Monday, May 20, 2013


Liberal Mondays 3: John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor #LibDemValues

Today’s Liberal Monday celebrates the 207th birthday of Liberal philosopher and politician John Stuart Mill. With Harriet Taylor, he wrote arguably Liberalism’s most influential text of all: On Liberty, the book that created the Harm Principle, from which I’ve picked two key quotations. For many Liberal Democrats, this crystallises the party’s essential belief, and I’ve already touched on it in both previous Liberal Mondays in freedom from conformity and from other restraints… But, though you can see On Liberty’s influence right through to today’s Equal Marriage bill, it still challenges Lib Dems – has it really influenced our policies enough?
“The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”

“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.”
This principle is so widely known and debated that this time I won’t analyse it at length. However, even if not every Liberal reads On Liberty once a year (as former Leader Jo Grimond suggested), and if you only read those two points from it, in campaigning Lib Dem style I’d suggest three things to remember – and one thing to think about.

Three Things To Remember

One Thing To Think About

But for all that the Liberal Democrats think of ourselves as inspired by On Liberty – it’s even the book handed down to each Party President on their election – how much do we practise what it preaches?

I sometimes feel a strange kinship with Evelyn Waugh’s lament that:
“The Conservative Party have never put the clock back a single second.”
How many laws have the Liberal Democrats put back? And how many have we acquiesced in or cheer-led? After Labour’s smothering record more than 4,000 new laws when in power, we proposed a Great Repeal Bill, or Freedom Bill; we formed a Coalition with the Conservatives in part on a promise of enacting that Bill, with principles of freedom and personal responsibility. And yet when it came down to it, it was watered down in government to a Small Repeal Bill, or a Freedom That Won’t Frighten the Daily Mail Bill – putting authoritarianism back only a few seconds, and then it starts ticking forward again. That’s the trouble with legislation by shopping list rather than principle: it’s too easy to say you’ll take just the more difficult things out of the cart, and find you’ve got very little left in it.

I’m not even talking about the more egregious government-by-securocrat proposals that rang enough danger signals for Liberal Democrats to block – or ostentatiously fail to – such as the Snooper’s Charter or Secret Courts. It’s more the insidious danger of legislation and regulation in favour of nice things, because nice people could only ever want nice things, and so no right-thinking person could ever want nasty things, whether the wrong type of food or the wrong type of fun… And yet, if it’s so self-evident that everyone must agree, how come government needs to enforce it? Because people should be able to make their own choices, even if they’re not for their own good. Freedom means taking responsibility. And sometimes that means even insisting people have the freedom to do things that the Daily Mail does like and the Guardian doesn’t – let alone things that both scream against. Because making crimes of personal actions that other people or press puritans merely disagree means creating criminals to punish where there aren’t actually any victims. And to a Liberal, shouldn’t a “Victimless crime” be no crime at all?

So here’s something to think about, if the Liberal Democrats really are a party influenced by John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor. Of course we should look at the little things – removing some enforced conformities, resisting the temptation to ban things we don’t think are very nice but which are actually none of our business. Applying our Harm Principle consistently would be a revelation. But we shouldn’t get stuck in only reacting to every individual problem or proposal that comes our way. If we’re really a party of On Liberty-based Liberalism, how about thinking about where we’d actually start? How would we put that principle into practice? What if we get into government again – is it enough just to blunt the edges of government-as-it-always-is-by-authoritarian-inertia? Isn’t it time to start planning for something better? Even if it means challenging the whole legal system (and a potential coalition partner) to go back to first principles?

When are we going to stand up for freedom and personal responsibility by showing some responsibility ourselves – and freeing ourselves from the conformity of politicians who always take the safe route and order everyone else to do the same?

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Answering two questions that have been put to me:

Some authoritarians have attempted to twist the Harm Principle so that it’s in favour of banning almost everything (strangely, members of the Labour Party spring to mind). That’s through the twin fallacy of defining almost anything as ‘harm’ – particularly ‘I don’t like it, therefore seeing you do it does me harm’ – and of saying that if the slightest harm can be shown in a hypothetical situation, therefore a complete ban must follow. Instead, Mill and Taylor were arguing a minimalist case: first, harm must be actual harm to actual people; and it’s only once that’s proved that ordering people about could be considered. This doesn’t mean instant, unthinking bans – quite often prohibition would be disproportionate to the harm caused, or do additional harm in itself, and that there might often be other ways to reduce the harm done than legal sanction.

Similarly, an argument for maximum personal freedom and personal responsibility as opposed to the government or any other form of power enforcing ‘our own good’ is that an individual may well make a mistake, but will only harm themselves – while if a government makes a mistake in its giant one-life-fits-all authoritarianism, it’s going to be a doozy.

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