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John Stuart Mill

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John Stuart Mill (20 May 1806–8 May 1873) was a British classical liberal thinker of the 19th century, a champion of utilitarianism, and firm advocate for women having legal equality with men. To this day, he remains one of the most influential figures in the development of liberal democracy and economics. He advocated for the implementation of a model for a limited government that would offer a small number of social programs intended to assist those in need, as well as an economic policy that combined some aspects of both laissez-faire and early socialist thought. Today, Mill is seen as a major impact on various movements and schools of thought, both economic and philosophical. Despite their stark differences in economic theory, he served as an inspiration for the financial models that were devised by John Maynard Keynes, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman.


Although he would probably fit somewhere within the range of centre-right to centre-left by 21st century standards, Mill would have been seen as a hard leftist in his day. Not only was he an advocate for absolute liberalization of the state, the increase in parliamentary authority, and limited state intervention in the market — a sort of "laissez-faire lite" — but he was also one of Britain's first politicians to embrace the idea of absolute liberty. This was not only fiscal, as the main basis of his philosophy centered around civil liberalism. He was for the decriminalization of homosexuality, the secularization of society, the granting of voting rights to all citizens, a global abolition of slavery, and the tolerance of other cultures and religions, unless said beliefs were in direct contradiction with the core values of liberal democracy. Essentially, he opined that every individual was entitled to his or her own personal self-interest so long as those subsequent actions did not impede upon another man or woman's right to practice his or her own liberties. As a utilitarian, Mill believed that the right thing for society was always what positively benefited the most people, or the "greater good". That being said, the prosperity of a collective group of individuals would outweigh the prosperity of a single person if the latter person's prosperity could only be achieved at the expense of the collective's prosperity. While Mill was one of the many 19th century philosophers to voice support in favor of social collectivism, his version, in contrast to someone like Marx, emphasized that a collective could not exist without the presence of self-determined individuals, and that the individualism of each person is the agent that grants collectivism its legitimacy. That being said, Mill was still a hard individualist, with his support of collectivism being due to the idea that individuals were what defined and made up such collectives, and that the good of the individual was a factor paramount to the overall happiness of a liberal society.

Mill introduced a theory that he referred to as "the Harm Principle", which later went on to influence a similar notion called "Non-Aggression Principle", a belief common among both modern libertarians and non-interventionists. Mill's "Harm Principle" specifically touched on the question that asked to what extent one could go in exercising the right to liberty. Another important factor involved the government's role in the matter. For the lack of a less stupid example, if a man wanted to punch himself in the face, then he can do so, and by doing just that he is exercising his right to liberty. However, if he punches someone out in public, then he has intentionally put another person — his equal — in a position of harm. In regards to the collective, if that same man loves to shout the word "fire" whenever he watches a movie, then he has every right to do so when he is in his own home. Yet, doing the same thing at a movie theatre is not conducive to the well-being of other cinema-goers, therefore being an abuse of the right to civil liberty. Yes, the aforementioned example may very well be a commonly espoused, if not hackneyed, example, but it proves to be an effective example of displaying this principle, and the author has the right to liberty, allowing them to use the "movie theatre allegory", which does not seem like something that could ever possibly be seen as harmful to the reader. After all, if you've read this far, that's probably proof that you find the subject interesting. But, then again, you could just be a masochist, which is perfectly acceptable, seeing as masochism does not harm anyone other than yourself...though one could make the argument that since masochism is an intentional act, often done for pleasure's sake, that the act is actually maximizing your own personal utility. So, regardless of whether you are a masochist or simply reading this for fun (which would also boost utility), the reader must understand that the government, according to Mill, has an obligation to protect the right to liberty. With that said, the government has the right to exercise force only when the greater good is put at risk or a citizen's life, liberty, or happiness is put in jeopardy by an aggressor. That being said, the aggressor would be forced to suffer, accept, and live with the consequences of his or her actions. The notion of consequentialism is, itself, a fundamental principle of utilitarianism, as, according to philosophers like Mill who belong to the school of thought, social and personal utility, or the lack thereof, are primarily determined by courses of action and the consequences that follow. Over time, as courses of action are tested and the consequences analyzed, data can be garnered. When applying this concept to economic philosophy, this same observational method as it relates to the analysis of an action's result can be utilized through the practice of empiricism and mathematics. As a matter of fact, this method of studying economics was directly influenced by John Stuart Mill's basic philosophy, both moral and economic, being popularized by economist Milton Friedman when he set out to test and improve upon Alfred Marshall's theory of "Neoclassical Economics", the result being both the creation of the Chicago School of Microeconomics and the successful implementation of Marshall's model in accurately observing the functionality of the global economy (and continued to be an effective tool in regards to market analysis until its failure to predict the crash of the housing market in 2006). Both Marshall and Friedman held Mill as one of their greatest influences both economically and philosophically, as his variation of utilitarian thought can be made applicable to countless facets of life.

Mill was an outspoken advocate of immigration, due to both its economic and social benefits. He believed that the arrival of newcomers would ultimately improve the efficiency of industrial productivity. In addition, he proposed the notion that Western countries should redefine their contemporary views on the nature of identity, expressing that the foundation of Western identity should be the tenets of liberal democracy, freedom, secularism, enlightenment philosophy, and the classical European aesthetic, professing that neither race nor religion were valid criteria in determining both national and cultural identity. He believed that the "Old World" of Europe should model itself as a region that could offer just as much social and employment opportunity as the United States of America and other growing democracies. Although an initially slow process, the abolition of slavery and denormalization of racist thought in Great Britain during Mill's time resulted in the growth of a multiracial community. In regards to his opinion on identity and the factors that define such, Mill was especially passionate in implementing such an understanding within British society. To him, one of the benefits of immigration is that it would strengthen national pride and boost social morale. To that end, a truly spirited nation with a strong sense of identity would see its citizens practically marketing it as being the ideal homeland, essentially expressing a desire to introduce others to the foundational culture, traditions, and way of life, as a sort of positive form of national evangelism. To Mill, individual identity was important, and, the way he saw it, national identity played an important part in one's personal identity. As a result, adoption of the national, political, cultural, and traditional ethos' would be the only conditions required in exchange for citizenship rights.

Along with his views on immigration, Mill's opinion regarding the management of the national economy and his support for reestablishing a reverence for the British classical tradition made him one of the earliest advocates for "civic" or "liberal" nationalism, a historically moderate to left-leaning, non-nativistic interpretation of nationalist thought, in which identity is not determined by race, religion, or heritage, but instead by a shared set of cultural practices and beliefs that are based in a core national ethos. For example, Mill believed that his fellow Englishmen would benefit by developing a deeper appreciation and reverence towards the works of various authors, philosophers, and artists that deeply impacted the British arts. History too, and being able to understand it, was important to Mill, and to how he defined identity, which was purposefully made to be abstract. Finally, in regards to economic functionality, Mill was an economic nationalist, believing that the industrialization of Britain was key to its financial success. He also wanted to make the market a more pluralistic place that was welcoming to all kinds of businesses. Despite being in favor of neoliberal trade on principle, Mill's opinion on market production and external commerce seemed to favor the idea that Britain should only consume its own products, regardless of which corner of the empire they would come from. In order to increase capital, Mill insisted that a certain percentage of both colonial and factory goods should be exported to trade partners, while limiting imports as to not develop economic dependency.

A staunch critic of military and territorial expansionism, Mill held generally non-interventionist views on foreign policy, believing that war was only truly justified when provoked by an act of aggression carried out by another nation, or if there was a legitimate reason suggesting that doing so would be for the benefit of society as a whole. While critical of the way that colonial subjects were treated by certain British soldiers in occupied protectorates of direct holdings, Mill did not support isolationism or the abandonment of Britain's colonial territories. They were, in his mind, an economic means to an end, and he saw little problem with their continued management so long as the exported colonial goods were not harvested as a result of slave labor, holding the view that some level of hegemony was required in order to sustain prosperity. By the 1860's, Britain had extended its empire so much that it had become almost unsustainable. If the empire were to continue with its expansion, it would risk imploding from the inside. As a result, Mill realized that the British Empire was not only too large to dismantle, but that its almost three-hundred year ascendancy had established itself so prominently that withdrawing from certain countries around the world would actually do more damage than good, as the British Empire's presence, in many cases, was the only thing that ensured regional stabilization.

Yet the social cause that Mill most cared about, and the one that he had the greatest impact on, was the Women's Rights movement. Along with his wife and his stepdaughter, Mill authored several essays arguing that all women should be granted the same civic and political rights and advantages as male citizens. In his 1866 treatise "On the Subjection of Women", Mill would petition the English Parliament to grant these rights to women via an amendment in the 1867 Reform Bill, which, at the time, was in committee. He was a vocal critic of what he called "a society dominated by patriarchal hierarchy". Along with other contemporary abolitionists and their wives, John Stuart Mill was a major voice for early feminism, and he — a man — is widely regarded as being one of the movement's core founders, thereby debunking the MRA myth that men cannot be feminists.

On another note, Mill was one of the first British statesmen to profess a belief in outright atheism, doing so in a letter released posthumously. A lot of his old co-workers probably felt pretty darn shocked, or possibly even stupid, once they all found out that they had allowed an atheist to sneak into their ranks, because that was just about the worst thing you could be back then. Antisemites? Sure. Sexists? No problem! But God forbid that an atheist be elected into public office.

Eventually, Mill's writings on classical liberalism and civil rights would go onto play a major role in the shaping of modern libertarianism and certain facets of progressivism, although his impact can be found just about everywhere - from the economics to social justice.

On Liberty[edit]

One of Mill's most influential works is "On Liberty", where he spells out his grand thesis The Harm Principle:

The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are war-ranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.[1]

As a fun aside, it seems Thomas Jefferson beat him to the punch by almost 100 years:

The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.[2]

This needs clarification. Unfortunately, to the untrained eye, this reeks of modern libertarianism. It is not. Notice that Mill phrases it four different ways in his thesis: "is self-protection", "is to prevent harm to others", "deter... evil to some one else", "is that which concerns others". The last is considerably more open-ended. The libertarian distinction of positive vs negative liberties is entirely alien to Mill, and The Harm Principle did not intend to deal with only one of the two varieties. Modern libertarians, due to their peculiar lens of positive and negative liberties which is absent from Mill's work, commonly misunderstand and misconstrue Mill and The Harm Principle. If any doubt remains, read the following passage from On Liberty:

There are also many positive acts for the benefit of others, which he may rightfully be compelled to perform; such as to give evidence in a court of justice; to bear his fair share in the common defence, or in any other joint work necessary to the interest of the society of which he enjoys the protection; and to perform certain acts of individual beneficence, such as saving a fellow creature’s life, or interposing to protect the defenceless against illusage, things which whenever it is obviously a man’s duty to do, he may rightfully be made responsible to society for not doing.[1]

In other words, it is perfectly acceptable in Mill's vision to compel people to act in the public interest to deal with things like the bystander effect, collective action/free rider problem, and other circumstances where individual inaction, either individually or in the aggregate, causes harm to others--things libertarians are much more reluctant to admit in their philosophy.

On non-governmental moral majority tyrannies[edit]

Moreso than most philosophers, Mill was particularly concerned about the collective effect of actions of individual members of society to punish or curtail behavior. Examples might include shunning, Joseph McCarthy-like blacklists, etc. He considered such societal pressure to be capable of being as powerful or more powerful than a formal governmental policy. In his view, this kind of pressure can also abridge someone's right of self-determination, just like a formal governmental policy. To make this point, Mill distinguishes between "remonstrating […] reasoning [...] persuading [and] entreating" vs "compelling," claiming the first kind is acceptable behavior without legitimate reasons, and the second kind — force itself — requires legitimate reasons, reasons which concern the well-being of other people.

On conservatism[edit]

I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally conservative. I believe that is so obviously and universally admitted a principle that I hardly think any gentleman will deny it.
—Letter to the Conservative MP, Sir John Pakington (March 1866)

This is periodically subjected to blatant quote mining, typically by only stating the second sentence. This is usually done either in an attempt to discredit Mill or in an effort from moonbats, completely ignoring what Mill actually said, to assert that all conservative people are stupid.[3] It is no less problematic.


Mill, of his own free will, on half a pint of shandy was particularly ill.[4]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. 1.0 1.1 John Stuart Mill, On Liberty.
  2. Thomas Jefferson, "Notes on the State of Virginia."
  4. See Monty Python's Philosophers' Song