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Wednesday, 15 August 2018

More on philosophical liberalism

So I discovered that The Economist is doing a whole series on "Liberal Thinkers." The first one, which I missed in the throes of moving, was about John Stuart Mill. In future weeks the essays will be about John Maynard Keynes, "Schumpeter, Popper, and Hayek," "Berlin, Rawls, and Norzick," and "Rousseau, Marx, and Nietzsche." Look for them.

Against the tyranny of the majority
Above all, though, like all liberals Mill believed in the power of individual thought. His first big work, “A System of Logic”, argues that humanity’s greatest weakness is its tendency to delude itself as to the veracity of unexamined convictions. He renounced shibboleths, orthodoxies and received wisdom: anything that stopped people thinking for themselves.

He wanted them to be exposed to as wide a range of opinions as possible, and for no idea or practice to remain unchallenged. That was the path to both true happiness and progress…

As Richard Reeves’s biography makes clear, Mill thought the coming industrial, democratic age could enable human flourishing in some ways, but hinder it in others…

Yet Mill was even more taken by the philosophical argument for free trade. “It is hardly possible to overrate the value, in the present low state of human improvement, of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar.” This applied to everyone: “there is no nation which does not need to borrow from others.”…

As democracy spread, he anticipated, ideas would clash. He supported the Reform Act of 1832, which, as well as extending the franchise, did away with “rotten boroughs”, constituencies with tiny electorates, often controlled by a single person. He praised France’s move in 1848 to institute universal male suffrage. Each voter’s views would be represented—and each would have reason to be informed. Participation in collective decision-making was for Mill part of the good life.

For the same reason he was an early proponent of votes for women. “I consider [sex] to be as entirely irrelevant to political rights as difference in height or in the colour of the hair,” he wrote…

EXCERPT

Mill believed that society was advancing. But he also foresaw threats. Capitalism had flaws; democracy had an alarming tendency to undermine itself…

Mill loved the idea of a country founded on liberty, but he feared America had fallen into precisely this trap. Americans displayed “general indifference to those kinds of knowledge and mental culture which cannot be immediately converted into pounds, shillings and pence.”…

Democracy itself threatened the free exchange of ideas in a different way. Mill thought it right that ordinary people were being emancipated. But once free to make their own choices, they were liable to be taken in by prejudice or narrow appeals to self-interest. Give the working classes a vote, and chaos could result…

That in turn might cramp society’s intellectual development, the views of the majority stifling individual creativity and thought. Those who challenged received wisdom—the freethinkers, the cranks, the Mills—might be shunned by “public opinion”. Expertise could be devalued as the “will of the people” reigned supreme.

The upshot was frightening. Paradoxically individual freedom could end up being more restricted under mass democracy than under the despotic sovereigns of yore…

One solution was to give educated voters greater power. In this dispensation, people who could not read or write, or who had received the 19th-century equivalent of welfare benefits, would not get a vote…

Although that approach looks snobbish, or worse, Mill was enlightened for his time. Indeed, he would have approved many of the social changes in the 21st century, including the universal franchise and women’s rights…

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