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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

John Stuart Mill – On Liberty

Chapter 4 “Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual”

One of the basic questions of government that keeps popping up throughout succeeding generations is expressed by Mill this way: “How much of human life should be assigned to individuality, and how much to society?” This was a problem for the ancient Greeks and Romans, it was still a problem for the feudal society of medieval Europe, and it remains a problem for modern liberal democracies such as the United States. Mill offers one answer: “To individuality should belong the part of life in which it is chiefly the individual that is interested; to society, the part which chiefly interests society.” This is true but it isn’t helpful. It just states the obvious. The problem we’re really trying to solve is the boundary where individual rights end and society’s rights begin. Or, as Mill asks “Where does the authority of society begin”?

He starts with the assumption that “Though society is not founded on a contract… every one who receives the protection of society owes a return for the benefit.” First of all there are many philosophers who would disagree with Mill’s premise that society is not founded on a contract. Rousseau and Hobbes are poles apart in many ways but they both agree, and strongly maintain, that society is formed on a contract – either explicitly or implicitly stated. But apart from the contract controversy it’s clear they would both agree with Mill that the important point is the second one: how much loyalty does a citizen owe to the state? If society protects me and my property from bodily harm and theft then what is my responsibility in return? Mill is a strong advocate for individual rights but is careful to balance these with corresponding civic duties. Insofar as it is possible the individual citizen should be free to conduct personal affairs without government intervention. But he says there comes a point when my individual rights must be tempered by the individual rights of other members of my community. For a harmonious community to thrive two things are required from its members: “first, in not injuring the interests of one another…secondly, each person’s bearing his share…of the labors and sacrifices…”

It’s still not clear to me where Mill would stand on specific issues. For example, Mill claims that “we have a right to choose the society most acceptable to us.” Fair enough. But how would Mill respond to an organization that chose not to allow minority members? Does my personal freedom of association trump society’s goal of achieving an integrated community? Mill implies that it does. However, in another part of the essay Mill says “How (it may be asked) can any part of the conduct of a member of society be a matter of indifference to the other members? No person is an entirely isolated being…” This statement makes me think that integration would be more important than my personal liberty to choose my own associates.

And the problems get thornier. Mill ponders the question “If protection against themselves is confessedly due to children and persons under age, is not society equally bound to afford it to persons of mature years who are equally incapable of self-government?” The government has a compelling reason to protect children because they are weak and immature. In the U.S. the smoking age is 18, the drinking age is 21. But what reason does the government have to compel mature adults to behave? Drinking laws are an example. If someone is an alcoholic should the government intervene? No, says Mill. As long as it doesn’t affect the whole of society individuals should be left free to make personal decisions. However, there are limits. Mill also believes that “No person ought to be punished simply for being drunk; but a soldier or policeman should be punished for being drunk on duty.” Mill never owned a car himself, but ‘don’t drink and drive’ is a slogan I think he would wholeheartedly agree with.



Blogger SMJ said...

.... Mill offers one answer: “To individuality should belong the part of life in which it is chiefly the individual that is interested; to society, the part which chiefly interests society.” This is true but it isn’t helpful. It just states the obvious. The problem we’re really trying to solve is the boundary where individual rights end and society’s rights begin. Or, as Mill asks “Where does the authority of society begin”?

The problem with assigning limits to authority is that we often forget or ignore the historical foundations for that authority. So where does authority come from? First, authority is not simply the power to rule over others because it implies a legitimate use of that power. In Plato's Republic, Thrasymachus argues that justice is simply the will of the strong over the weak. Or, to put it another way, justice is only an abstraction. For Thrasymachus, justice is an arbitrary standard invoked by persons too weak to wield power for themselves. Thus, there can be no question of illegitimate authority, for anyone strong enough to rule other people automatically has "de facto" authority by virtue of their superior strength or ability. This "realpolitik" view of power assumes that people always act according to their own private interest.

However, in a constitutional republic, such as our own, we believe that authority derives from our original life in a state of nature, where we lived under no authority but our own. In time, we chose to invest that authority in a document known as the constitution, which we collectively adopted and ratified through our status as free individuals. That authority was then invested in the establishment of a government which acts as a mediator and guardian for us all. Thus, we rule ourselves by delegating a portion of that natural authority to our elected representatives to act in our behalf. This is the essential difference between liberty and slavery-- that in a free society we yield some of our natural freedom to a governing body invoking the rule of law, as opposed to a dictatorship which rules through power or intimidation.

In principle, a democracy is a state where free elections are held and no one is coerced to behave by an authoritarian power. After all, in theory, the will of the "state" should simply reflect the nature of our individual wills. But, as we all know, even in a free democracy, the will of the majority is not always identical with the will of individuals. You don't always get what you want.

So what happens when you disagree with the policies of your government? Do you subvert the law and do whatever you want? Mill would say no. That path leads to chaos and self destruction. The rule of law is what finally protects us from the anarchy of civil war. Thus, individual issues, such as racial prejudice or public drunkenness must be settled by the voice of the community, not the individual. But, in the final analysis, society will behave no better or worse than its collective members. So if we as individuals lack a moral compass, then so will our government. The establishment of a democratic regime was not based on a promise that people can do whatever they want as the mood strikes them. It is a political arrangement that tries to promulgate fairness tempered with good judgment. As such, there will be occasions when we find ourselves in disagreement with our neighbors, or our government, on any number of issues. But that is what elections and courts are meant to diffuse—the disenchantment that afflicts people when they are unable to have their own way. For society to flourish, Mill would say, we ought not hold too strongly to the belief that our own ideas and opinions are always correct. A dose of humility helps to lubricate the engine of democracy.

The fact remains that any democracy, whether it be Iraq or the United Kingdom, is a work in progress, Our egos are bound to clash just as members of the same family, from time to time, experience their own measure of turmoil. The greatest danger is not the passage of bad or unjust laws, but the cynical belief that all government is either corrupt or incompetent. Partisan politics, as Madison suggested, contributes to an atmosphere of mistrust, until the public becomes jaded and abandons their political duty.

Like it or not, public policy in a democracy is not a rational process. It often comes down to the art of persuasion, or the power to influence others. We like to think that our own opinions are generally correct, and that what is good for us is probably good for the entire country. Thus, we desire to get people elected who share the same ideas. But, if you lose the election and other people get into office, that doesn't mean that the enemy has taken over the government. It doesn't give you the right to ignore public authority because you don't like the opinions of people in Congress. Mill would argue that the fabric of society is strong enough to withstand a little criticism, but not rebellion. When push comes to shove, individual conscience must yield to the rule of law. Otherwise, we fall back to that state of nature in which, as Hobbes put it, life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." The line between what the individual wants and what society is willing to give him is not always clear. But for democracy to succeed how that line is drawn must be preserved. The principle of majority rule will never be perfect, but it works better than almost all of the alternatives. Until, or unless, God himself comes down to rule over the human race, we'll need to take care of our own affairs. In the meantime, a little humility and mutual respect might help us survive the ordeal of self-government.

2/13/2008 8:34 AM  

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