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A Short Historical Sketch on the Idea of Freedom (An Introduction by James P. Young)

Mill on Liberty

Without much doubt, Mill's essay On Liberty is the single most discussed modern work on the general theory of freedom, particularly on freedom of speech, but also on the extent to which government may be permitted to intervene in the affairs of its citizens. On the subject of speech, Mill adheres to a strong libertarian position, accepting few if any limitations on thought and discussion. To silence the expression of an opinion is to claim infallibility. "We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still." The opinion we censor, Mill argues, may be correct, so that by restricting speech, we risk substituting falsehood for truth. This does not mean that all arguments are of equal value.

John Stuart Mill, Scottish political philosopher and author of On Liberty
But even if the idea threatened by censorship is patently false, we benefit by allowing it to be expressed because it heightens our understanding of the true argument. Furthermore, while some ideas are better supported than others, we must hold open the possibility that the truths we assume could be refuted, as occurs periodically in the natural sciences. The great strength and value of human discussion is that wrong ideas can be set right. And, Mill warns, it is common for conflicting ideas to share the truth between them. We must deal with the great antagonisms that concern us all: property and equality, sociality and individuality, liberty and discipline, among many others. Only with the widest possible latitude for the expression of ideas can we obtain a full understanding of such complex issues. Mill also shares a significant concern with his friend Tocqueville. Both fear what Tocqueville calls "soft despotism," the smothering of unpopular, controversial, or unconventional opinions by mass public opinion, leading to the reign of mindless conformity.

To silence the expression of an opinion is to claim infallibility. 

As with speech, Mill tilts strongly to the libertarian side on the topic of individual actions. However, he admits that individual liberty in this area is not unlimited. People cannot be allowed to become public nuisances. In a homely example much loved by teachers, a person's right to swing his or her arms around in public stops when those arms make contact with the tip of another's nose. To put the point more formally, actions affecting only the actor, or "self-regarding actions," as Mill calls them, should not be regulated. These are contrasted with "other-regarding actions," which affect others. The uncertainty lies in determining which actions are in fact purely self-regarding and which have some social significance. This distinction can be controversial, particularly in large, complex, highly diverse societies.

Like Tocqueville, Mill was troubled by the idea of a powerful, centralized state. But he did not believe that state action and individual liberty are necessarily opposed to each other. Thus, while he believed in a free-market economy, Mill was prepared to legislate against fraud, the mistreatment of workers, and neglect of sanitation, or what we might call pollution. And, of course, he recognized the need to prevent and punish violent crime, though he was seriously concerned that the possible abuses associated with prevention could interfere with individual freedom.

With the concepts articulated by Tocqueville and Mill in mind, it is now possible to return to the discussion of the main lines of American political development.