Mill on liberty

Notes for September 17

Main points

Yes, I know you’ve read Mill’s On Liberty three or four times by now. But I’ll bet you never spent a serious amount of time with chapters 3-5! That was the plan today.

The utilitarian case for liberty

I should have started the class out with an exercise: what would you expect the utilitarian case for liberty to be? You probably would have said that it’s quite straightforward: people are better at making themselves happy than they are at making others happy and so leaving them at liberty to do what they want is the way to produce the greatest overall happiness. Easy!

We will talk about that way of arguing for liberty on utilitarian grounds on Thursday when we discuss Arrow’s paper. But one of the points I wanted to make about Mill is that this is not the way he goes about it. Mill’s argument for liberty is that it is necessary for self-improvement and social progress. This is partly for the reason that a society that protects individual liberty will give unusual people room to innovate for personal and social gain. The other part of his story is more pessimistic and familiar: even if individuals run their lives poorly, liberty is still desirable on utilitarian grounds because the state would do even worse.

In fact, what stood out for me in reading this is how often he kept saying that he did not really expect most people to make anything out of their liberty. It’s only the eccentric geniuses in our midst who will genuinely do so. It struck me as a more elitist view than it had in the past.

Speech and advertising

One thing I find interesting about chapter five is the distinction between sellers and buyers. There can be significantly greater restrictions on those who sell goods like sex, alcohol, gambling, and drugs than there can be on those who buy them.

I said that I thought this was due to Mill’s belief that commercial activity is not essential to self-improvement. It’s motivated by the desire to make money rather than being part of living one’s ‘plan of life.’ I’m really not sure that’s true, but it seems to me that it was Mill’s view.

Professor Brown said she thought this was mostly about advertising. The restrictions on sellers looked to her like restrictions on enticing people to buy those goods.

That sounded right to me. But then we’ve got an interesting tension within the book. Chapter two makes the case that we cannot understand the truth unless we confront vigorously expressed falsehoods. So why not allow vigorously expressed commercial messages? Why not allow pimps and gamblers to try to sell people on a way of life filled with the goods they have to offer? Isn’t that the only way of truly understanding why we don’t want to live that way?

I myself think Mill was probably right to be suspicious of the value of speech motivated by commercial gain. But that does mean that we have to take another look at the arguments for freedom of speech in chapter two. Professor Brown briefly noted a contemporary application of this topic: the ability of corporations to make political donations as speech protected by the First Amendment. Should that be supported on the grounds given in chapter two or qualified on the grounds implicit in chapter five?

This page was written by Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, & Well-being, PPE 160, Fall 2013. It was posted September 18, 2013.
Freedom, Markets, & Well-being