amine how these deficiencies in Millcharacterized and vitiated the wholeliberal movement in English and Americanthought; and how they affect the vestigialform of nineteenth-century liberalism thatnow styles itself “libertarianism.” But wemust pass on, remarking only that this im-perfect apprehension of human nature isreadily discerned in the pages
That book displays a strong power oflogic, and some eloquence: but there runsthrough it Mill’s error that the tranquilEnglish society of his own day was destinedto become the universal pattern for allmankind; and it is injured, too,
Mill’scurious assumption that most human be-ings, if only they were properly schooled,would think and act precisely like JohnStuart Mill.Now the younger Mill, in his essays onColeridge and Bentham, had remarkedtruly that the cardinal error of Benthamwas his supposition that the affairs of menmay be reduced to a few simple formulas,to be applied universally and inflex-ibly
hen actually the great mysteriousincorporation of the human race is in-finitely subtle and complex, not to bedominated by neat little abstractions.
into precisely this same pit Mill falls in his
In his introductory chapter, hedeclares
object to be the assertion of“one very simple principle, as entitled togovern absolutely the dealings of societywith the individual in the way of compul-sion and control, whether the means usedby physical force in the form
legalpenalties, or the moral coercion of publicopinion. That principle is, that the soleend for which mankind are warranted, in-dividually or collectively, in interferingwith the liberty of action of any of theirnumber, is self-protection. That the onlypurpose for which power can be rightfullyexercised over any member of a civilizedcommunity, against his will,
to preventharm to others.”This seems an attractive solitary simpleprinciple. It sufficiently defines the convic-tions of twentieth-century libertarians,
believe. But the trouble with
thatsolitary simple principles, however tidy,really do not describe human behavior,and certainly cannot govern it.James Fitzjames Stephen, a forthrightman of affairs and
scholar in the law,perceived with irritation that fallacy whichmakes Mill’s
a frail reed introubled times; and in
which Stephen published in
he set upon Mill with a whip of scor-pions. John Stuart Mill, in Stephen’s eyes,was hopelessly naive:
me the question whether liberty is agood or a bad thing,” Stephen wrote, “ap-pears as irrational as the question whetherfire is a good or a bad thing? It is both goodand bad according to time, place, and cir-cumstance, and a complete answer to thequestion, In what cases
liberty good andin what is it bad? would involve not merelya universal history of mankind, but a com-plete solution of the problems which such ahistory would offer.
do not believe thatthe state of our knowledge is such as toenable us to enunciate any ‘very simpleprinciple as entitled to govern absolutelythe dealings of society with the individualin the way of compulsion and control.’ Wemust proceed in a far more cautious way,and confine ourselves to such remarks asexperience suggests about the advantagesand disadvantages
compulsion andliberty respectively in particular cases.”In every principle premise of his argu-ment, Stephen declared, Mill sufferedfrom an inadequate understanding ofhuman nature and history. All the greatmovements of humankind, Stephen said,have been achieved by force, not by freediscussion; and if we leave force out of ourcalculations, very soon we will be subject tothe intolerant wills of men who know noscruples about employing force against us.(So, one may remark, the twentieth-century libertarians would have us standdefenseless before the Soviet Russians.) It isconsummate folly to tolerate every varietyof opinion, on every topic, out of devotionto an abstract “liberty”; for opinion soonfinds its expression in action, and thefanatics whom we tolerated will nottolerate us when they have power.