It has been said, by persons such as Abraham Lincoln, that the cause of tyranny can oftentimes be mistaken for and promoted as the cause of liberty. If this is the case, then Americans must concern themselves most seriously with understanding what liberty is, and also what it is not.
John Stuart Mill, in what is perhaps his most famous and influential work, On Liberty, helped build the foundation for a modern understanding of freedom, one which an overwhelming number of Americans support. In doing so, he argued that for a society to be properly liberated, its citizens must be guaranteed freedom of thought and speech, liberty of tastes and pursuits, and freedom of association. Yet, expressly recognizing in the first chapter of On Liberty that these liberties were too radical without certain restrictions, he sought the boundaries within which they should exist. And by setting those particular boundaries, like so many of his followers on both the left and right do today he unwittingly destroyed the foundation for the liberty he sought in the first place.
His first mistake, as commonly adopted by libertarians and American liberals, was to declare that liberties are only legitimate insofar as they do not harm another. But as mentioned by conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, harm is a concept about which all sides of the political spectrum disagree, rendering such a basis for liberty impracticable. And going beyond unavoidable complications of indirect harm, Mill left his readers with nebulous boundaries within which to excuse (or not?) a man from harm to others relating to his inaction.
But perhaps more dangerous than Mill’s almost useless disapproval of “harm” is his bizarre expectation that the entire spectrum of public opinion would appreciate and propagate such a liberal system of government. Yet, supposing such a situation were to arise in which a populace overwhelmingly disagreed with his form of liberty and preferred “barbarism,” Mill argued that such a people should be subject to despotism in the name of freedom. He stated,
The early difficulties in the way of spontaneous progress are so great, that there is seldom any choice of means for overcoming them; and a ruler full of the spirit of improvement is warranted in the use of any expedients that will attain an end, perhaps otherwise unattainable. Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end.
Of course, Mill was not entirely wrong in his espousal of despotism. Few would be willing to suggest that actual forces of barbarism should ever be granted legitimacy, as the once neighbor sacrificing Aztecs or the child roasting Canaanites of yesteryear should never have their practices protected by a general respect for national sovereignty or even majority rule. And of course, the rule of law necessitates that those who break it are subject to legitimate force, regardless of whether they consent to its authority. But if barbarism is the despot’s license, then society must know without a doubt what barbarism is, and when to take action against it. Of course, Mill explained neither, and it has yet to be seen whether his followers would be willing to enforce such measures against peoples in their own countries whom they consider to be protected minorities, or whether such action will be left to what the left considers “barbaric” conservatives. As of late, the modus operandi reflects the latter path.
Yet, despite his approval of despotic rule over whomever he considered barbarous, and a firm expectation that his own particular standard was moral, like many Americans today he further overrode any safeguards against tyranny by declaring that humanity is a morally progressive being. For, if mankind is evolving in a constantly upward social trajectory, potentially making what is acceptable today barbaric tomorrow, then logic suggests that someone who believes himself morally progressive may throw off Mill’s own standard of liberty, and suppress it with force. In his idealism, Mill also dangerously neglected to recognize that most (if not all) powerful republics collapse not by accident, but by willful and misguided rational processes and the belief that they are in fact progressing, otherwise such social entropy could not take place. Thus, Mill’s liberty (and the liberal West’s which adopted it) is not only subjectively defined, but essentially temporary, a transitional stage to a morally different tomorrow.
It is only fair to wonder what becomes of justice when morality is considered to be evolving, harm by both activity and inactivity is subjective, and despotism may be the vehicle by which society may be carried into the future. Many Americans may call such a construction liberty, but it clearly cannot be. Rather, this “liberty” is the means by which despots rationalize illegitimate abuses of power, by which sects of society infringe upon the unalienable rights of others, and by which the moral value of governmental behavior is not determined according to law and principle, but rather by Nietzschean Will. In contrast to Mill, James Madison (recognized father of the constitution) once wrote in Federalist #51,
Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.
And this statement, to all who prize wisdom, is the indication that Mill and Western society have been going about the cause of liberty in entirely the wrong manner. Liberty cannot be said to predicate justice. Rather, justice must always predicate liberty. For liberty without justice is both anarchy and tyranny; anarchy without a power to which the weak may appeal, and tyranny by those who benefit from its absence. Without justice, liberty cannot be of any benefit to the human race, and indeed, any such pursuit of it must be considered by any and all noble men as null and void.
Rather, here is man’s liberty: it is the ability to live within the means of unalienable rights, and no more. Those rights which man was not given, to engage in (actually) harmful behaviors condemned by Law both natural and expressed, are wrong to protect (Second Treatise of Government, sects. 135 and 136). And likewise, it is wrong to prohibit with law those behaviors expressly protected by revelation. Man is entitled to his opinions on all other matters, and to create laws peripheral to these principles, but to transgress these boundaries is not liberty: it is a violation of justice, and it is evil. Short of this definition, liberty will be defined by the sword alone, whatever liberty may be contorted to mean. And he who wields that sword, as Mill’s own poor philosophy has proven, whether to the good of society or his own selfish ends, is mankind’s earthly master.