Saturday, April 01, 2006

Liberty as Utility

John Stuart Mill is an important thinker of classical liberalism and libertarianism. His book “On Liberty” is important cannon on liberty. But Mill is known most for his contribution on utilitarianism. In a way, liberalism and utilitarianism is interrelated – one must think of liberty in the context of utility. To think outside of this context lead to convoluted reasoning that in the end detrimental to the cause of freedom.

Lysander Spooner is an early contributor to the libertarianism movement in the US. I found his essay 1875 “Vices Are Not Crimes: A Vindication Of Moral Liberty” most refreshing. His clarity of thought and power of reasoning can be seen in the following paragraph from the aforementioned essay (I also recommend readers to read the whole essay, it is excellent):
It will do for a pope or a king - who claims to have received direct authority from Heaven, to rule over his fellowmen - to claim the right, as the vice regent of God, to punish men for their vices; but it is a sheer and utter absurdity for any government, claiming to derive its power wholly from the grant of the governed, to claim any such power; because everybody knows that the governed never would grant it. For them to grant it would be an absurdity, because it would be granting away their own right to seek their own happiness; since to grant away their right to judge of what will be for their happiness, is to grant away all their right to pursue their own happiness.
Yet Lysander Spooner is also famous for his opposition to the US Civil War. What made the situation absurd is that Spooner was the strongest advocate of abolition – and abhorred slavery. Spooner wrote “The Unconstitutionality of Slavery” which is considered the best legal argument against slavery. Yet he could not bring himself to support a war that would end slavery and set million of people free. Due to the absolute argument against all form of coercion – to include coercion that end coercion.

Slavery is coercion, hence is wrong. But a war to end slavery is also coercion, hence is also wrong. This thinking creates a problem in practical policy. It is in fact absurd, leaving no solution to any problem concerning liberty. Short of convincing slave owners to voluntarily free their slaves, there is nothing one can do about slavery. In fact, the line of thinking would be an end to all liberty as we know it. Without enforcement to ensure that liberty is protected, liberty itself is an empty meaningless concept – discussed in philosophy class without ever realizing it.

The problem with Lysander Spooner is the same problem that faces the Libertarian Party. Their concept of liberty is missing the concept of utilitarianism. It leads to bizarre political position – such as opposition to all wars – even the one that result in the spread of individual liberty. This is why John Stuart Mill advocacy of utilitarianism should not be seen as a separate and distinct from his advocacy of liberty – but rather an integral part of liberty. Liberty should be real and tangible. Something a person can feel, taste, and enjoy in his personal life. Therefore, Liberty is best understood as “the maximum amount of Liberty for the maximum number of people.”


Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Mill practiced what he preached, and his personal virtues freed him from the consequences that incorrect practitioners would otherwise have faced. Mill, for example I believe, worked hand in hand with his wife on some books, namely on the liberty of women.

With liberty comes power, and anyone who understands chain reactions can understand that once you have enough of a power, you can start a chain reaction. If you are willing to use the power liberty provides, to create more liberty in the world. Mill understood this about women, and therefore unlike the communists, his theories succeded where theirs failed, because the communists failed to live up to what they preached.

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