Liberty Matters

James Mill on Governance and Liberty – Further Considerations


As a political theorist with a highly limited understanding of economics, I have not felt qualified to respond to the remarks of Professors Peart and Farrant on the not-so-dismal science.  Their more recent posts, however, are more within my range of comment. I’ve always found it fascinating that Hayek took such a strong interest in J. S. Mill (and Harriet Taylor). Even before he published their correspondence, he “rescued from oblivion” Mill’s The Spirit of the Age (1831),[121] the essays which have played a notable role in revisionist readings of Mill’s status as “the apostle of liberty.” Though Mill had only known (and perhaps been in love with) Mrs. Taylor for two years when she penned “On Conformity” (1832), the contrast with Mill’s ideas on opinion formation and deference to “experts” (as expressed in The Spirit of the Age) could not be more glaring. (Was Harriet aware of Mill’s authorship? If so would she not have scolded the young swain?) In his unbounded faith in the power of education to shape human character and thereby transform society, Mill is often accused of naiveté. Yet even he balked at Harriet’s ever more sanguine projections in this area. (Ironically, he was still willing to defer to her opinions.) Yet as Professor Peart suggests, Harriet was shrewdly aware of the dangers of conformity, and quotes a passage that could have been lifted from Mill’s On Liberty. Perhaps Mill should be taken at his word when he described the work as a joint production.
Bentham’s decision to mummify his corpse and place it on display is perhaps the oddest instance of leading by example in the modern record. As Professor Farrant writes, “amused incredulity” is something of an understatement. Also amusing (at least to this observer) is Farrant’s economic analysis of Bentham’s Auto-Icon, which he cleverly characterizes as “a paradigmatic exercise in the economics of fame.” Clearly Bentham (like Comte) was attempting to replace religious sanctions for model behavior with secular humanist ones. The results of both were equally bizarre, and in Bentham’s case macabre as well. The basic idea, however, is not so strange after all. What is the best way to motivate individuals to elevated behavior? The answer (or at least a part of it) is posthumous fame. While Bentham would have us erect Halls of Fame to the great benefactors of mankind (and preserve and display their bodies there), WE have chosen to build temples to celebrities: athletes, film stars, presidents, cowboys, broadcasters, etc. Bentham would have likely placed many of our biggest pop culture icons in the Hall of SHAME (since he could not with consistency consign them to Hell.) That some of these celebrities (e.g., Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson) are among the most recognized (and admired) personages in the world would have left Bentham incredulous if not amused. (The monetary equation would have struck him as even more absurd – Monroe, Presley, and Jackson have generated more income in the grave than while living!)  This is not the “fame,” Bentham dreamed of as a fillip to good deeds, but rather “the democratic descent of honor.” [122] The present-day Hall of Shame is embodied by the principle of simple exclusion from the Hall of Fame (e.g., Pete Rose). Of course, one need only visit Congress to observe a living Rogue’s Gallery.
[121.] Mill's essay is split into several parts in John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXII – Newspaper Writings December 1822 – July 1831 Part I, ed. Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson, Introduction by Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986). </titles/256#lf0223-22_label_1091>. It can be found collected into one essay here </pages/mill-s-spirit-of-the-age>.
[122.] Leo Braudy, The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History (New York: Vintage Books, 1986), p. 3.