condition of a human being, arrived at the maturity of his faculties, to use and interpret experience in his own way. It is for him to find out what part of recorded experience is properly applicable to his own circumstances and character. The traditions and customs of other people are, to a certain extent, evidence of what their experience has taught them; presumptive evidence, and as such, have a claim to this deference…”
Mill’s view on tradition and custom, then, is that they are very likely to contain the wisdom of the ages, of the accumulated weight of human experience and, yes, of experiments in living. That’s why it would be absurd to ignore them, and why they have a presumptive claim to our deference. But Mill also insists that we should not follow tradition and custom blindly. We should “use and interpret experience.” Mill believes that customs and traditions not only can change over time, but that they should. The alternative, which is Deneen’s only defensible position, is that somebody somewhere should decide, at some point in time, that our traditions and customs be cast in stone.
Deneen is wrong about Mill, and thus wrong about liberalism, and therefore wrong about everything.
Even though the post-liberals are unwilling to engage with the real Mill, as opposed to their ersatz version, it is a testament to his lasting value that he is still the primary target. Mill spent his life thinking about and working for a society that could balance the value of continuity with the necessity for innovation and progress. Again, nobody said it was easy, a lesson we seem to be learning all over again. But if we need inspiration, we’ll always have Mill.
Richard Reeves is a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand.
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