Saturday, June 18, 2005

On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill

‘Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour and moral courage it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of the time.’ – John Stuart Mill, On Liberty.

What is liberalism? With our current government deriving its party name from this very quality, I decided it may be time to give John Stuart Mill’s classic another read.

The book is divided into three main parts: liberty of thought and discussion; of individuality; the authority of society and the individual.

If I were to sum up its argument, I’d say that it defends the right of the individual to do whatever they see fit, so long as it does not encroach on others. This is a bit difficult to draw a line on though. For example, if someone declares they want to be a drunk, should we let them? Afterall, our tax dollars will be gobbled up in health care. Plus there will be other factors that will impact on us. Do they have a violent temperament when in their cups? Do they have a family to consider?

You tend to get romantically involved with John Stuart Mill’s idea of freedom. Yes, we should all be free to do what we like, as long as it doesn’t bother others. But when you study the problem in a bit more detail, there are all these other factors that arise, as mentioned above. It makes it all seem a bit on the utopian side.

The section on liberty of thought and discussion is probably the most practical, as what you only think, as long as it is not carried out in actions, does not impinge on others. Mill argues very much in favour of free speech. All opinions, he says, should be heard, no matter what they are. Received, uncontested wisdom, is what we should all be on guard against.

‘If there are any persons who contest a received opinion, or who will do so if law or opinion will let them, let us thank them for it, open our minds to listen to them, and rejoice that there is someone to do for us what we otherwise ought, if we have any regards for either the certainly or the vitality of our convictions, to do with much greater labour for ourselves.’

If I were to take as example from public life, I’d say a good one would be when then Minister Peter Reith showed ABC radio journalist Virginia Trioli pictures that purported to be of children thrown overboard. When Trioli showed a great deal of scepticism Reith, trying to intimidate her, invoked the authority of the Australian Navy, and by extension seemed to be questioning her patriotism. This was a brave thing to do, because Trioli could very easily have been proved wrong. But as things turned out, it showed her scepticism was warranted. And further more, it shows we should all be more sceptical when we are presented with such received wisdom.

After finishing On Liberty you realise how influential it has been. Much of what Mill wrote back in 1859 has become what we aim for in our institutions and – nominally at least – in our politics. Neither side of politics would recoil from some of the main tenets of On Liberty – freedom of thought, freedom from state intervention in personal matters etc. etc.

I sometimes marvel at how free we are in Australia, compared to other places. Our welfare system is amazing. I know if I lost my job tomorrow and didn’t have a dime there are numerous agencies out there to help me, no questions asked. I wouldn’t want that to change for anything in the world. Let’s hope Australia remains a liberal (small ‘l’ folks!) country.

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