I started reading J.S. Mill's On Liberty today. I thought I would write up my thoughts after each chapter.

In the introduction, Mill states the goal of the essay is:

the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately excercised by society over the individual.

He then goes on to provide a brief historical overview. It used to be, (he says) that the struggle between Authority and Liberty was the struggle between Ruler and Ruled. When there is a clear division between the ruler and his subjects, the subjects gain Liberty by restricting the power of the ruler. This is a clear pattern that he sees throughout European history. Sometimes the ruler has more constraints and sometimes he has less, but always those who seek liberty seek to restrain his power.

With the rise of constitutional forms of government, things become murkier. Now those who seek liberty will sometimes try to transfer power from the ruler to some other body that represents society as a whole. Once enough power has been transferred to bodies that claim to act in the interests of the people, there is an argument that restrictions on their power reduce the liberty of the people: Liberty consists of the ability of the people to do what they want. One main avenue by which the people (as a whole) exercise their power is through their representatives. Therefore restricting the power of the representatives reduces their ability to achieve the goals of the people, and thus reduces liberty.

Mill raises three objections to this argument.

  1. The interests of the representatives might not coincide with that of the people.
  2. If each person is subject to the will of all the others, each person will have much less liberty.
  3. The "will of the people" often means the will of a particular section of the people (maybe the most numerous or the most vocal), and they may oppress the rest of the people.

He also notes that when society is acting against an individual, it can act through political avenues, but it does not need to.

Protection agains the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough, there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development and prevent the formation of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.

This quote brings two things to my mind. First, in today's society it seems that the tyranny of the magistrate is far more constrained than the tyranny of prevailing opinion and feeling. Secondly, (as was pointed out recently in Blake Smith's article on Yan Fu's translation of Mill in Palladium) Mill is concerned with the creation of individuality, not merely allowing people to do as they please.

How then should we determine the ways society may impose upon the individual? Mill rejects custom as merely a way of expressing the interests of the currently dominant class. Instead, society may impose on an individual to prevent harm to another, but may not prevent self-harm.

Finally, he identifies three key liberties that must be protected:

  1. Liberty of Conscience. The thoughts and feelings of one individual cannot harm another, and must be free. He considers the liberty of expressing and publishing opinions to be a key element of this.
  2. Liberty of Tastes and Pursuits. Each should be allowed to plot his own course through life, provided it doesn't harm others.
  3. Liberty of Association. It follows that two or more people should be able to come together for any reason that doesn't harm other.