Related Links in the Forum:
This essay first appeared as an Editorial in the journal Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought,
vol. II, no. 2 April-June 1979 published by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and
the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the
editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio. Although the
editorials were unsigned, they were probably written by the Editor
Leonard P. Liggio or the Managing Editor John V. Cody. It is republished with thanks
to the original copyright holders. The original editorial has been modified
by the addition of a title and endnotes which provide full bibliographical information
about the texts mentioned.
John Stuart Mill: Liberty as "the cardinal moral virtue"
The resurgence of interest in John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) began in the early
1940s stimulated by F. A. Hayek whose efforts and enthusiasm inspired new publications
of collections of Mill's works, his letters, and biographies. Hayek's own study,
The Constitution of Liberty (1960), commemorated the centenary of the
publication of Mill's On Liberty.
Hayek was particularly fascinated by Mill's views of the influence of intellectuals
on public policy. A statesman adopts a policy, not because of objective reality,
but because of public opinion. The statesman takes public opinion for his objective
reality, and he is successful to the degree that he operates within the accepted
framework of thought. On a deeper level, however, the framework of thought which
guides human action is derived from those intellectuals whose profession it
is to apply abstract ideas. Hayek comments on "The Rule of Ideas,"
in chapter 7 of The Constitution of Liberty:
The belief that in the long run it is ideas and therefore the men who give
currency to new ideas that govern evolution, and the belief that individual
steps in that process should be governed by a set of coherent conceptions,
have long formed a fundamental part of the liberal creed. It is impossible
to study history without becoming aware of 'the lesson given to mankind by
every age, and always disregarded - that speculative philosophy, which to
the superficial appears a thing so remote from the business of life and the
outward interest of men, is in reality the thing on earth which most influences
them, and in the long run overbears any influences save those it must itself
obey.' Though this fact is perhaps even less understood today than it was
when John Stuart Mill wrote, there can be little doubt that it is true at
all times, whether men recognize it, or not.
Mill keenly appreciated the indispensable and complex role of the intellectuals.
Indeed, he understood the need both of developing abstract ideas and of disseminating
these ideas to wider intellectual publics. The active intellectual's role as
a disseminator of ideas - whether moral or economic views, political or scientific
beliefs - complemented the contemplative intellectual role. John Mill was himself
influenced by his father's role as scholar-activist in the radical politics
of his day. Accordingly, Mill
both edited and subsidized the London and Westminster Review, and wrote
editorials or articles for the radical Examiner and Morning Chronicle.
By financially supporting Herbert Spencer's periodical and his books, Mill intended
such ideas might begin their process of influencing public opinion. Mill attributed
his political education to assisting his father James, in the preparation of
the History of British India (1817). What impressed Mill was his father's
repeated expression of "opinions and modes of judgment of a democratic
radicalism then regarded as extreme," and James Mill's severity in examining
"the English Constitution, the English law, and all parties and classes
who possessed any considerable influence in the country." Mill's economic
education had begun in the period of his first visit to France where he stayed
at the Paris home of Jean Baptiste Say. Mill went on to assist his father in
writing the Elements of Political Economy (1821) which was modelled
on Say's Treatise on Political Economy (1803, 1814).
Later, reflecting the influence of Say and Adam Smith, John Mill's Principles
of Political Economy (1848) made an original contribution in his discussion
of laissez-faire. Mill appreciated Smith's and Say's refusal to separate political
economy from the philosophy of society. As a result of Smith's example, Mill
sought to provide social applications as well as principles. This led to the
charge that Mill changed from a young noninterventionist to a collectivist.
The falsity of this charge has been argued by Pedro Schwartz in The New
Political Economy of J. S. Mill (1968).
Along with other Utilitarians of the Bentham school, the young Mill did not
oppose State intervention. As Elie Halevy points out (The Growth of Philosophic
Radicalism, London, 1928)
Utilitarianism was rife with nonliberal elements, and the utilitarian disciples
of Jeremy Bentham were not supporters of individual rights or opponents of state
intervention. Thus, it was a natural progression for John Mill as a young man
to accept the tenets of early socialism which was rooted in some of the ideas
of the Utilitarians.
The young Mill's movement toward collectivism was partly his response to Thomas
Macaulay's critique of James Mill's "On Government." Mill's father
had endorsed Bentham's recognition that the state was a fiction since it was
merely a sum of individuals. However, Utilitarians reached the non-individualist
conclusion. that the sum of the most individual goods or wills created a basis
for a majority's ability to rule. To Utilitarians the concept of individual
rights was suspect as a potential sanctuary for the politically dominant classes.
Macaulay's emphasis on the Whig view of 'rights' thus awakened Mill's doubts
about Utilitarianism, but John Mill rejected the inconsistent position of the
Whigs and turned to the more consistent expression of emerging socialism. Mill
came under the influence of the socialist digression from the school of J. B.
Say, represented by the followers of Henri de Saint-Simon.
Mill's movement away from his youthful collectivism and toward an individualist
position began by the challenging of his original interventionism by discussions
with Alexis de Tocqueville. Mill, in fact, lent his efforts to popularize Tocqueville's
Democracy in America (vol. I, 1835; vol. II, 1840) in England.
Through Tocqueville, Mill discovered the importance of local self-government
in America, including its role in the political education of ordinary people.
The danger of majoritarianism, originally pointed out by Tocqueville grew in
clarity for Mill. Mill saw the
danger of government "trampling meanwhile with considerable recklessness,
as often as convenient, upon the rights of individuals, in the name of society
and the public good." Mill's individualism, inspired by Tocqueville, was
reflected in his advocacy of laissez-faire as a general rule in his Principles
and On Liberty (1859).
Liberty functioned as a cardinal moral virtue for Mill. A distinguishing trait
of Mill's personality and style is his liberality of spirit or his elaborate
fairness to all intellectual positions - a trait that informs his writings and
was vital to his analysis of progress in human history. In On Liberty,
he defends the concept of liberty as intellectual autonomy, the cultivated habit
of being "intellectually active" and fearless when advancing "heterodox
speculation." Those periods of human history brilliant for their "high
scale of mental activity" were those that allowed free, untrammeled thought
and discussion to break "the yoke of authority" and to throw off the
"old mental despotism." Mental freedom alone could sustain such liberating
impulses that led to progress and improvements in human personal character and
social institutions. But mental freedom and truth-seeking are nurtured only
by the clash of debate and continuous Socratic examination of rival ideas, however
one-sided, or non-conforming, or heretical. Any intellectual position "however
true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed ...
will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth." Even partisan one-sided
truths, "compel reluctant attention to the fragment of wisdom which they
proclaim as if it were the whole."
Thus, in the judgment of Mill in On Liberty, Rousseau's one-sided
ideas critical of modern science and civilization had the healthy effect of
supplementing the defective, one-sided idea of the eighteenth-century philosophes.
"With what a salutary shock did the paradoxes of Rousseau explode like
bombshells in the midst, dislocating the compact mass of one-sided opinion and
forcing its elements to recombine in a better form and with additional ingredients."
Posterity gained through such a dialectic a greater appreciation of "the
superior worth of simplicity of life" and "the enervating and demoralizing
effect of the trammels and hypocrisies of artificial society."
Mill's On Liberty is the most widely known defense of individualism
in the English-speaking world. As the epigraph for On Liberty Mill
chose a quotation from the recently published (1852) English translation of
Wilhelm von Humboldt, The Limits of State Action (1791): "The
grand, leading principle, towards which every argument unfolded in these pages
directly converges, is the absolute and essential importance of human development
in its richest diversity."
Mill argued against state intervention because of the free market's efficiency
when compared to political direction. However, Mill's major argument was founded
on the evil effect of state intervention on the development of the individual,
and thus, on the progress of society. Mill noted: "A people among whom
there is no habit of spontaneous action for a collective interest ... have their
faculties only half developed; their education is defective in one of its most
important branches. [Government] substitutes its own mode of accomplishing the
work, for all the variety of modes which would be tried by a number of equally
qualified persons aiming at the same end."[10
 Friedrich A. Hayek, The
Constitution of Liberty (1960) (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1972).
 ibid., pp. 112-113.
 Joseph Hamburger, James
Mill and the Art of Revolution, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963);
and Jopseph Hamburger, Intellectuals in Politics: John Stuart Mill and the
Philosophic Radicals, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965).
 Pedro Schwartz in The New
Political Economy of J. S. Mill (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1968;
Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1973).
 Elie Halevy, The Growth
of Philosophic Radicalism, London, 1928).
 Elie Halevy, "Saint-Simonian
Economic Doctrine," The Era of Tyrannies, (Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday,
 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy
in America (vol. I, 1835; vol. II, 1840). Many editions, but see the Schocken
Books edition of 1974 which reprints John Stuart Mill's "critical appraisal"
of each volume.
 See Leon Bramson, The Political
Context of Sociology, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961).
 Wilhelm von Humboldt, The
Limits of State Action, ed. J.W. Burrow (Iindianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1993).
This book is available from the Liberty Fund Online
catalog. The edition Mill used was the English translation of Wilhelm
von Humboldt's The Limits of State Action (1791) which appeared as
The Sphere and Duties of Government. Translated from the German of Baron
Wilhelm von Humboldt, by Joseph Coulthard, Jun. (London: John Chapman, 1854).
 John Stuart Mill, On
Liberty and Other Essays, ed. John Gray (Oxford University Press, 1991),
or John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, ed. Gertrude Himmelfarb (Harmondsworth: