Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

A Case of Myth Taking Identity

Spring 2000

Joseph Hamburger
Princeton University Press, 1999, xx + 239 pgs.

As usual Murray Rothbard was right. In his Classical Economics, he contrasts John Stuart Mill with his father James Mill: "Instead of possessing a hard-nosed cadre intellect, John Stuart was the quintessence of soft rather than hard core, a woolly minded man of mush in striking contrast to his steel-edged father.... Hence Mill's ever-expanding `synthesis' was rather a vast kitchen midden of diverse and contradictory positions" (Murray N. Rothbard, Classical Economics, Edward Elgar, 1995, p. 277).

Joseph Hamburger's excellent study offers striking confirmation of Rothbard's assessment. Mill's On Liberty (1859) is normally considered a classic defense of freedom of thought and expression. As Hamburger is at pains to show, Mill had another side, sharply at variance with the supposedly pure libertarian position of On Liberty.

In this thesis, Hamburger is not original. Other scholars have detected a whiff of the authoritarian in Mill. Most notably, the British Tory historian Maurice Cowling "argued that for Mill liberty was not an ultimate value and that the arguments in On Liberty, and in all of Mill's works, were designed to bring into existence a society that would be quite oppressive" (p. xv).

By contrast with Cowling, Hamburger holds that Mill displayed both libertarian and authoritarian tendencies in On Liberty. Just as Rothbard suggested, Mill was confused and contradictory, even in his most libertarian work. The principal value and originality of Professor Hamburger's book lie in his careful arguments for this thesis.

At first glance, though, Hamburger's view seems obviously false. How can he find a scintilla of authoritarianism in On Liberty? Does not Mill there defend "one very simple principle as entitled to govern absolutely" the relations of an individual to society? The "simple principle," of course, is that society is justified in coercing someone only when he harms others. His own good does not provide sufficient warrant to intervene. Further, Mill spells out the consequences of his anti-paternalist maxim in considerable detail. "The fullest freedom of thought and discussion" receives lengthy defense. Surely Professor Hamburger has gone off the rails!

Our author first calls a surprise witness to defend his interpretation: John Stuart Mill himself. In a letter to his friend George Grote, written when planning On Liberty, Mill said he "was cogitating an essay to point out what things society forbade that it ought not, and what things it left alone that it ought to control" (p. 3). Incidentally, I am surprised that our author nowhere mentions George's brother John Grote, an important critic of Mill's philosophy.

But where in the text of On Liberty is anything authoritarian to be found? Hamburger cites the following passage, which he claims that most interpreters of Mill pass by in silence. "A person may suffer very severe penalties at the hands of others, for faults which concern only himself" (p. 8, emphasis is omitted). The penalties in question are expressions of distaste and contempt for behavior that "reflected the `lowness or depravation of taste' of `inferior' persons" (p. 8, citing On Liberty, ch. 4).

Further, the principle that only action that harms others stands subject to regulation is much less libertarian than it appears to be on the surface. Mill had a broad conception of harm to others. Thus, he did not reject laws that prohibit marriage unless the parties can demonstrate that they can support a family. If people were allowed to marry without proof of financial soundness, their children might suffer. The harm to others that allows for regulation here is hardly direct and immediate. Hamburger amusingly cites the English Comtian Frederic Harrison, who called Mill's account of marriage regulation "a Chinese tyranny of an ominous kind."

Hamburger has little difficulty in showing other instances in which Mill seems un-libertarian. He favored, as an instance, using social pressure to curb a long list of dispositions to bad conduct. Professor Hamburger notes that Mill "was prepared to punish not only conduct but faults of character, and this was not likely to enlarge the realm of liberty. Yet it is difficult to find discussion of what Mill says about punishing dispositions in the vast literature on On Liberty" (p. 13).

What explains the contradictions of On Liberty? According to our author, Mill had a hidden agenda. He thought Christianity was a false religion that inhibited intellectual freedom. He and other superior minds, freed from the shackles of false religion, would, he hoped, assume control of public opinion. Eventually, a religion of humanity would replace the outmoded belief in the Christian God.

Professor Hamburger is certainly right that Mill was no Christian, but in one respect he presses his case too far. He finds in Mill's essay Theism, "a few small concessions to Christian believers," made "to reduce enmity between skeptics and Christians." Yet, Hamburger thinks, "[f]ar from backsliding in Theism as dogmatic atheists charged, he was being conciliatory as a matter of tactics" (p.141).

I cannot think this assessment rests on a careful assessment of Theism. In that essay, Mill accords considerable weight to the design argument, although he thought it lent support to belief in a limited rather than an omnipotent God.

Fortunately for Hamburger, his main thesis about Mill and religion can be sustained. So long as Mill wished to overturn Christianity through the influence of an intellectual clerisy, Hamburger's point is made: he need not prove Mill an atheist tout court.

Control of public opinion by a group of self-styled superior intellects of course recalls Auguste Comte, by whom Mill was greatly influenced. But did he not repudiate Comte's scheme for social control as "liberticide?"

Indeed he did; but our author, not to be gainsaid, thinks that Mill never rid himself of fundamentally Comtist ideas. "Mill told Herbert Spencer how much he owed Comte.... Notwithstanding his criticism of Comte's conception of the religion of humanity, Mill had good things to say about it" (p. 127). In particular, Mill strongly agreed with Comte that people must be trained so that altruistic feelings entirely swamp selfishness. (I do not imagine Mill would have liked Ayn Rand.) In sum, Mill remained in essence a Comtian about religion but disagreed with some of the Master's practical suggestions.

Paradoxically, we can accept much of what Hamburger says while retaining a more libertarian reading of On Liberty than he allows. Hamburger does not challenge Mill's conflation of control by the state with social control. Quite the contrary, he relies on Mill's advocacy of social control to show him as in part an authoritarian.

But the mainstream classical-liberal tradition has taken a different tack. It distinguishes sharply between coercion-the use or threat of violence-and other sources of pressure. So long as Mill confined himself to the latter, he can remain a libertarian in good standing-though through no intellectual virtue of his own.


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