Four centuries B.C., “China” was not a country but a cultural region of competing baronies, a Medieval feudal region. The barony of Qin, China’s Prussia, was a frontier state still possessing little hint that it would eventually achieve a bloody unification of the huge cultural area in which it tenuously grasped a foothold. Then an adviser brought to the Qin court from the court of a neighboring adversary persuaded the arrogant but not very wise baron of Qin that the first step to making Qin great was not hubris, bombast, and the launching of a war of conquest but the consolidation of the barony’s borders and establishment of a solid political, economic, and military base at home.
While almost no sane person would claim infallibility for himself, very many of us “shift” “the assumption of infallibility…from one point to another.” [John Stuart Mill, “On Liberty,” in Britannica Great Books, V. 43, 277.]
Strange it is, that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free discussion, but object to their being “pushed to an extreme”; not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case. Strange that they should imagine that they are not assuming infallibility, when they acknowledge that there should be free discussion on all subjects which can possibly be doubtful, but think that some particular principle or doctrine should be forbidden to be questioned because it is so certain, that is, because they are certain that it is certain. To call any proposition certain, while there is any one who would deny its certainty if permitted, but who is not permitted, is to assume that we ourselves, and those who agree with us, are the judges of certainty, and judges without hearing the other side.
In the present age—which has been described as “destitute of faith, but terrified at scepticism”–in which people feel sure, not so much that their opinions are true, as that they should not know what to do without them—the claims of an opinion to be protected from public attack are rested not so much on its truth, as on its importance to society. There are, it is alleged, certain beliefs so useful, not to say indispensable, to well-being that it is as much the duty of governments to uphold those beliefs, as to protect any other of the interests of society. In a case of such necessity, and so directly in the line of their duty, something less than infallibility may, it is maintained, warrant, and even bind, governments to at on their own opinion, confirmed by the general opinion of mankind. It is also often argued, and still oftener thought, that none but bad men would desire to weaken these salutary beliefs; and there can be nothing wrong, it is thought, in restraining bad men, and prohibiting what only such men would wish to practise. This mode of thinking makes the justification of restraints on discussion not a question of the truth of doctrines, but of their usefulness; and flatters itself by that means to escape the responsibility of claiming to be an infallible judge of opinions. [Mill, 276-7.]
An obvious example of such absurdity would be a leader making criticism of himself illegal. A less ridiculous example would be the insistence of “patriots” that their country’s wars are always just and their country’s warmongers always men of peace…and surely never terrorists. And what of the right of racists to promote their creed?
…those upon whom freedom and equality had been dumped overnight and without warning or preparation or any training in how to employ it or even just endure it and who misused it not as children would nor yet because they had been so long in bondage and then so suddenly freed, but misused it as human beings always misuse freedom, so that he thought Apparently there is a wisdom beyond even that learned through suffering necessary for a man to distinguish between liberty and license [William Faulkner, “The Bear,” in The Faulkner Reader, 1954, 322-323.]
We don’t imagine that the trusts are going to drift naturally into the service of human life. We think they can be made to serve it if the American people compel them. We think that the American people may be able to do that if they can adjust their thinking to a new world situation, if they apply the scientific spirit to daily life, and if they can learn to cooperate on a large scale. Those, to be sure, are staggering ifs. The conditions may never be fulfilled entirely. But in so far as they are not fulfilled we shall drift along at the mercy of economic forces that we are unable to master. [Lippmann, Drift and Mastery, 145-6.]
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.]
Tyranny of the regime, of the majority, or of society: liberty requires defense against all three.
…in political and philosophical theories, as well as in persons, success discloses faults and infirmities which failure might have concealed from observation. The notion, that the people have no need to limit their power over themselves, might seem axiomatic, when popular government was a thing only dreamed about, or read of as having existed at some distant period of the past….In time, however,…[it was] perceived that such phrases as “self-government,” and “the power of the people over themselves,” do not express the true state of the case. The “people” who exercise the power are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised; and the “self-government” spoken of is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest. The will of the people, moreover, practically means the will of the most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority; the people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number;” and precautions are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of power….”the tyranny of the majority” is now generally included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard. [John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, in Britannica Great Books 43, pp. 268-9.]
A century and a half later, amid calls to blame all the world’s Muslims for the behavior of its extremists without any admission of the foundational role of our own extremists in the generation of theirs, it remains clear either than we have yet to learn this lesson or that we have forgotten it and need to learn it once again…hopefully without such bitter classes as were offered by the French Reign of Terror (during the rise of democracy) or the McCarran-McCarthy purges (during democracy’s supposed heyday).
This quest for a legal structure to protect all of us as individuals from the tyranny of the majority, however, is but the first step in an arduous journey yet to be completed, one suspects, by any large society of humans. Far more difficult to achieve because of its subtlety, and more threatening to 21st century democratic societies, is conformity (neatly termed “social tyranny” by Mill:
…when society it itself the tyrant–society collectively over the separate individuals who compose it–its means of tyrannising are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does issue its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compels all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism. [ 269.]
Brilliance, in governance, is expressed in one’s ability to take the long view, and few Americans have ever surpassed a certain old political scientist’s gift for abstracting and deriving lessons from current events:
…perhaps it is a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to provisions against danger real or pretended from abroad. [James Madison, as quoted by Ralph Ketcham in James Madison: A Biography, 393.]