Government’s Rightful Role

A century after the American and French revolutions seemed to define the rightful, limited role of governments, John Stuart Mill felt the need to write an imposing essay on liberty. With the Confederacy insisting that government could have the right to impose slavery and the fascist era lurking over the horizon even as he wrote, clearly the need was indeed there. Mill’s purpose he stated clearly:

…to ass ert 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. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to other. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or entreating him but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. [John Stuart Mill, “On Liberty,” American State Papers, in Britannica Great Books, V. 43, 271.]

This very strict standard of liberty remains far from being understood, much less implemented, in great part because of “an increasing inclination to stretch unduly the powers of society over the individual, both by the force of opinion and even by that of legislation….” Even in the mid-1800’s, Mill could see the troubling force of this troubling dynamic, “as the tendency of all the changes taking place in the world is to strengthen society, and diminish the power of the individual, this encroachment is not one of the evils which tend spontaneously to disappear….” Indeed,

The disposition of mankind, whether as rulers or as fellow-citizens, to impose their own opinions and inclinations as a rule of conduct on others, is so energetically supported by some of the best and by some of the worst feelings incident to human nature, that it is hardly ever kept under restraint by anything but want of power…. [273.]

 

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