Liberty Matters

Three Additional Thoughts


1. Terence Ball remarks on the “unreliability” of J. S. Mill’s Autobiography. I’m glad that he did so. In 1951, having worked with three versions of the manuscript, F. A. Hayek wrote that the portrait contained therein was “candid” and “patently truthful,” but “in some respects the existence of an autobiography may be the cause of our knowing less about its subject” (since it substituted for good biographical work).  Hayek found the account remarkable both for what Mill included and what he left unspoken:
There is thus perhaps no other instance where an autobiography had so much to tell us and where at the same time such a purely intellectual account of a man’s development is so misleading. The Autobiography is as remarkable for what it leaves out as for what it discusses—what it leaves out not in any desire to suppress but because Mill thought it genuinely irrelevant. It is one of the most impersonal accounts of a mental development ever attempted, an account in which only the factors found a place that in Mill’s view ought to have influenced it. Of what in the ordinary sense of the word we should call his life, of his human interests and personal relations, we learn practically nothing. Even the account of “the most valuable friendship of his life” is scarcely an exception to this; the feeling of incongruity which this account of Mill’s greatest experience conveys is not least due to its being represented as a purely intellectual experience. It would certainly be a mistake to believe that Mill really was like that, that what he regarded as deserving of a public record gives us a picture of the whole man. It is even doubtful whether we can fully appreciate the significance or the lesson of the Autobiography until we know much more of the very human being whose strongest beliefs have led him thus to depict himself.[102]
2. Ball notes in addition that James Mill possessed a Benthamite “aversion to any established church.”  One might add that this is a Smithian aversion, for Smith favored competition in religious as well as in economic arrangements and because established monopolized religion would yield to partial and factional interests that could be most dangerous for society.
3. Andrew Farrant’s snippet of the interview with James Buchanan again comes to the point of partial and impartial interests.  Buchanan was perhaps unique amongst his generation of economists in his appreciation of the difficulties that partiality posed for economic policy making. In a verbal exchange with his long-time sparring partner and colleague, Warren Samuels, Buchanan remarked on the “really hard question” how we achieve impartiality as social scientists. The world’s “out there”:
But the question is: how do we look at this world? We’re looking almost necessarily, it seems to me … at that world from a window, a perspective, a predisposition on the way to look at it. And if you look at it differently you get different aspects of that world, you stress different aspects ….  Yet [Warren] wants to seem somehow to stay with this, what I would call an illusion, that, in fact, he can look at the world as an “antiseptic scientist” in the purer sense, whereas I am much more willing to acknowledge that the way I look at the world is in a sense a precommitment to look at the world that way. [103]
Ultimately I think Buchanan acknowledged that impartiality was a pipedream and, consequently, institutional arrangements need to do the work of generating some approximation to impartial science. 
[102.] Sandra J. Peart, ed., Hayek on Mill: The Mill-Taylor Friendship and Related Writings, The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek, vol. 16 (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press), pp. 13-14.
[103.] [James M.  Buchanan and Warren J. Samuels, “Politics as Exchange or Politics as Power: Two Views of Government,” in Sandra J. Peart and David M. Levy 2008, The Street Porter and the Philosopher: Conversations on Analytical Egalitarianism (Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press), pp. 21-22.]