Why J.S. Mill Was No Libertarian Hero

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare

I tend to recoil at the steadfast libertarian sycophancy for John Stuart Mill. It’s always bothered me that Left-libertarians, LP types, and whatnot have always hailed Mill as some great progenitor of libertarianism, when it is just not true. For whatever reason, I think he’s easy for people to not read and understand, but rather, just pull a few nice-smelling quotes here and there, and be done with it. I must stress that I am not picking on the writer of this post, but instead, it just happens to bring to mind the largely misunderstood scholarly output of J.S. Mill. It also reminds me that I shall like to write on this topic at greater length, but for now, just some short comments.

If one plucks John Stuart Mill quotes and stands them on their own, yes, he can look quite like a libertarian. But Mill was far from it, as countless scholars (Maurice Cowling, Murray Rothbard) have already shown. Rothbard, in fact, called Mill’s positions “diverse and contradictory.” [Rothbard writes: "Dispute over 'what Mill really believed' has become an unending cottage industry. Was Mill a laissez-faire liberal? A socialist? A romantic? A classicist? A civil libertarian? A believer in state-coerced morality? The answer is yes every time." Classical Economics, "John Stuart Mill and the Reimposition of Ricardian Economics, p. 277.]

A student of Jeremy Bentham’s work, and a utilitarian to the core, Mill was somewhat a classical liberal economist, however, he was an authoritarian and a spirited social reformer, something akin to a modern, politically correct liberal or Social Democrat. As an economist, Mill was a believer in public goods, and “legitimate” functions for the State. As a political philosopher, he saw political expediency as an open door for the use of State power, and angled toward the massive centralization of information within State hands. He was a Big Government statist.

Mill also recognized a “non-authoritative” regulatory State as part of “optional” State functions, whereas “authoritative” regulations were part of the “necessary” State. However which way he classified and divided his concepts, which were sometimes difficult to dissect, Mill, given the chance, would have saddled us with a massive regulatory and interventionist State. In fact, he wrote, “There are matters in which the interference of the law is required, not to overrule the judgements of individuals respecting their own interest, but to give effect to that judgement; they being unable to give effect to it except by concert, which concert again cannot be effectual unless it receives validity and sanction from the law.”

In addition, liberty was not a universal concept to Mill. He saw liberty as something which required material wealth and hence was more of a “class-based individualism.” Therefore, to Mill, liberty was for the exceptional few who had the “capacity” to enjoy freedoms (See On Liberty), as opposed to recognizing the Kantian Categorical Imperative – the universalization principle wherein just laws are applicable to all people at all times.

An excellent piece on Mill, by another diverse and contradictory guy, John Gray, is “John Stuart Mill: Traditional and Revisionist Interpretations,” which was, I believe, originally published by Cato.

As Jude Chua Soo Meng writes:

Yet no one, I think, who has been even vaguely acquainted with Catholic (Thomistic) social thought should be too impressed with Mill’s fight for liberty. He might congratulate Mill, and thank him for his critical analysis, but to go beyond that is to ignore that tradition of Thomistic, Spanish scholastic thinkers in the 16th Century.

They wrote at least 200 years before Mill and defended the rights of all human beings in opposition to violent coercion. These scholastics, most of whom were Dominicans with names like Francisco de Vitoria OP, Domingo de Soto OP, and Bartholome de Las Cases OP, opposed with vehemence the massacring and forced conversions of the Indians by Spanish Conquistadors.

See Alejandro A. Chafuen’s Faith and Liberty: The Economic Thought of the Late Scholastics, a book that I just finished reading, for pre-Mill free-market thought and the notion of universal liberty.

All said, the Mill canonization, most of the time, is very misplaced and comes largely from misinformation and a lack of having read him or the revisionists that have challenged his work. For no amount of quotes can sufficiently typecast Mill, as only fastidious self-study can do.

6:37 am on May 31, 2004
  • LRC Blog

  • LRC Podcasts