Mill on Liberty Term Paper

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Freedom, Liberty, And Authority

Thomas Jefferson is attributed as saying "the price for freedom is constant vigilance." Only those who are willing to stake there reputation, their personal well being, their fortunes and their futures on the pursuit and defense of freedom are those who will have a guarantee of remaining free from the tyranny of those who would exchange the freedom for the freedom of minority at the expense of the majority. John Stuart Mills captured this idea 100 years after the original constitutional convention, Declaration of Independence and the Constitution recorded these and other words into the annals of history. Mills accurately captured the reason U.S. citizens are free, and the only means by which the can hope to remain such.

Mills begins in much the same way as Hamilton as he sets the stage for the path, and pursuit of freedom. He identifies that there exists in civilized society the constant struggle between the liberty of the people and the need for authority to manage and order the affairs of society. Neither of these needs can be eliminated, because to do so creates either tyranny or chaos.

In the 1800's, when Mills wrote On Liberty, the American spirit had remained remarkably unchanged since the revolutionary war. The nation was still an agrarian society, and although the industrial revolution was headed in the direction of the nation's chief manufacturing centers, the nation's values were still handed down from father to son, mother to daughter on the family homestead in much the same way it had been in the years leading up to, and following the Revolutionary War. The nation had just completed the Civil war, and the issues of freedom, tyranny, and the imposition of one group's will on the lives of another had been again stirred to the surface of public debate.

Mills begins his essay this way:

time, however, came, in the progress of human affairs, when men ceased to think it a necessity of nature that their governors should be an independent power, opposed in interest to them. It appeared to them much better that the various magistrates of the State should be their tenants or delegates, revocable at their pleasure. In that way alone, it seemed, could they have complete security that the powers of government would never be abused to their disadvantage" (Mills, intro)

His reasoning sounds strikingly similar to, and may have been taken form the preamble of the declaration of Independence, which also talks about the progress of human affairs, and the need for one group of people to through off the bonds of tyranny in order to establish a more perfect union. He continues as he discusses the ongoing balance between the need for civil order and personal freedom. He says that it is dangerous for power to be vested in one group, or caste, or person, because even with the best intentions, the power wielded by the individual will corrupt those in power unless they are held in check by those whom they govern. Authority is necessary, and far from a necessary evil, civil authority is the basis for an orderly society. However, the civil authority is a power which is dangerous, and thereby needs to be monitored.

The Limits of Authority

So what are the limits of authority, and what can be expected by the members of an orderly society in the way of authority that is not pointed on the way towards tyranny. This is the question Mills seeks to answer next.

WHAT, then, is the rightful limit to the sovereignty of the individual over himself? Where does the authority of society begin? How much of human life should be assigned to individuality, and how much to society? Each will receive its proper share, if each has that which more particularly concerns it. To individuality should belong the part of life in which it is chiefly the individual that is interested; to society, the part which chiefly interests society." (Mills, On the limits of Authority)

Mills answer seems simplistic. The person should take care of all issues which involve the person, and the society then is limited only to matters which involve the society and do not impinge on the affairs of the individual. The radical nature of this statement is difficult to comprehend in our modern culture. According to Mills, the affairs of the individual are no place for societies' governmental authority. To do so is to take away the freedom of the individual, and to take slow, definite steps toward tyranny.

This means that the state and federal government have no business in the private affairs of man, and to this maxim most college students would shout 'That's right! WE don't want the government putting limits on our choices" Adhering to this principle means that the government has no business guaranteeing student loans at low rates, because it is the responsibility of the individual to prepare and provide for his or her future. The government also has no business creating a system of wealth transfer from the wealthy citizens to poor citizens in the way of welfare, Medicare, or any of the other myriads of social programs that take from those who produce wealth in the country and distribute those funds to those who do not know how to work hard, and provide for themselves.

Mills assertions mean much more than 'the government can't tell me what to do.' The second price to be paid by free people is that we must also be responsible for our futures, and the results of our efforts. For the government to interfere into the relationship between a person and the consequences of his actions is for the government to take on the role of a provider - parent, who can direct our personal actions, and influence our personal lives.

Mills insist that the limits of the government be based on principles, not the individual needs of citizen in the moment.

As soon as any part of a person's conduct affects prejudicially the interests of others, society has jurisdiction over it, and the question whether the general welfare will or will not be promoted by interfering with it, becomes open to discussion. But there is no room for entertaining any such question when a person's conduct affects the interests of no persons besides himself" (Mills, On the limits of Authority)

To this assertion, a president such as Bill Clinton would find both reasons to celebrate, and hope that the population would never come to understand their full meaning. Clinton's defense of his actions during the White House Intern scandals was that the actions of the individual which occur behind closed doors are no one's interest but the individual. The actions of consenting adults are their business and no one else's. But Mr. Clinton also created the largest tax increase in the nation's history during his presidency, and most of the increased income was used to fund massive social spending programs. And with each check that was distributed, the government gave money with one hand while it took away the desire, and in some cases, the will and ability to be responsible for one's own actions with the other.

In our current culture, conservatives and liberals alike need to take heed to the words of Mills, and Hamilton. Conservatives want to order the lives of men into their predetermined actions plans that include predefined personal morals. Conservatives present their position as one which is 'good for you' like a mom who forces terrible tasting cough syrup into your mouth when you have the flu. However, the liberals are no better when through the use of social programs, they 'train' citizens on what to expect of themselves, and their government. Liberals construct the terms of the government's ever expanding influence into a life in order to condition citizens to slowly and willingly give up more and more of freedom in exchange of the promise of being cared for by an ever expensing government largess.

Some would say that Mill's view of liberty is at the same time both far too simplistic and far too rigorous. His rational is simplistic in its demonization of the customary and conventional, that the minds of men will collide in competition over the control of society. His ideas are overly rigorous in their demand that moral choices be arrived at through "the collision of adverse opinions": "on no other terms" Mill says, "can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right." (Kimball, 1998)

However, Hamilton and Madison were not overly simplistic when they wrote in the federalist papers that all men deserved to be free. Their reasons relied on the created nature of men that we both desire and deserve freedom because we were created to be free. Hamilton and Madison also went on and suggested the path toward guaranteeing the freedom. The prescription was to allow all men to be free, and for all men to have equal responsibility and freedom…[continue]

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