Monday, 5 September 2011

John Stuart Mill

One hesitates to quote from John Stuart Mill's magnificent essay On Liberty because it is so well-known, but sometimes these things bear repeating. From dietary salt to climate change to the supposed effects of passive smoking, modern authoritarians frequently seek to sidestep Mill's unanswerable words by inventing harm done to third parties. Oppressive legislation is enacted not just for our own good, but more significantly for the good of others. The number of possible examples is vast, but a few reminders are:-

CO2. A whole range of oppressive measures are justified by the supposed effect of CO2 on others via imaginary changes to the global climate. UK Vehicle Excise Duty on cars is just one where spurious effects on third parties are used to justify oppressing huge numbers of blameless individuals.

Salt. Manufacturers are coerced into reducing salt in food because of the supposed harm it does to an unspecified group of people who consume the products but cannot tell how salty they are.

Smoking. A vicious series of oppressive measures taken against smokers are justified by wildly exaggerating the effect of passive smoking on third parties. The term passive smoking was itself invented to embed the exaggeration into our language.

Alcohol. A number of authoritarian bodies are working towards much more oppressive regulation of our drinking habits by exaggeration and by highlighting the harm inflicted on others, in this case  a minority of problem drinkers.

It is worth reminding ourselves why authoritarians do this - how they widen the net by concocting scenarios where third parties are supposedly harmed by otherwise private actions, scenarios almost always backed by fraudulent science. It is to sidestep the wisdom of Mill's famous essay.

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 others. 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 make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with 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 someone else. The only part of the conduct of anyone, 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


Mark Wadsworth said...

And he was a land value taxer.

A K Haart said...

MW - an all-round genius then!

James Higham said...

John Stuart Mill had a problem with shandy - half a pint and he was gone. Yet he produced that magnificent work.

A K Haart said...

JH - a thinker but not a drinker eh? Not like me then.