The Work by John Stuart Mill ‘On Liberty’ is more of a philosophical look at the boundaries of individual liberty and government responsibilities, and where the two areas meet and the injuries caused in those meetings. The writing, obviously contemplated from a European view, was published during the industrial revolution and American Civil War timeframe and utilizes, in retrospective contemplation, the American and French revolutions as examples in early in the book along with several other historical references that will gain the interest of the modern historian. Mill is able to present some great arguments without forcing his views, but the main variable that emerged from this read was the characteristics, capabilities, and culture (mentally, intellectually, morally, and economically) of the people under a government. The self-reflection of this question, especially in the modern United States, would seem to determine the actual boundaries (if indeed those boundaries could ever be determined or agreed upon).
The following notes are brief looks at noteworthy areas of the writing ‘On Liberty’ by John Stewart Mill:
1. The first is the concept of the tyranny of the majority. Mill states that “the tyranny of the majority is now generally included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard”. This statement and concept instantly makes me reflect on the easily swayed mass population in the U.S. as a population that has become, especially with the bloom in technology of the past three decades, diverted from vital political issues to forms of shallow entertainment sources such as movies, television, music, and even excessive sports. I strongly believe that the technology in modern times, such as television channels that heavily rotate images and news reports, can create a strong influence, many times with social and political implications, on a mass population which can create the atmosphere of the tyranny of the majority. Examples of this might range from heavily rotated news reports on Muslim terrorists, heavily rotated news reports that Iran wants nuclear weapons, or religious indoctrination that teaches Christians that Israel was promised to the Jewish people and that all Palestinians are terrorists even though it is quite irrational to base foreign policy on authorless writings. In fact, the Israeli lobby organization, the politically powerful AIPAC, is primarily successful in procuring billions of dollars (of American tax payer money) each year for their foreign government, despite American debt, due to such influence as is described in the concept of ‘tyranny of the majority’.
“The beliefs which we have most warrant for, have no safeguard to rest on, but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded.” - Mill
2. “A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions, but by his inactions.” – Mill
“To make any one answerable for doing evil to others, is the rule; to make him answerable for not preventing evil, is, comparatively speaking, the exception.” – Mill
This brings to the forefront a serious philosophical question. An example of this question, which we see in American news reports quite frequently, would be the unconscious woman who has consumed too much alcohol and is raped. If the rape is observed by a friend of the rapist and the friend does not stop the victimization, should the state hold that observer accountable for not preventing, or for not attempting to stop, the victimization? There are many other modern examples that could also be used for this question on responsibility and consequences for both the state and the individual.
3. In the opening of chapter two, Mill mentions the freedom of the press. The question on freedom of the press, especially in modern capitalist societies, comes when the majority of press outlets, whether in television or print or internet, are controlled by capital holders sharing the same political, economic, ethnic or religious interests. What is the mainstream media? At this point in the U.S., media seems to have become a strong method of influence on the mass population. The lesser educational and intellectual development of a population, the more vulnerable to mass produced inorganic popular culture and media influence the population in question will be.
4. “To discover to the world something which deeply concerns it, and of which it was previously ignorant; to prove to it that it had been mistaken on some vital point of temporal or spiritual interest, is as important a service as a human being can render to his fellow-creatures.” -Mill
Mill spends much time discussing grass roots change against the state, whether it was later discovered as positive or negative, and uses the example of the origins of Christianity and the early persecution of the Roman Empire against Christians before adopting Christianity as the legal religion of the Roman Empire several centuries after Saul ‘s creation of Pauline Christianity. A similar state persecution can be seen in recent American history with race segregation. When leaders such as Malcolm X and Dr. King led wide scale social and political campaigns for social change in the U.S., the state sponsored persecutions and resistance were strong handed and violent. This example proves that state policy can be quite skewed and might never been altered for better or worse without the determined soul to challenge it.
“Those whose opinions go by the name of public opinion, are not always the same sort of public; in American they are the whole white population; in England, chiefly the middle class. But they are always a mass.” – Mill
I would certainly say that in 2013, the U.S. has generally converted to the middle class model of England in 1859 although the American population is now extremely polarized due to the history of slavery, racial segregation, immigration, and vulture capitalism (both domestic and international). Of course, the ultra-elite are able to conduct business and control representative democracy in any manner that increases profits as long as the mass population is polarized, divided, at each other’s throats.
“It will be said, that we do not now put to death the introducers of new opinions; we are not like our fathers who slew the prophets…” – Mill
No, prophets are no longer slain, but if those modern reformers obtain too much public support and following among the masses, and those reformers are teaching about economic injustices, certain foreign policy issues, or truthful history…you can expect them to be soiled by lies or slandered through the media over any error they may have made in their personal history. I had a fool argue with me the other day when I brought up the Dr. King speech on Vietnam. The fool was so hinged on accusations that Dr. King had committed adultery, that he obviously didn’t hear one word of the Vietnam speech.
“There have been, and may again be, great individual thinkers, in a general atmosphere of mental slavery” - Mill
5. Mill makes an interesting observation on how religion is utilized as a control mechanism on the masses, especially Christianity:
“It holds out the hope of heaven and the threat of hell, as the appointed and appropriate motives to a virtuous life” – Mill
“It is essentially a doctrine of passive obedience; it inculcates submission to all authorities found established” – Mill
6. “The spirit of improvement is not always a spirit of liberty, for it may aim at forcing improvements on an unwilling people.” – Mill
This is certainly true and from a modern American perspective, we can easily pull up two correlating examples. One example appears in the name of free trade which allows American corporations to manufacture (and create jobs) in foreign states with lower wage requirements instead of in the U.S. where many people are unemployed or reliant on government assistance. Why have not Congress and the American voters demanded, and passed legislation, enforcing heavy taxes to be placed on these American corporations that manufacture overseas with the hands of lower foreign wage workers (and easier labor laws) in order to sell the finished product back to the American people at maximum profit margin? Would this infringe on personal liberty, improve the debt riddled American economy and unemployment of the U.S., or would it damage the individual rights of the private sector entity that assists in the election and reelection of congressional seats? On the other side of the spectrum, we can consider the high amount of citizens on government assistance programs in the U.S. It is evident that there is massive fraud and abuse within the U.S. assistance programs, but would tightening the reigns and requirements for this system, such as drug testing, be an infringement of individual rights? Or is this a necessity for downsizing spending? Many proponents of government assistance would certainly bring to attention that massive annual budget allotment for the Department of the Defense, which buys heavily from American corporations which manufactures overseas, and the billions of dollars in (American tax dollar) foreign aid being fleeced out of the American state each fiscal year.
7. “How (it may be asked) can any part of the conduct of a member of society be a matter of indifference to the other members? No person is an entirely isolated being” – Mill
This question is currently a major issue in the United States. Drug dealing in lower economic areas is the first example that springs to mind. How is it that the people of a community that is being slowly poisoned and destroyed by drugs, violence, and high incarceration rates will often turn the other way and ignore the issue? Fear? If the drugs are being heavily imported into those communities by shadowy devils, as is often the accusation, then ceasing the supply pipeline should be of even more importance. And when I make the comment about the importation of drugs into a community, I can quickly remind the reader of the Iran-Contra CIA-crack revelation during the 1980s. At any rate, when the city of Chicago has 500 murders in a single, and those 500 murders are mainly concentrated in specific demographic areas, the actions of these so-called individuals impact the entire collective (from property values to lack of future capital investment (no jobs) to lower tax revenues to be circulated back into schools and libraries for the future generation). The following statement is made by Mill and presents the axiom that something negative cannot continue forever: “There must be some length of time and amount of experience, after which a moral or prudential truth may be regarded as establish; and it is merely desired to prevent generation and generation from falling over the same precipice which has been fatal to their predecessors.”
A strong beginning point would be to educate the lower economic youth concerning the popular and glamorous false idols that are mass produced and heavily rotated in music video and hip hop culture. Not a flimsy and empty “It’s a bad thing” education, but a socio-economic education on the destruction of community in which these influences create (financed by wealthy entertainment industry xenophobes) and the path of self-destruction that gangsters actually result in. Teaching lower economic men and women about the private prison system is paramount.
“The existing generation is master of the training and the entire circumstances of the generation to come” – Mill
8. In the final essay of the book, Mill speaks on various areas concerning the responsibilities of the state to better conditions and whether these areas infringe on personal liberty despite the positive intention of the state mechanism.
One area he discusses is “how far liberty may legitimately be invaded for the prevention of crime”. A historical example of this debate could be the way Americans of Japanese ancestry were rounded up and treated after Pearl Harbor, or how Muslim women are treated at airports today. Another example would be when a person on social media makes a joke that authorities consider a threat and local law enforcement, in great numbers, breaks down their front door and enters their home.
Closing the essay, Mill mentions women’s rights well ahead of the suffrage movement in the U.S. and makes several interesting comments regarding education and testing. Viewing American education in somewhat of a dilapidated state, I found the following question put forth by Mill an interesting one:
“Is it almost a self-evident axiom, that the State should require and compel the education, up to a certain standard of every human being who is born its citizen?”
I find this topic troubling due to the amount of American parents that enroll their children into kindergarten and expect the child or children to emerge from high school completely educated without ever personally engaging in the educational process on the home front as a responsible parent should do.
“The worth of a State, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it” - Mill