Thoughts on economics and liberty

JS Mill’s “On Liberty” is about elitism, not freedom. Thanks to Thomas Sowell for pointing this out.

I’m currently studying JS Mill’s serious errors in the formulation of the concept of natural monopoly, on which I’ll put out a blog post in due course. Mill was wrong on a number of other issues as well, and veered towards socialism towards the end of his life.

But this article by Sowell is crucial as it distils the core argument of On Liberty, which is about elitism, not freedom.


Among the many writings of John Stuart Mill, the one most likely to have been read by people living today is On Liberty, and the ideas expressed in it taken as most characteristic of Mill’s philosophy. Yet this small and plainly written work is often profoundly misunderstood.

Although On Liberty has become a symbol invoked against the intrusions of government into people’s personal lives or its stifling of ideas, Mill was unmistakably clear that intrusive government was not the object of his concern in this particular essay. He asserted, “the era of pains and penalties for political discussion has, in our own country, passed away.”1 Even a government press prosecution the year before On Liberty was published “has not” in Mill’s words, “induced me to alter a single word of the text.”2 Various other government restrictions Mill dismissed as “but rags and remnants of persecution.”3 The government was not what Mill feared nor what On Liberty was meant to warn against. It was the social “tyranny of the majority”4 and “the despotism of Custom”5 that he opposed in On Liberty. He said:

In England, from the peculiar circumstances of our political history, though the yoke of opinion is perhaps heavier, that of law is lighter, than in most other countries of Europe; and there is considerable jealousy of direct interference, by the legislative or the executive power, with private conduct; not so much from any just regard for the independence of the individual as from the still subsisting habit of looking on the government as representing an opposite interest to the public.6

What then is the subject of On Liberty? Mill says in the first paragraph of that essay that its subject is “the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual”7society, not government. Mill declared:

Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society itself is the tyrant—society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it? Its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandate: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression.8

While society’s disapproval is “not usually upheld by such extreme penalties” as government may have at its disposal, there are “fewer means of escape,” with social disapproval “penetrating more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.”9 Mill says in On Liberty: “Our merely social intolerance kills no one, roots out no opinions, but induces men to disguise them, or to abstain from any active effort for their diffusion.”10 Admitting that some rules of conduct must be imposed, both by law and by public opinion, Mill nevertheless thought that “the sole end for which mankind is warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of any of their number, is self-protection.”11 On Liberty argued that individuals should be free to do as they like “without detriment to their estimation” in the eyes of others.12 This was, however, an asymmetrical principle, as Mill applied it. To say that people should be free to do as they like “without detriment to their estimation” in the eyes of others is to say that others have no right to express their own opinions or even to quietly shun those whose conduct they disapprove.

This central principle elaborated in On Liberty is asymmetrical in yet another way. It becomes clear, especially in the later parts of On Liberty, that Mill’s special concern is with the effects of public opinion and customs on the intellectual elite. “Customs are made for customary circumstances and customary characters,”13 he says. Exceptional people should be exempt from the influence of mass public opinion—but mass public opinion should not be exempt from the influence of the intellectual elite. On the contrary, one of the arguments for the exemption of the elite from the social influence of the masses is that this will enable the elite to develop in ways that can then enable them to exert social influence over the masses:

There is always need of persons not only to discover new truths, and point out when what were once truths are true no longer, but to commence new practices, and set the examples of more enlightened conduct, and better taste and sense in human life. It is true that this benefit is not capable of being rendered by everybody alike: there are but few persons, in comparison with the whole of mankind, whose experiments, if adopted by others, would be likely to be any improvement on established practice. But these few are the salt of the earth; without them, human life would become a stagnant pool.14

Thus On Liberty, which seems at first to be an argument for being non-judgmental towards individuals in general, turns out to be an argument for a one-way non-judgmental attitude toward special individuals who are to apply social influence on others that others are to refrain from applying to them.

Throughout Mill’s writings over his lifetime, special intellectual elites were depicted as the salvation of society in general and of the masses in particular. Great things could be achieved, Mill said in one of his early writings, “if the superior spirits would but join with each other” for social betterment.15 He called upon the universities to “send forth into society a succession of minds, not the creatures of their age, but capable of being its improvers and regenerators.”16

According to On Liberty, democracy can rise above mediocrity, only where “the sovereign Many have let themselves be guided (which in their best times they always have done) by the counsels and influence of a more highly gifted and instructed One or Few.17 On Liberty is an argument for the differential treatment of an intellectual elite, cast in the language of greater freedom for all. In this and in Mill’s other writings, it is these elites—“the best and wisest,”18 the “thinking minds,”19 “the most cultivated intellects in the country,”20 “those who have been in advance of society in thought and feeling”21—that he looked to for the progress of society. What Mill called “the general progress of the human mind” was in reality the special progress of special minds who were to lead others. Even when they lacked the power or influence to carry out this role, the intellectual elite had the duty of “keeping alive the sacred fire in a few minds when we are unable to do more,” as Mill wrote to a friend.22

In short, the excogitated conclusions of the intellectual elite were more or less automatically assumed to be superior to the life experiences of millions, as distilled into social values and customs. The role of the masses was to be taught by their betters and the role of their betters was to be taught by the best. Mill wrote to Harriet Taylor that they must write in order to provide material from which “thinkers, when there are any after us, may nourish themselves & then dilute for other people.”23 As for the masses, Harriet Taylor wrote to Mill that “for the great mass of peoples I think wisdom would be to make the utmost of sensation while they are young enough & then die.”24

Sanjeev Sabhlok

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