Written by Vladimir Moss



     In the mid-nineteenth century, foreigners were impressed by England’s political system because it seemed to combine freedom with stability, individualism with solidarity, power with prosperity (for the few), gradual extension of rights with traditional deference to title and rank, science and progress with morality and religion. And yet the objective reasons for a revolution from below were, if anything, stronger in England than anywhere else: the poverty of the majority was worse; the contempt in which they were held by the rich minority greater. So why was England able to avoid the continual upheavals that we see in contemporary France and on the continent?

     One reason was undoubtedly that the rich minority were able to use the improved methods of communication, especially the railways, to concentrate the power of a greatly increased police force against troublemakers more quickly than on the continent. A second was the unprecedentedly large emigration to America and the White Dominions (in the case of Australia, of course, this “emigration” was compulsory), which served as a safety-valve to expel the desperately poor (especially Ireland). A third was that the rapidly increasing lower middle classes, though poor, already had more than their chains to lose, and so tended to support the existing system. They needed the patronage of the rich, and looked down on the proletarians below them, whose desperation they feared. The rich took this into account, and so were able to proceed more slowly than they might otherwise have done in the work of helping the poor, introducing just enough reforms to maintain stability.

     As Jacques Barzun writes: “This knack of judging when and how things must change without upsetting the apple cart was painfully acquired by the English over the centuries. They were long reputed the ungovernable people. But fatigue caught up at last and a well-rooted anti-intellectualism helped to keep changes unsystematic and under wraps. Forms, titles, décor remain while different actions occur beneath them; visual stability maintains confidence. It was the knack of rising above principle, the reward of shrewd inconsistency.”[1]

     This “knack” paid dividends (literally and metaphorically). The 1850s saw England at her peak from an external, material point of view. Her navies ruled the seas; her trade and industry was far greater than any other country’s (though America and Germany were catching up fast); and while liberalism was checked on the continent after 1848 as monarchy revived and the proletariat raged, in England it remained remarkably stable.

     As John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge write, “British liberals took a decrepit old system and reformed it, establishing a professional civil service, attacking cronyism, opening up markets, and restricting the state’s right to subvert liberty. The British state shrank in size even as it dealt with the problems of a fast-industrializing society and a rapidly expanding global empire. Gross income from all forms of taxation fell from just under 80 million pounds in 1816 to well under 60 million pounds in 1846, despite a nearly 50 percent increase in the size of the population. The vast network of patronage appointees who made up the unreformed state was rolled up and replaced by a much smaller cadre of carefully selected civil servants. The British Empire built a ‘night-watchman state’, as it was termed by the German socialist Ferdinand Lasalle, which was both smaller and more competent than its rivals across the English Channel.

     “The thinker who best articulated these changes was John Stuart Mill, who strove to place freedom, rather than security, at the heart of governance… Mill’s central political concern was not how to create order out of chaos but how to ensure that the beneficiaries of order could achieve self-fulfilment. For Mill, the test of a state’s virtue was the degree to which it allowed each person to develop fully his or her abilities. And the surest mechanism for doing this was for government to get out of the way…”[2]

     It was to give a theoretical underpinning to this English variety of liberalism, that John Stuart Mill wrote his famous essay On Liberty, which remains to this day the most elegant and influential defence of English liberalism.

     Mill admired Alexis de Tocqueville, and was a passionate opponent of his concept (developed in his study of America) of “the tyranny of the majority”. To protect society against this tyranny he proposed a single “very simple” principle which would place a limit on the ability of the state to interfere in the life of the individual: “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 to be used by 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 warranted, 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 civilized 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 opinion 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 someone else. The only part of the conduct of anyone or which it 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.”[3]

      Mill asserted that this “Liberty Principle” or “Harm Principle” applied only to people in “the maturity of their faculties”, not to children or to “those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage.”[4] For “Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved through free and equal discussion”.[5]

     This qualification provided a neat justification for the spread of the British Empire among the pagan nations; and in general, in spite of the fact that Mill was concerned above all to protect the liberty of the individual against the tyranny of the majority and popular morality, his theory fitted in remarkably well with the prejudices of the majority in the England of his time. Thus the English prided themselves on their freedom of speech, and their giving refuge to political exiles of every kind, from Louis XVIII and Louis Napoleon to Herzen and Bakunin, Kossuth and Marx.[6] No tyranny of the majority here!

     Mill provided a passionate defence of the widest possible freedom of thought and speech. “First,” he argued, ‘the opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true. Those who desire to suppress it, of course, deny its truth; but they are not infallible. They have no authority to decide the question for all mankind and exclude every other person from the means of judging. To refuse a hearing to an opinion because they are sure that it is false is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.”[7]

     No: there is a difference between certainty and the assumption of infallibility. A man may consider himself to be a wretched sinner and prone to all kinds of errors, and yet be completely certain of some things. All true religious belief is of this kind – and much false religious belief also. Faith, according to the definition of the Apostle, is certainty in the existence of invisible realities (Hebrews 11.1); it is incompatible with the least doubt. But even if one is not completely certain about something, one may be sufficiently sure to act to censor what one considers a false opinion. Thus a government may not be completely certain that a certain drug has no serious side effects. But it may still act to ban it, and ban any propaganda in its favour, in the belief that the risks are sufficiently great to warrant such action. Mill may be able to accommodate this example with his “Harm Principle”, but not on the grounds that to exclude a certain opinion on the grounds that it is likely to be false amounts to a belief in one’s infallibility.

     Mill anticipates this objection: “Men and governments must act to the best of their ability. There is no such thing as absolute certainty, but there is assurance sufficient for the purposes of human life. We may, and must assume our opinions to be true for the guidance of our own conduct; and it is assuming no more when we forbid bad men to pervert society by the propagation of opinions which we regard as false and pernicious.”[8]

     But Mill will have none of this; it is only by allowing our opinion to be contested by those who think otherwise, he argues, that we come to know whether it is really deserving of confidence, and hence whether the opposite opinion should be censored. “The most intolerant of churches, the Roman Catholic Church, even at the canonization of a saint admits, and listens patiently to, a ‘devil’s advocate’. The holiest of men, it appears, cannot be admitted to posthumous honours until all that the devil could say against him is known and weighed.”[9]

     In practice, this means that no opinion should ever be censored; “the lists have to be kept open” in case someone appears who will expose the flaw in the accepted “truth”. And this applies even if the dissenting opinion goes against one’s most treasured and vital convictions concerning God or morality. For “however positive anyone’s persuasion may be, not only of the falsity but of the pernicious consequences – not only of the pernicious consequences, but (to adopt expressions which I altogether condemn) the immorality and impiety of an opinion – yet if, in pursuance of that private judgement, though backed by the public judgement of his country or his contemporaries, he prevents the opinion from being heard in its defence, he assumes infallibility. And so far from the assumption being less objectionable or less dangerous because the opinion is called immoral or impious, this is the case of all others in which it is most fatal. These are exactly the occasions on which the men of one generation commit those dreadful mistakes which excite the astonishment and horror of posterity.”[10]

     And then Mill cites the examples of Socrates and Jesus Christ, who, though the most admirable of men, became the victims of the censoriousness of their generation.

     Mill’s most powerful argument in favour of complete liberty of speech – an argument expressed before him in More’s Utopia and Milton’s Areopagitica - is that it is only in an atmosphere of complete intellectual freedom that truth can be truly understood and become well rooted. “Truth gains more even by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think. Not that it is solely, or chiefly, to form great thinkers that freedom of thinking is required. On the contrary, it is as much and even more indispensable to enable average human beings to attain the mental stature which they are capable of. There have been, and may again be, great individual thinkers in a general atmosphere of mental slavery. But there never has been, nor ever will be, in that atmosphere an intellectually active people.”[11]

     Mill cites the Reformation, the late eighteenth-century in France and the early nineteenth-century in Germany as admirable periods of intellectual freedom. “In each, an old mental despotism had been thrown off, and no new one had yet taken its place. The impulse given at these three periods has made Europe what it now is. Every single improvement which has taken place either in the human mind or in institutions may be traced distinctly to one or other of them.”[12]

     However, the citing of these three periods exposes the false assumptions of Mill’s argument. The Reformation was indeed an intellectually exciting period, when many of the abuses and falsehoods of the medieval period were exposed. But did it lead to a greater understanding of positive truth? By no means. Similarly, the late eighteenth century was the period in which the foundations of Church and State were so effectively undermined as to lead to the bloodiest revolution in history to that date, a revolution which most English liberals quite rightly abhorred. As to the early nineteenth century in Germany, its most dominant thinker was Hegel, who, as we shall see, constructed probably the most pompous and contradictory – indeed, strictly nonsensical - of all philosophical systems, which is considered, with some justice, to be an ancestor of both communism and fascism.

     As for the Anglo-Saxon world, in the one-and-a-half centuries since Mill’s time, although it has attained a still greater degree of freedom of thought and speech than prevailed in those three epochs, yet it has been at the expense of the almost complete decay of traditional Christian belief and morality... Evidently, freedom does not necessarily lead to truth. Nor did the Truth incarnate ever claim that it would, declaring rather the reverse relationship, namely, that “ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8.32). And part of the truth consists in the sober recognition that men’s minds are fallen, and for much of the time do not even want the truth, so that if given complete freedom to say what they like, the result will be the falling away of society from truth into the abyss of destruction. As Timothy Snyder writes, interpreting the lessons of George Orwell’s 1984 for today’s mass democracies: “The core texts of liberal toleration, such as Milton’s Areopagitica and Mill’s On Liberty, take for granted that individuals will wish to know the truth. They contend that in the absence of censorship, truth will eventually emerge and be recognised as such. But even in democracies this may not always be true.”[13]

     Mill’s arguments in favour of complete freedom of expression rest on the assumption, as he freely admitted, that the men who are given this freedom are not children or barbarians. And yet the corruption of mind and heart we associate with the word “barbarian” is present in every single man; this is what we mean by the term “original sin”. And if men were not very often children in mind, the Apostle Paul would not have been forced to say: “Brethren, be not children in your thinking; be babes in evil, but in thinking be mature” (I Corinthians 14.20).

     James Fitzjames Stephen, in his Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (1873) pointed to further important flaws in Mill’s argument. Liberty was like fire, he said; it could be used for good and ill; to assume otherwise was naïve and dangerous. It was by no means certain that full freedom from interference by others would lead to greater searching for truth; it could just as easily lead to idleness and lack of interest in social affairs.

     Moreover, writes Gertrude Himmelfarth, “what disturbed him about Mill’s doctrine was the possibility that its adoption would leave society impotent in those situations where there was a genuine need for social action. Implicit too was the possibility that the withdrawal of social sanctions against any particular belief or act would be interpreted as a sanctioning of that belief or act, a licence to do that which society could not prohibit.”[14]

     Stephen’s line of argument has been developed in our time by Lord Devlin in his essay entitled The Enforcement of Morals (1968). “The occasion for Devlin’s essay,” writes Himmelfarth, “was the Report of the Wolfenden Commission recommending the legalization of homosexuality between consenting adults. Against the Commission’s claim that private morality and immorality were ‘not the law’s business’, Devlin argued that ‘the suppression of vice is as much the law’s business as the suppression of subversive activities; it is not more possible to define a sphere of private morality than it is to define private subversive activity.”[15]

     As we know, the Wolfenden Commission’s recommendation with regard to homosexuality was accepted by the English parliament, which demonstrates the power – the highly destructive power – that the application of Mill’s Principle has acquired in our times, a power that Mill himself would probably have deplored. Indeed, a completely consistent application of the Principle would probably lead to the sweeping away of prohibitions against such activities as euthanasia, incest and prostitution on the grounds that these are within the sphere of private morality or immorality and so of no concern to the State. But then, asks Devlin, “if prostitution is… not the law’s business, what concern has the law with the ponce or the brothel-keeper…? The Report recommends that the laws which make these activities criminal offences should be maintained… and brings them… under the heading of exploitation…. But in general a ponce exploits a prostitute no more than an impresario exploits an actress.”[16]

     Mill justifies the prohibition of certain acts, such as public decency, on the grounds that they “are a violation of good manners, … coming thus within the category of offences against others”.

     And yet, as Jonathan Wolff points out, it is difficult to see how such a prohibition can be justified on the basis of the Harm Principle alone. For “what harm does ‘public indecency’ do? After all, Mill insists that mere offence is no harm. Here Mill, without being explicit, seems to allow customary morality to override his adherence to the Liberty Principle. Few, perhaps, would criticize his choice of policy. But it is hard to see how he can render this consistent with his other views: indeed, he appears to make no serious attempt to do so. “Once we begin to consider examples of this kind we begin to understand that following Mill’s ‘once simple principle’ would lead to a society of a kind never seen before, and, perhaps, one which we would never wish to see…”[17]

     And so, while English liberalism of the Mills variety carefully sought to protect society both from the continental-style tyranny of one man, and from the American-style tyranny of the majority, it ended up delivering society into a series of tyrannies of minorities, which is best exemplified by the European Human Rights Act that is devastating Christian faith and morality in contemporary Britain. This should not surprise us; for liberalism is in essence a pagan doctrine, owing its origin more to fifth-century Athens than to any period of Christian history. Mills extolled the Liberty or Harm Principle not simply because it supposedly guaranteed freedom from tyranny and the triumph of truth, but because it fostered that ideal of the human being, vigorous, independent, unafraid of being different, even eccentric, which he found in Classical Greece. Indeed, he openly rejected the ascetic, Calvinist-Anglican ideal in favour of the pagan Greek: “There is a different type of human excellence from the Calvinistic: a conception of humanity as having its nature bestowed on it for other purposes than merely to be abnegated. ‘Pagan self-assertion’ is one of the elements of human worth, as well as ‘Christian self-denial’. There is a Greek ideal of self-development, which the Platonic and Christian ideal of self-government blends with, but does not supersede. It may be better to be a John Knox than an Alcibiades, but it is better to be a Pericles than either; nor would a Pericles, if we had one in these days, be without anything good which belonged to John Knox.”[18]


March 16/29, 2018.


[1] Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence, New York: Perennial, 2000, p. 529.

[2] Micklethwait and Wooldridge, “The State of the State”, Foreign Affairs, July-August, 2014, pp. 122-123.

[3] Mill, On Liberty, London: Penguin Classics, 1974, pp. 68-69.

[4] Mill, On Liberty, p. 69.

[5] Mill, On Liberty, p. 69.

[6] Dostoyevsky described how a Member of Parliament, Sir Edward Watkins, welcomed Don Carlos to England: “Of course, he himself knew that the newly arrived guest was the leading actor in a bloody and fratricidal war; but by meeting him he thereby satisfied his patriotic pride and served England to the utmost of his ability. Extending his hand to a blood-stained tyrant, in the name of England, and as a member of Parliament, he told him, as it were: ‘You are a despot, a tyrant, and yet you came to the land of freedom to seek refuge in it. This could have been expected: England receives everybody and is not afraid to give refuge to anyone: entreé et sortie libres. Be welcome’” (The Diary of a Writer, 1876, London: Cassell, part I, trans. Boris Brasol, pp. 262-263).

[7] Mill, On Liberty, p. 77.

[8] Mill, On Liberty, p. 79.

[9] Mill, On Liberty, p. 81.

[10] Mill, On Liberty, p. 84.

[11] Mill, On Liberty, p. 91.

[12] Mill, On Liberty, p. 96.

[13] Snyder, “War is Peace”, Prospect, November, 2004, p. 33.

[14] Himmelfarth, in Mill, On Liberty, p. 40.

[15] Himmelfarth, in Mill, On Liberty, p. 41.

[16] Devlin, in Jonathan Wolff, An Introduction to Political Philosophy, Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 141.

[17] Wolff, op. cit., pp. 140-141. For the difficulties created for Mills’ theory by public indecency, see several articles in Philosophy Now, issue 76, November-December, 2009.

[18] Mill, On Liberty, p. 127.

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