A father of liberalism

Richard Reeves has written a profile of John Stuart Mill in the May 2006 Prospect Magazine.

I haven’t read much political philosophy, so it was interesting to learn about Mill. Some nuggets (each paragraph lifted separately):

Mill was a man who saw little value in ideas unless they were tethered to human improvement, and was brilliantly successful at using his intellectual stature to influence the politics and culture of his age. He is the greatest public intellectual in British history

“I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative.”

Mill saw an important role for government, believing that people needed educational and economic resources to lead their lives along paths of their own construction.

Mill’s success rested on three factors. First, he wrote clearly and attractively. Second, he managed to attract liberal opinion without provoking too much opposition from the church, by simply putting to one side questions of supernatural power. Third, he appealed to the Romantics by giving poetry and art a vital role in establishing many of the goals for human improvement while remaining firmly on the side of reason and science against “intuitionism“—the idea that certain truths are known a priori without any need for experimental proof.

Public intellectuals can help to shape the general climate of ideas, but are rarely able to effect specific changes in law: one of the reasons why Mill later became an MP.

Unlike many Victorian intellectuals, he was not opposed to factories and trains and real income growth. But he was concerned, like Keynes 80 years later, that the habits of competition might become entrenched: “I am not charmed with the ideal of life held out by those who think that the normal state of human beings is that of struggling to get on; that the trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other’s heels… are the most desirable lot of human kind.”

But for Mill, liberty consists of much more than being left alone. It requires choice-making by the individual. “He who lets the world . . choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation,” he writes. “He who chooses his plan for himself employs all his faculties.” For Mill, a good life must be a chosen life.

One Reply to “A father of liberalism”

  1. John Stuart Mill was beyond “left and right” — he was against socialism and capitalism, and was for the third alternative: fair access to land and natural resources (because no person produced them), while allowing each person to keep the products of his/her labor, without any taxes on labor or production.

    Here is a quote from Mill, about the distinction between property in land versus property in products of labor:

    [John Stuart Mill]:
    Landlords “grow richer as it were, in their sleep, without
    working, risking, or economizing.” It is “a kind of income which constantly tends to increase, without any exertion or sacrifice on the part of the owners.” (J.S. Mill, Principles of Political Economy, bk.5, ch.2, sec.5). [Mill is referring to land, not buildings, which are legitimate products of human effort.]

    Mill is now called a “classical liberal”, as opposed to so many of today’s misguided liberals, who have lost their liberal heritage of being against socialism and capitalism. Other prominent classical liberals who have views similar to Mill’s include Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Henry George, Leo Tolstoy, and eight Nobel Prize economists.

    For more information, see: , or

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