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Experiments in Living

John Stuart Mill's liberalism emancipates the powerful from custom's restraints—and ordinary Americans suffer for it.
John Stuart Mill Photo

Yuval Levin has argued in his recent, very fine book, The Great Debate, that Edmund Burke is the pre-eminent figure at the origin of today’s contemporary conservatism (as Thomas Paine is the figure who inspires much of modern liberalism). But when one searches the American tradition for evidence of Burke’s influence, one is hard-pressed to find a robust Burkean intellectual tradition. In many ways, it had to be invented from scratch by Russell Kirk, but not until 1953 with the publication of The Conservative Mind.

America seems to be a most Burke-unfriendly place, infertile soil for the transplantation of such a strange flower. Tocqueville suggested that Americans are intuitive Cartesians, not apt to accept authority from any source outside themselves. Many of the signs suggest that the likes of Louis Hartz and Lionel Trilling were right—America has always been, and always will be, a liberal nation, a place intuitively hostile to tradition as Burke understood it.

It seems correct to me to conclude that Burke has not been a major figure in the American intellectual tradition—but the reason for this, I would argue, is not that America is preternaturally hostile to Burkean philosophy per se, but because there has been little need for Burke since most Americans were conservative not as a matter of philosophy, but as a way of life. While the  American intellectual tradition has  been dominantly liberal (the quirky exceptions such as Henry Adams and late Orestes Brownson, modestly popularized by Russell Kirk, tend to prove the rule), most Americans, generally uninterested in the world of ideas, have lived fairly conservative, tradition-bound lives.

Burke becomes necessary when a fairly conservative way of life has received a shock and longstanding conservative practice must be defended by being made into an -ism. Thus, Burke “created” conservatism in the aftermath of the French revolution, and the creation of a Burkean tradition in America by Russell Kirk became necessary as America moved into the dynamism of the post-World War II era. The same thing may be happening today amid the widespread celebration of Yuval Levin’s book: the deployment of Burke may indicate less the incipient triumph of Burke than the implicit recognition that liberalism has advanced yet further. And that advance today is nothing short of the cessation of a longstanding conservative way of life for most Americans.

The ascendant intellectual figure of our time is not Burke—nor Paine—but John Stuart Mill. Ironically, Mill is often regarded as a great hero of conservatism, lauded especially for his libertarian formulation of the “Harm Principle,” his argument that individuals should enjoy the greatest possible exercise of personal liberty until and unless it results in some measurable harm to others. Many conservatives with passing knowledge of Mill have some positive regard for what they think they know of his philosophy.

But Mill was no conservative: he was the midwife of modern liberalism, and in many ways the arch-foe of Burke, apres la lettre. Mill is perhaps best known for some of the arguments he advanced in his 1859 classic work, On Liberty. While many of today’s libertarian admirers of Mill tend to assume that Mill’s “Harm Principle” speaks primarily about limiting government’s rule over individual liberty, Mill was mainly concerned not about oppressive laws per se, but about the constraints that public opinion could forge. As he opens his work by recognizing, in England of his day, “the yoke of opinion is perhaps heavier, [and] that of law lighter, than in most other countries of Europe; and there is considerable jealousy of direct interference, by the legislative or executive power, with private conduct….” Writing at the dawn of the era of popular sovereignty, he acknowledged that someday popular opinion might be translated directly into popularly-mandated coercive government power; but at that moment, “the majority have not learnt to feel the power of the government [as] their power, or its opinions their opinions.” What concerned Mill, then, was not coercive law, but oppressive public opinion.

What was this oppressive form of opinion? Mainly, it was ordinary, everyday morality—what he witheringly criticized as “Custom.” While Mill at times argued that a good society needed a balance of “Progress” and “Custom,” in the main, Mill was a decided critic of Custom as the enemy of human liberty and a proponent of Progress as a basic aim of modern society. To follow Custom is to be fundamentally unreflective and mentally stagnant. “The human faculties of perception, judgement, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference, are exercised only in making a choice. He who does anything because it is a custom, makes no choice.”

Custom may have once served a purpose, Mill acknowledges—in an earlier age, when “men of strong bodies or minds” might flout “the social principle,” it was necessary for “law and discipline, like the Popes struggling against the Emperors, [to] assert a power over the whole man, claiming to control all his life in order to control his character.” But today, Custom dominates too extensively (note: Custom, not Law); and that “which threatens human nature is not the excess, but the deficiency, of personal impulses and preferences.” The unleashing of spontaneous, creative, unpredictable, unconventional, often offensive forms of individuality was the object of Mill’s praise. By unleashing extraordinary individuals from the rule of Custom, society might be transforming and transformed.

But note that Mill was explicit that this was especially beneficial for the most educated, the most creative, the most adventurous, even the most powerful. A society based on Custom constrained individuality, and those who craved most to be liberated from its shackles were not “ordinary” people but people who thrived on flouting the basic assumptions of what constituted normal society. Mill called for a society premised around “experiments in living”: a society as test-tube.

We live today in a Millian world: everywhere, at every moment, we are to be engaged in experiments in living. Custom has been largely routed: much of what today passes as “culture”—affixed with the adjective “popular”—consists of the flouting, mocking, ironizing and dismissal of Custom. Society has been transformed along Millian lines in which everyone is to be engaged in “experiments in living,” liberated from the dominion of “judgmentalism” and rather embracing any and every form of “diversity.”

Mill understood better than contemporary Millians that this would require the dominance of the “best” over the “ordinary.” In relatively more advanced societies, a society premised on the rejection of Custom would require greater political representation of the society’s most “advanced” elements. For Mill, this would be achieved through the fundamentally (and today offensively) inegalitarian distribution of voting rights, in which those with a higher education would be accorded more votes. In our purportedly more egalitarian age, this same end is achieved through somewhat subtler means—the manipulation of public opinion by cultural elites through the media and control of key institutions like higher education, law schools, journalism and entertainment. For less advanced societies, Mill argued that outright enslavement of backward populations may be necessary until they could be sufficiently set on a path of progressive advancement. This would mean, first and foremost, forcing them to work and care more about being economically productive than attracted to wasteful activities like worship or leisure.

For much of American history, while Americans were not philosophically interested in Burke, they were Burkeans in practice. Most Americans lived in accordance with Custom—with basic moral assumptions concerning fundamental human norms that accompanied a good life. You should respect authority, beginning with your parents. You should display modest and courteous comportment. You should avoid displays of lewdness or titillation. You should only engage in sexual activity once married. Once married, you should stay married. You should have children—generally, lots of them. You should live within your means. You should thank and worship the Lord. You should pay respects to the elderly and remember and acknowledge your debts to the dead.

Mill would dismiss these behaviors as unthinking Custom; Burke would praise them as essential forms of “prejudice.” He wrote in Reflections on the Revolution in France

In this enlightened age I am bold enough to confess that we are generally men of untaught feelings, [and] that, instead of throwing away our old prejudices, we cherish them….We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock of each man is small, and that the individuals do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages…. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit, and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes part of his nature.

Mill feared the tyranny of public opinion, expressed through Custom, but Burke argued rather that the tyrannical impulse was far more likely found in the impulses of the “innovators” and might be retarded by the restraints of Prejudice. It was the unshackled powerful that were to be feared, not the custom-following ordinary citizens.  Burke saw a  close relationship between the revolutionary and tyrannic impulse, made particularly insidious when the Great could claim the mantle of popular legitimacy: “The spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper…. When they are not on their guard, [the democratists] treat the humbler part of the community with the greatest contempt, whilst at the same time, they pretend to make them the depositories of their power.”

Society today has been organized around the Millian principle that “everything is allowed.” It is a society organized for the benefit of the strong, as Mill recognized. By contrast, a Burkean society is organized for the benefit of the ordinary—most people who benefit from societal norms that the Great and the Ordinary alike are expected to follow. A society can be shaped for the benefit of most people by emphasizing mainly informal norms and customs that secures the path to flourishing for most human beings; or it can be shaped for the benefit of the extraordinary and powerful by liberating all from the constraint of Custom, mainly through the obliteration of Custom. Our society was once shaped on the basis of the benefit for the many Ordinary; today it is shaped largely for the benefit of the few Strong.

The results of this civilizational transformation are accumulating everywhere we look. The Strong are flourishing: congregating in the wealthy counties around Washington D.C., New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and the like, they participate merrily in a society that disassembles all the old Customs, while their growing wealth insulates them against the ravages of our new economy shorn of the old ways. Beyond their vision, in the “fly-over” country, their countrymen are sinking in the quicksand of their new liberties. Pre-marital sex, abortion, out of wedlock birth, an epidemic of fatherless children, the incapacity to hold down secure employment in a globalized and increasingly automated economy—these and a host of other social ills are the fruits of their liberty. Experiments in living will lead to a few successes and many failures; the latter are part of the price of success for the Strong.

The deepest irony of our absurd age is a political narrative that claims our Millian liberals are the party who succors the Ordinary. But compare the amplitude of the calls for gay marriage (which, it turns out, will not preclude ongoing “experiments in living”) to the utter silence regarding the epidemic of fatherless children in America, and ask yourself who benefits from “experiments in living.”

And because we have no real Burkean intellectual tradition, in the main our conservatives are simply a different Millian flavor—mainly economic, that is, libertarian Millians.  Arguably, America’s  the leading Burkean scholar today – Harvey Mansfield, a longtime teacher of conservatives at Harvard University, who wrote his dissertation on Burke, subsequently published as his first book – has failed to interest his legions of students in the thought of Burke.  From his perch at Harvard, Mansfield has educated much of what passes for today’s conservative intelligentsia, shepherding scores of dissertations and placing many of his students in prominent academic or intellectual positions of influence. As a sign of his influence and the esteem in which he is held, two Festschrifts have been written for Mansfield, together containing some forty essays by several generations of students. Of those forty essays, only one is explicitly a study of Burke—but it is a study of Leo Strauss’s Burke, not Burke himself. None of his students, to my knowledge, has written a book on Burke. Machiavelli, yes, in several instances—but Burke, no.  America’s leading intellectual conservatives have generally been uninterested in the thought of Burke.  But we can ill-afford this neglect, for the sake of our countrymen.

At one time Americans did not need Burke because we were practical Burkeans; but today we need Burke because we no longer have Custom. Sadly, however, once you need to draft Burke into the battle, you have probably already lost the war.

Patrick J. Deneen teaches political theory at the University of Notre Dame.

Follow @PatrickDeneen