On Liberty | Study Guide

John Stuart Mill

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On Liberty | Chapter 5 : Applications | Summary



Mill opens the chapter by restating his primary claims: that when an individual's actions impact first themselves, they are "not accountable to society" for those actions. However, if those actions negatively impact others, then they "may be subjected either to social or to legal punishments." Mill clarifies these obligations by saying that competition and contest for individual success do not necessarily constitute harm, and society should not take action. Trade on the other hand, does impact society, and therefore is something on which the public can take action. Mill argues that free trade has proven to be the most effective, but that this is a completely separate question from the topic of the book on individual liberty. Therefore, worker protections and prevention of fraud are acceptable, but banning certain commodities is not. For example, the banning of poison because it may be used to harm others is not sufficient. Poison has other legitimate uses. Societies could take up consumer registries or other safeguards should poison be used for nefarious purposes, but that would be the limit of proper social action.

Mill goes on to state that society has the right to protect itself, but most social crimes, like drunkenness, do not rise to the threshold of actionable cause. There are a series of actions that are more complicated, for example, when two or more people are engaged in harmful behavior, or when they induce others to join them, or when they profit from such activities. Mill states that fornication cannot be considered a social harm, but that acting as a pimp or running a gambling house are more difficult. There are cases "which lie on the exact boundary line between" his principles of individual freedom and social action. There are many variations to this question: for example, could society rightly act to make access to harmful vices more difficult or expensive? Mill finds that if the purpose is to prohibit the substance, the answer is no, but if taxes are imposed for revenue, a legitimate function of society, then these may be permitted. A general exception is for people who have proven the need to be "governed as children."

Mill goes on to discuss other difficult cases of personal freedom. If individuals decide to take collective action of mutual concern, so long as they don't harm others, their actions should be permitted. People who chose to sell themselves into slavery provide a special problem. Mill finds that society can properly limit this action because society's chief concern should be the protection of individual liberty, and slavery obviously violates personal liberty. All labor contracts should therefore be temporary; even marriage should likely be temporary, except when a "third party," like children, is negatively impacted. This is only if the two parties are equal; in the case of marriage the "almost despotic power of husbands" should be undone, and men and women should have equal legal rights. The state also has an obligation to educate children where the parents fail to do so. Mill then explores how state education could work with an emphasis on personal liberty. Children have the right to a reasonable existence, and where parents cannot provide this or overpopulation contributes to social problems, society may properly set limits on procreation.

In the final section of the chapter Mill explores the correct limits to government action and finds three types, which he says are tangential to the main arguments of this book. The first is when private action is to be superior to government action and hence should limit much government legislation of industry. A second order of objections is when individual work may be worse than government action but is necessary or important for the individual's development. Government action should be limited, although this has little to do with questions of liberty, Mill states. The third reason is to keep government accretion of power at bay by limiting government action to specific spheres of activity. Civil service exams to create a professional bureaucracy should be avoided for this reason. Where Russia and France have an excess of bureaucracy, the Americans are competent and sufficient without one. And this is as it should be, for rulers, as much as the ruled, are slaves to the institutional order. How to apply these standards is extremely difficult and should be negotiated in a case-by-case basis. However, Mill offers one guiding principle to help: "the greatest dissemination of power consistent with efficiency; but the greatest possible centralization of information, and diffusion of it from the center." Mill then advocates a federated system of governance with a centralized information service as the best model of government.


Chapter 5 is the summation of Mill's arguments and a chapter in which he engages the biggest social questions of the day, as well as provides a prescription for successful government. His basic hope is to apply the principles developed in previous chapters to practical social questions and show that his work is not needlessly abstract. As such there are a number of surprising arguments he makes, for example, allowing for the prospect of religious strictures to be mandated, as with his example of eating pork. Another surprise he offers is that procreation may be restricted and limited in the interest of social good. Here, the emphasis of Mill's utilitarianism over notions of human rights is most evident.

Perhaps less surprising is his general support for free trade and capitalist competition, even when it causes harm. His discussion about success via competition is likely a reference to labor markets and the unemployed, for whom Mill argues little action should be taken. It is here most clearly that Mill's work in the context of the doctrines of socialism and anarchism is demonstrated, as well as the general purpose of the work as a defense of capitalist democracy. Even still, Mill maintains a distrust of democratic practice and puts freedom and democracy in tension with one another. Mill also tackles the major social issues of the mid-19th century, like the prohibition of alcohol, the provision of public education, the legislation against immorality and vice like prostitution and gambling. In his conclusion, Mill proves his progressive agenda and argues that in all instances people should be allowed the greatest personal freedom.

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