Thursday, 9 July 2009

The relevance of John Stuart Mill

The New Statesman has just published a terrific essay by David Marquand on John Stuart Mill to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Mill's On Liberty.

Mill is often misunderstood on both right and left. Marquand's essay does a splendid job of showing how Mill's unwavering liberalism was integrated with a strongly republican conception of democracy and an attachment to a decentralised, cooperative model of market socialism.

If anything, I would go even further than Marquand in making the case for Mill's continuing relevance. Marquand's argument is essentially that Mill is right on the basics, and right in spirit, but that many of the specifics of what he argued are out of date.

Of course, that's going to be true to a great extent. Indeed, it would be very unMillian to think otherwise. If humankind is a 'progressive being', as Mill said, then surely we should have learned a fair bit in the past 150 years and so left the particulars of Mill's arguments and prescriptions somewhat behind. I, for one, do not think his proposal for plural voting (under which the educated get more votes) stands the test of time.

But Mill espoused inheritance tax and a tax on the unearned increment in land value. Those proposals are still important. Ditto his support for profit-sharing in industry. He was an early supporter of the STV version of electoral reform, which is certainly still worth considering (and far worthier of consideration than AV). He was a proponent of strong local government as a means of drawing a wider range of citizens into active self-government. Given the slow death of local government since the Second World War, this proposal also remains highly relevant. He was also, of course, someone who very early on saw the possible advantages of a 'stationary state' economy in which output remains constant.

Not least, however, I think the central message of On Liberty itself is as urgent as ever. Marquand argues rightly that Mill was concerned in On Liberty to defend personal freedom from majoritarian oppression. But Marquand argues that, as society itself has become more pluralistic, this is perhaps less of a problem today than in the Victorian era.

Perhaps. But there is, nevertheless, as Marquand points out, an acute problem of authoritarianism. Just consider the whole issue of protest which we have pursued recently on Next Left. This is the week in which the Home Office's own Inspectorate of Constabulary has issued a report which argues that the British police have entirely the wrong - illiberal, undemocratic - understanding of what the job of policing protest is.

Liberty remains vulnerable. It will always be vulnerable. Mill's On Liberty is unique in the way it captures this vulnerability and helps us to understand why its our responsibility to come to liberty's defence.


John said...

Mill sounds like a more liberal/centrist democratic republican (a left-of centre republican)

I think a centralized state is necessary to create liberty for citizens in some realms of life, such as labour rights, market regulations, many areas of healthcare, infrastructure and of course a for a constitution of civil liberties.

John said...

Take the new NHS rights to see a cancer specialist within 2 weeks of diagnosis, and a maximum waiting time for general treatments of 18 weeks, with the systems of redress such as getting treated in a private hospital if the NHS trusts can't get you treated in time. These patient rights can only be guaranteed from the top down if they are to be nationwide.

Stuart White said...

Hi John: yes, I agree one can overdo the decentralisation theme. An intelligent republican approach to the state is going to be more complex than a simple anti-centralism - and Mill's view was more complex in this way than either my post or, perhaps, David Marquand's article, suggest.