John Stuart Mill thought long and hard about the theoretical and practical problems connected with liberal democratic government. Actual service in the British Parliament brought him into intimate contact with applied politics. Beneath the surface of nineteenth century British political experience, Mill came upon the one problem he considered central to everyone’s long-range interests. The clarity with which he stated this problem in On Liberty earned him a justified reputation as defender of the basic principles of liberalism. “The struggle between Liberty and Authority,” he wrote, “is the most conspicuous feature in the portions of history with which we are earliest familiar, particularly in that of Greece, Rome, and England.” The individual’s relation to the organized power of state and popular culture requires that people draw the line between what in principle rightly belongs to each. The liberal task concerns how people are to meet the necessary demands of organized life without destroying the rights of the individual.
Mill mentions two ways in which people gradually subdued sovereign power after long and difficult struggles. First, select groups within a given political domain worked to compel the rulers to grant them special immunities. Second (and historically a later phenomenon), people managed to win constitutionally guaranteed rights through some political body which represented them. These historical tendencies limited the tyrannical aspects of sovereign power without raising questions about the inherited right of the sovereign to rule.
Guarding the Individual’s Rights
A later European development involved the replacement of inherited rulers by people elected for periodic terms of governing. This was the aim of popular parties in modern European affairs, according to Mill. People who once wanted to limit governmental powers when such government rested on unrepresentative principles began to put less stress on the need of limitation once government received its justification by popular support—for example, through elections. “Their power was but the nation’s own power, concentrated, and in a form convenient for exercise.” However, Mill criticizes European liberalism for failing to understand that popularly supported governments may also introduce forms of tyranny. Mill’s essay refers to this phenomenon as “the tyranny of the majority.” Earlier thinkers asked who could protect people from the tyranny of an inherited rule, but modern Europeans asked who would protect people from the tyranny of custom. The individual citizen’s independence is threatened in either instance. Individuals need protection from arbitrary rulers and also from “the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling.” Even a democratic society can coerce its dissenters to conform to ideals and rules of conduct in areas that should belong solely to the individual’s decisions.
The chief concern of modern politics, then, is to protect the individual’s rights from governmental and social coercion. Mill argues that the practical issue is even narrower—”where to place the limit,” which liberal minds agree is needed. Mill understands that organized life would be impossible without some firm rules. People can never choose to live in a ruleless situation. “All that makes existence valuable to anyone, depends on the enforcement of restraints upon the actions of other people.” However, the question is which rules are to prevail. Satisfactory answers remain to be realized. Existing rules, which vary from one culture and historical epoch to another, tend to become coated in the clothing of apparent respect through force of custom; they come to seem self-evident to their communities. People forget that custom is the deposit of learned ways of acting. Few realize that existing rules require support by the giving of reasons, and that such reasons may be good or bad. Powerful interest groups tend to shape the prevailing morality in class terms. People also...
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