Front Page Titles (by Subject) Mill: On Liberty - Literature of Liberty, July/September 1979, vol. 2, No. 3
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
Mill: On Liberty - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, July/September 1979, vol. 2, No. 3 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
This work is copyrighted by the Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, and is put online with their permission.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Mill: On Liberty
“The Budget of Tolerance.” Ethics 89 (January 1979): 165–178.
One of the most influential approaches to freedom has been the principle of liberty advanced in John Stuart Mill's On Liberty (1859). Few professed libertarians, however, consistently follow Mill's principle. This fact suggests the need to reexamine Mill's doctrine of tolerance.
Mill distinguished between private acts, which do not harm anyone, and public acts, which do. His thesis is not the trivial proposition that private acts should be left unregulated by the government and by the positive morality of society. Since private acts harm no one, this claim would be universally accepted. Rather, Mill should be taken as arguing that most public acts should be tolerated. An act is defined as “tolerated” if a society's positive morality prohibits it but it is nevertheless protected by the government. The government may protect it either actively, by prohibiting interference with it, or passively, by not taking measures against it.
The wide ranging concept of tolerance Mill favored was supported by an emphasis on the positive value of diversity for society. Although diversity is indeed an important social value, it is argued that, in an unlimited form it can become an evil. Too much change may prove unsettling, both for individuals and societies. The extent to which a society can tolerate changes in its values is determined by its simplicity, stability, and integration.
Four types of libertarian positions may be distinguished according to the way in which liberty and social order are comparatively valued. (1) Extreme libertarians believe that liberty may be restricted only to prohibit direct harm to others. (2) Strong libertarians extend the scope to which liberty may be restricted to include the measures needed to secure a minimum of social order. (3) Classical liberals, including Mill himself, allow restrictions on liberty which aim to insure that a society can develop in which liberty is of value to the individuals composing it. (4) Finally, equalitarian liberals allow the principle of liberty to be limited, as their name suggests, by a principle of equality.
Both liberals and conservatives recognize the need to “budget” liberty. The extent to which liberty should be limited depends to a large degree on the findings of sociology about what is necessary for social order. As such studies are carried further, liberals and conservatives may be expected to find themselves less far apart than they imagined.