mill_on_liberty - MILL ON LIBERTY 1 Problem Mill's On...

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MILL ON LIBERTY 1. Problem. Mill’s On Liberty , one of the great classics of liberal political thought, is about “the nature and limits of the power which can legitimately be exercised by society over the individual” (1.1). More particularly, it defends individual liberty against the threat of “majority tyranny.” To explain this threat, Mill begins historically, with a sketch of the struggle between “liberty and authority.” Initially, that battle focused on the power of oppressive rulers, and the defenders of liberty argued for limiting the power of monarchs and oligarchs by rules or rights. Eventually, the view emerged that oppressive power is best constrained by subjecting rulers to popular control— with ”periodical choice of the ruled” (1.3). In the course of this fight for a government accountable to the governed, “some persons” Mill says, “began to think that too much importance had been attached to the limitation of the power itself.” The nation, they said, “did not need to be protected against its own will” (1.3). If the people rule themselves, by electing representatives, then there is no need to limit public power: popular control is protection enough. 1 But experience showed that “the will of the people” means “the will of the largest number,” and that the people itself “may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of power” (1.4). This historical sketch suggests that the problem of "majority tyranny " is a specifically political problem, about majorities using law to oppress minorities. But Mill’s concern (1.5) is far broader: with "social tyranny"—the ceaseless pressure
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Justice , Spring 2006—2 to conform to conventional ideas and conduct that are "more formidable than many kinds of political oppression." To be sure, social tyranny operates "by other means than civil penalties" (1.5)—shaming and social exclusion rather than prison. But it "leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself" (1.5), and establishes a "despotism of custom" (3.17). So Mill aims not simply to limit the power of law, but to foster a more open public culture in which people recognize that “it is good there should be differences” (3.19). Mill associates the threat of social and political tyranny with what Tocqueville called a “democratic society”: with greater social equality, urbanization, industrialism, and popular media. Under these conditions, “there ceases to be any social support for non-conformity” (3.18). Thus “the mind itself is bowed to the yoke: even in what people do for pleasure, conformity is the first thing thought of; they like in crowds . . . until by dint of not following their own nature, they have no nature to follow” (3.6). Not that Mill is opposed to equality: to the contrary, he favored greater economic equality, broader suffrage, women’s
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This note was uploaded on 02/27/2012 for the course POLS 101 taught by Professor Nemnich during the Fall '09 term at Boise State.

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mill_on_liberty - MILL ON LIBERTY 1 Problem Mill's On...

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