Friday, July 25, 2008

On Liberty: Of the Limits of the Authority of Society Over the Individual

Apologies to everyone for the two-week delay in my posting. Without adding much of substance to what has already been said, this chapter is devoted to further discussion of the principles previously adumbrated. Since, in addition to this, I found myself mostly agreeing with Mill's positions, there just wasn't much to incite an immediate response. The below, accordingly, is mostly a summary report of some of the main topics covered.

Given Eric's aversion to taxes, I should report that Mill comes down firmly in their favor:

"[E]veryone who receives the protection of society owes a return for the benefit[; namely,] in each person's bearing his share (to be fixed on some equitable principle) of the labours and sacrifices incurred for defending the society or its members from injury and molestation. These conditions society is justified in enforcing at all costs to those who would endeavor to withhold fulfilment" (141).

Again, seems obvious to me, but I'm happy to discuss it further.

Mill also offers a distinction (already invoked on this forum by Kevin) between punishment by law and punishment by opinion. Some acts, Mill admits, are hurtful to others, but not to such an extent as to justify government intervention. Public opinion, in these cases, may be punishment enough. We have to decide in an open discussion what kinds of offense fall into what category by weighing the effect legal regulations would have on the "general welfare."

Mill clarifies that he is a great believer in the virtues of benevolence and in personal intervention on behalf of others. What he opposes is just governmental efforts to coerce such behavior out of its populace. He encourages individuals, in their capacity as private persons, to voice their opinions with an eye to steering others away from foolhardiness. ("It would be well, indeed, if this good office were much more freely rendered than the common notions of politeness at present permit, and if one person could honestly point out to another that he thinks him in fault, without being considered unmannerly or presuming" (144).) The other party remains free, of course, to cheerfully ignore our well-meaning advice and avoid our company.

Consistent with his canny ability to anticipate and address possible objections (150 years in advance of this reading!), Mill acknowledges that "[t]he distinction here pointed out between the part of a person's life which concerns only himself and that which concerns others, many persons will refuse to admit" (146). All of our actions, after all, have potentially public repercussions. What he suggests to meet this challenge is that a case be taken out of the provence of liberty and placed in that or morality or law whenever "there is a definite damage, or a definite risk of damage, either to an individual or to the public" (149). Or, in another formulation, he says, a "distinct and assignable obligation" must be violated to justify anything more than private disapprobation (148). (These are not exactly equivalent unless we define "obligation" in terms of "damages," but I'll put this aside for the present.) Mill offers drunkenness as an example: we cannot punish someone merely for being drunk, but we can certainly punish a police officer for being drunk on duty.

"For the sake of the greater good of human freedom," Mill declares, society must bear the harm an individual does only to herself (149). After all, on Mill's model, society has already provided its populace with an education, and they have on top of this whatever wisdom and experience they've attained throughout their minority. If, after all this, someone still cannot conduct her life successfully, it is hardly the responsibility of the government to step in and fix it for her, an office to which it is not competent in any case.

As always, I look forward to everyone's response --



troutsky said...

It may not technically be the "responsibility of the government to come in and fix" the inequalities of those not gifted with intelligence or wit but it may be something an elevated society would choose to do. A bit of liberty can be willingly sacrificed as long as the guard to potential misuse remains up.

A Wiser Man Than I said...


First off, nice work.

I don't think many people are going to claim that national defense, to which Mill alludes, is a legitimate public good. Where my problem comes in is that: 1) there are any number of ridiculous so-called "public goods" for which taxes now must be paid, and from which most people derive a benefit which is, at best. dubious; 2) providing for the defense requires money, which necessitates a limit to liberty.

In regards to the second, and in this particular country of ours, this means that the government restricts our freedom to do what we will with the fruits of fully a third of our labor.

I mention this because most people would insist that we live in a fairly free country, but if Mill is correct, it is very important to examine the extent of freedom which one is allowed, lest it should slip entirely away.

After all, on Mill's model, society has already provided its populace with an education...

I must be reading too quickly; can you find an instance of this in the text?

I'm looking forward to the applications he makes in the next section.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

A bit of liberty can be willingly sacrificed as long as the guard to potential misuse remains up.

The populace should remain free so that the citizens may exercise their liberty by sacrificing for the society, if they should so choose.

Eliminating liberty removes the essential element of sacrifice. Without freedom, sacrifice becomes mere coercion. I don't think anyone would claim that the slaves sacrificed to grow cotton, for instance.

PJ said...

Hi Troutsky, could you give an example of the kind of support or intervention you're suggesting we might want to promote? In a passage anticipating a favorite screed of Ayn Rand, Mill points out that bad workmen are frequently of the opinion that they be paid as much as good workmen; after all, their intentions (they believe) are equally strong, and they contribute (they believe) an equal amount of time and effort.

Are you impressed by these claims? Because it seems to me that what is fair is that people be paid according to what they're able to produce. Someone with no aptitude for a certain kind of job needs to find work of another kind. Our economy depends on it, and our well-being depends on the health of our economy. How could anyone make a claim on an industry in excess of her contribution? How could we persuade the more productive workers to countenance this?

Do note that the situation changes when someone is constitutionally incapable of competing in the market, for instance, the severely retarded. I don't recall whether Mill addresses this issue specifically, but it is at least consistent with his intention of balancing negative freedom (the sphere in which the individual is free to pursue her projects without interference) with positive freedom (the social and economic conditions for articulating and pursuing worthwhile projects) that these people be respectfully provided for. After all, negative freedom without positive freedom is empty, and positive freedom is precisely what this class of people is unable to exercise.

There's a lot more to be said about all this, but I'll stop to let you weigh back in.


PJ said...

Hey Eric, I'm assuming you meant to include another negation somewhere in your first sentence? In any case, I'm sure that a lot of tax money *is* wasted. But before we can dig into the nitty-gritty particulars, we need to get clear about what legitimizes taxes in the first place. As long as you maintain that taxation itself is an offense to liberty, you are going to have a very difficult time developing a principled heuristic to guide their proper expenditure.

To your question, there is an extended discussion of education in the next chapter. (Sorry, I was on a role.) I don't recall whether it's mentioned in passing earlier. We should probably wait to discuss it until you post your piece on the final chapter. I can say in advance, though, that I find Mill's proposals quite Enlightened (and this, for me, is a term of approbation!).


A Wiser Man Than I said...

Hey Eric, I'm assuming you meant to include another negation somewhere in your first sentence?

Sure did. Good catch.

As long as you maintain that taxation itself is an offense to liberty, you are going to have a very difficult time developing a principled heuristic to guide their proper expenditure.

Ideally, I'd like to see "user fees" rather than general taxes. For instance, taxing gasoline, and using the money to pay for roads--although they could be built by private enterprise--is a good example. Those who use the roads will pay for their cost.

The problem is in applying this to things like national defense--or education. I don't have all my ideas sorted out yet, so mostly I'm just being contrarian, but I don't think we can simply assume taxes are legitimate.

tz said...

Taxes should interfere with the economy as little as possible (I was horrified once when Paul Weyrich suggested using the tax code to promote thrift or other virtue noting it was just as bad as liberals wanting to use it to promote their idea of virtue). Government ought to be minimal to preserve the peace. Taxes should follow.

One case I thought of was concerning the erection of a flood control dam. It might benefit thousands, but they might not be willing to pay, or able as in the case of a senior citizen or widow. But the property would increase in value, so I would simply place a lien based on the increase in value of the property (if it doesn't result in a greater collective increase in value, the dam ought not be built) and get a bond which would be paid off when the property is sold. Note this doesn't even involve a property tax. Such liens/bonds could be paid off in advance.

I also have no problem calling taxation theft (as well as eminent domain). Man is fallen, so some evils are necessary to get past the fall. Roads must be generally straight and flat. And taxes are inversely proportional to the collective virtue. If everyone were never violent and always charitable, and took civic duty seriously we would need no government and no taxes.

National defense is also something that must not only be done collectively, but it also involves certain citizens more than others. The able and those at the borders.

Consider a Levee to prevent flooding. It must be built at the bank of the river. There might one property owner at the bank who does not want the Levee, but the river will not stop just for him and it may not be practical to build it around his parcel.

Or public health. Epidemics are usually a threshold effect. You may not want to pay for immunization or get a vaccine, but the only way to prevent an outbreak is to insure a large enough percentage is immune so the disease will die out. (We aren't doing this for STDs and here liberty which has become debauchery has proven fatal).

I would suggest the requirements parallel that of a "just war". Perhaps think of a war on flooding (though I hate the ideas of war on drugs, poverty, etc).

I don't have the catechism in front of me, but from memory:

The problem must be grave and immediate. Any other attempt at resolution (at not using governmental coercion) has failed - and some people will not listen to reason, but liberty also requires respecting a great deal of apparent irrationality. There must be a chance of success. The side-effects and 3rd party effects must be minimal and much less damaging than the original evil being addressed.

The government and no private or corporate body must take it on for a public or common good (and all but permanently - in the cases of eminent domain, the government does steal - destroys title to the land under the road - if it were ever to return the property it must be restored to the original owners as any other stolen property must be),

No document can defend itself against evildoers who will misinterpret it. Some will see trivia as grave and immediate dangers. Some will say breaching one property owner's rights against his will to build the levee to save 10,000 properties is too much of a side-effect.

But true liberty is hard. We don't have very many wise people, and they never become kings. Judges do precedents since even the brightest isn't smart enough to reconstruct everything ex nihilo. It is a balancing act of freedoms, subsidarity, and actually being willing to override an evil will when it goes out too far beyond that person.

And mistakes will be made. The church has the sacrament of reconciliation for that on the spiritual side, but governments will make mistakes and will need to be held to account.

That is life in this fallen world. But in each case giving liberty the benefit of the doubt - including the freedom to do evil within limits in the hope of repentance (or do we lobotomize everyone - the most horrific sinners have made the most blessed saints). And letting us work out our own paths.

tz said...

And let me throw out one gem of English law. Juries. But this includes nullification. Having to have 12 of your peers decide unanimously is a way to determine if someone is being unreasonable. Convince all 12 and I would not normally think to override such a decision. John Adams convinced one with the Boston Massacre.

This system is bent but not broken, and I think many things (considering the fugitive slave law during abolition) are best decided by the local community and those within it than a number of oligarchs on a high court.

The sense of the commons often has more common sense.

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