On Liberty at 150

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.

2 Responses to “On Liberty at 150”

  1. Jude Blanchette

    Interesting essay, but I do find his opening claim (“John Stuart Mill is the only nineteenth century liberal intellectual still widely read and discussed in the twenty-first century”) a little odd. Certainly the names Acton, Burckhardt, Wollstonecraft, and Tocqueville are almost as well known as is the name Mill.

  2. Tom G. Palmer

    I should have mentioned that Jude alerted me to the article!

    I agree that “only” is used incorrectly. Tocqueville is certainly read widely in America, at least, but perhaps not in Australia. I’m sure that in Australia Mill is the most widely read nineteenth century liberal.

    Wollstonecraft died in 1797, so she doesn’t count, and she’s probably not read nearly as widely as Mill.

    I think that Andrew would probably be correct to write that in the twentyfirst century Mill is “the most widely read” of the nineteenth century liberals, at least in the English-speaking world.

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