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Week 5: Libertarianism—Sources and Themes

John Stuart Mill pioneered the libertarian assault on custom, and its willingness to force people to be free.
John Stuart Mill Photo

John Stuart Mill offers both an ideal articulation of the libertarian worldview, as well as one that is both problematic and revealing. He straddles the “progressive liberal” and “libertarian” positions—but then again (as we will see next week, in the case of F.A. Hayek), so generally does libertarianism as a whole.

In contrast to the figures upon whom we focused in the first week of our course—the “classical liberal” figures like Locke and Paine—Mill’s main focus in On Liberty is not the dangers of overreaching and oppressive government, but rather, the dangers of suppression of freedom arising from a democratizing society. Mill largely takes for granted that liberalism has succeeded in establishing structures and practices that limit government. He begins On Liberty by noting the historical steps that have accomplished that goal: first, the establishment of a theory of inalienable rights; second, the political protection of those rights through the institutionalization of constitutional limits to public power; and, lastly, and most recently, the extension of political power to the populace. Yet, it is from this last solution of limiting public power from which a new threat arises: “tyranny of the majority.”

The greatest danger to liberty that now faced his time, Mill argued, was the danger of conformity to the opinions of the majority. In particular, Mill worried about the persistence and overwhelming shaping power of “custom” and “tradition” in defining acceptable and unacceptable opinion. Even where there was the existence of formal liberty (i.e., rights) and political liberty (constitutionalism), society was still dominantly defined by the rule of custom that existed beyond the realm of political solution. Liberty needs to be expanded not only politically, but to all spheres of life, and in particular, to opinion, speech, and inquiry.

A society governed by custom—hence, in Mill’s view, opinion by accretion—views dissenters and inquirers as threats to social order. He points to the examples of Socrates and Jesus as two figures who questioned the existing social order, and were executed as threats to established norms. Mill instead famously proposed to judge threats not based on compatibility with order, but whether it caused direct harm to other individuals: “The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of any of their number, is self-protection That the only purpose for which power can rightfully be exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

Note that Mill here is speaking about the limits of the State to follow the will of the majority in limiting speech. Implicitly, Mill is calling upon the State not only to avoid interfering with free expression, opinion, and inquiry, but in fact to prevent those who might appeal to custom from interfering with the freedom of individuals.

After all, Socrates claimed that it was Aristophanes more than Meletus who had poisoned the demos against him, and it was the Pharisees who encouraged Pilate to crucify Jesus. By Mill’s understanding, public authority may be the most powerful protector of individual freedom, particularly in a society that is “custom-rich” like the one in which he regarded himself to be living (not to mention the less advanced societies such as the British colonies, e.g., India).

On Liberty is not merely a brief on behalf of liberty as an end in itself, however. Mill argues that liberty serves the end of progress. Liberty to inquire and challenge existing orthodoxies serves “the permanent interest of man as a progressive being.” Only by being liberated from the shackles of inherited opinion—most often in the form of custom and tradition—can a people begin to transform society in a progressive direction. As Mill argues, “the greater part of the world has, properly speaking, no history, because the despotism of Custom is complete.” Mill here means not that there’s no “history” in the sense that nothing happened; rather, progressive history has not been initiated in lands and places where “Custom” dominates. Only where the despotism of custom can be challenged without fear of persecution by independent-minded and free-thinking individuals can progressive history commence.

Mill seeks therefore replace a society grounded in custom with a society replete with “experiments in living.” He is particularly insistent that “persons of genius” be liberated from the “ape-like” conformity and mediocrity of ordinary people. Mill—as is almost always the case in the libertarian tradition—is an ardent defender of considerable inequality, particularly inequality born of liberated “people of genius” who are no longer restrained by the limits of custom. As I have argued elsewhere on this site, Mill sought to forge a society in which the strong and powerful would encounter few obstacles to their self-advance (which, like many libertarians, Mill could justify as ultimately benefiting society as a whole). Mill anticipates and fuels a society marked by the new inequalities of “meritocracy”—a world of winners and losers that one of our leading libertarian economists regards as an inevitable and laudatory outcome of our dynamic and progressive society.

Mill even sought to protect the elite from the rule of ordinary, custom-bound masses through proposals for plural-voting for those with education and argued for the enslavement of backward populations into industrial servitude until “history” could properly be started. Today, we find calls by libertarians for an activist Court to stringently strike down popular legislation that, for a libertarian, can be regarded as an obstacle to individual liberty—whether economic or personal liberty (e.g., popular laws that define marriage solely between a man and a woman). Following in Mill’s tradition, an active government is justified in the name of individual liberty. While libertarians have always been mistrustful of centralized government power, arguably at the very core of the tradition is a willingness to use extensive and powerful government powers to eviscerate the “despotism”—or even residue—of Custom, and thus, in freeing people from tradition and the communities that were their homes, forcing them to be free.

Patrick J. Deneen is David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Read Patrick Deneen’s seminar introduction and syllabus here.



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