Monday, February 02, 2004

Where John Stuart Mill Got it Wrong

I wrote below that I am probably one of a few people who thinks that John Stuart Mill was too restrictive of liberty. How is that possible, when Mill is considered to be the foundation of libertarianism?

Let's look at one of his quotes:

The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection.
From the Introduction of On Liberty (emphasis mine)

An argument of the above has it that this will result in an anarchy in which affronts to decency must be tolerated. I propose the flipside of the argument.

How is it possible to say that Mill unnecessarily limits liberty? I'll start my answer with a question: How many individuals are necessary to make up society? Whenever I see the word "society" in a discussion such as this, I replace it with the words "everyone else". The essence of my point is that it is impossible to influence everyone else simultaneously. When we consider the impact of a person's actions or words on the rest of society, we have to break it down to the instance of the first person to react to the words or actions. The Mill formulation above, particularly the emphasized portion, would dictate that the observer would have to carry on as if the actor had done nothing unusual. In order to maintain the liberty of the first person, the liberty to react of the second must therefore be limited. As more and more people are brought into this state by the actions of the first person, soon there shall be a large number of people whose liberty have been denied. This argument, it should be noted, is reflexive and that the first person shall be similarly denied the liberty to react to anyone else.

The First Amendment guarantees the right to peaceably assemble. However, a right is not a right if its practice is compulsory, therefore the right to assemble must include the right to not assemble. If I have the right to choose to associate with whomever I choose, then I have the right to choose not to associate. Since the person with whom I might choose to associate has that same right, I may not force my presence on another. Essentially, each person has the right to deny everyone else the pleasure of their company for whatever reason he/she may wish.

So as an individual, I have the right to exclude anyone that I may choose, for any reason. This liberty must be included in all levels of my associations. As a consumer I am free to shop at any store I wish. If I am a shopkeeper, I may sell to anyone I wish. If I am an employer, I am free to hire whomever I wish. All of these cases assume the willingness of the other party, of course.

Some people may be troubled by this, claiming that I could use racist or sexist or any-other-ist criteria. My answer to that is: Naturally. If I were to be evident in my -ist criteria, however, then I would have to accept the opinions of everyone else (society) and the impact of those opinions on the decisions to associate reached by those individuals. If I were a shop owner who refused to serve Asian people, for instance, then I would have to accept the decision of people of other races not to do business with me due to my racist attitude.

I have mentioned this loop before in this weblog. The feedback provides information as to the cost of actions and opinions. The value of actions and opinions can be determined by each individual in the cost of lost (or gained) associations.

We recognize the courage of people who accept the cost of negative public sentiment when standing up for what is right, because make no mistake, it is very possible for society to be wrong. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. recognized this type of feedback loop. By the use of non-violent resistance, they revealed the nature of those who opposed them, and thus that nature was brought to light for judgment by the rest of society. Every individual who saw what was happening had to make a moral choice and take their own measure.

If all people were truly rational, then the Mill formulation above would be assumed. Not all people accept that concept of live and let live, so change has to happen. No change that is imposed from above can succeed, it must happen from the ground up. Each individual that comprises society must accept that the change is right for himself. The process is typically slow, look at the kooks who still go running around in hoods and swastikas, but that change will be real. Without the pressure from society, that change can not ultimately be made real. The Klansmen and Neo-Nazis carry on, wearing society's disapproval as badges of honor. Then again, so did King. If we are to come to a time where is person is truly sovereign over themselves, we must not only allow but demand that individuals make moral choices and act upon them.

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