John Stuart Mill’s influential book On Liberty is 150 years old this year. Despite my reservations about the arguments Mill advances, Happy Birthday!!
Andrew Norton, an old friend from Australia, has a very elegant appreciation in the magazine Policy from the Centre for Independent Studies: “On Liberty at 150.”
As Andrew insightfully notes,
Classical liberalism is less rationalistic and individualistic, but more pluralistic, than Mill’s liberalism. Classical liberals support the freedom to conduct ‘experiments in living,’ as they support entrepreneurship in business. Innovation is necessary to progress but error-prone; only some social and commercial experiments will prove themselves to be better than the status quo. So classical liberals take a more benign view than Mill of custom and established social practices, which offer template ‘plans of life.’ People’s lives are not second-rate just because they are derivative rather than original. Nor should civil society be attacked by the state for not supporting individuality, as modern left-liberals do in using anti-discrimination law to enforce Millian ideals of personal autonomy on conservative religious institutions. There are diverse ways of living a good life, and governments should not try to reduce their number.
I am in general agreement with Andrew’s take, although I do not blame Mill as much for the decline of classical liberalism (that’s a complex subject for another occasion).
I also would add that I find the book that inspired On Liberty, Wilhelm von Humboldt’s On the Limits of State Action, is in many ways a more interesting book, but mainly influential through its influence on such thinkers as Mill.
You can find On Liberty online here.