The Paradox of Liberty


By: Thomas E. Brewton

Liberal educators accord to John Stuart Mill’s essay “On Liberty” the status of holy scripture. Mill’s particular version of liberty, essentially that of the ACLU, is a prescription for anarchy degenerating into tyranny.

American academic liberals (not to be confused with the original version of liberalism represented by Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” and by our own Constitution) have long employed Mill’s essay to inculcate in callow students the idea that actions to subvert society’s traditions are both heroic and socially progressive.

Mill notes that English liberty originally meant limitation of the sovereign’s arbitrary powers, the ethos undergirding our own War of Independence.

But, says Mill, that principle having been long since established, the modern (1859 in his case) definition of liberty must be expanded. “It is now perceived that such phrases as ‘self-government,’ and ‘the power of the people over themselves,’ do not express the true state of the case. The ‘people’ who exercise power are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised….. there needs protection also against the tyranny of prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them.”

Mill’s ringing summation is, “The sole object of this essay is to assert one very simple principle…… that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection.”

Libertarians will find nothing to disagree with in that statement. But, as James Madison noted in Federalist No. 51, experience has taught mankind the need for auxiliary precautions.

Chief among those auxiliary precautions is education to support a common understanding of our history, traditions, and the Judeo-Christian moral precepts that constituted Western civilization until the 18th century’s advent of atheistic materialism. Without them, there will be no enduring, free society within which to express opinions.

Speaking of the English society which Voltaire encountered during his exile of 1726-29, one that both allowed freedom of expression and maintained social order, André Maurois observed in “A History of France”:

“What the [French philosophes] of the eighteenth century did not see….is that traditions are not all fetters, that many of them constitute the very framework of a society, that every society rests upon the legitimacy of some government….The English succeeded in this enterprise, because the transition in that country was extremely slow and because they preserved side by side new [traditions] and old.” In short, England was a conservative nation, France a radical, progressive one.

Mill’s conception of liberty as limitless ability to say or do whatever an individual wants may be viable in a utopian society composed entirely of reasonable and well-informed citizens, but hardly so in real life, where opinions can be manipulated by the media and translated into revolutionary action.

Does liberty truly demand that we support the ACLU’s unflagging campaign to destroy the Judeo-Christian moral traditions underlying the Constitution? Must we support liberals’ PC education and advocacy of hate-crime laws to punish thoughts in addition to deeds?

Exhibit A is the 1789 Revolution in France, fomented by forty years of pamphlets and newspapers denouncing the foundations of society. Paris, the seat of the revolution and the Los Angeles of its day, was a swarming rabble of poorly educated and often unemployed people drawn from the country districts by the great city’s rapid growth, easy prey for propaganda. Not much different from the conditions accompanying a rapid influx of twelve million or so illegal Hispanic immigrants.

Exhibit B is Germany’s National Socialist totalitarianism, facilitated by the activities of propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels to create and channel the expression of ill-informed opinion into violent action.

Such is the consequence of moral relativism, the idea that all opinions are of equal value to society, as well as of socialist Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s view that truth is whatever wins out in the marketplace.

Compare John Stuart Mill’s language to 1956′s “The Power Elite” by Columbia University professor and liberal icon C. Wright Mills. In the book’s opening paragraph, Mills writes, ” The powers of ordinary men are circumscribed by the everyday worlds in which they live, yet even in these rounds of jobs, family, and neighborhood, they often seem driven by forces they can neither understand nor govern…. The very framework of modern society confines them to projects not their own, but from every side, such changes now press upon the men and women of mass society.”

Employing Marxian materialism, C. Wright Mills’s diagnosis was that the ills of society arise from its domination by a capitalistic political-military-economic power elite that controlled public opinion. He taught that liberal intellectuals were obliged to motivate students to engage in subversion to overthrow the power elite and to create a new, socialist society.

In “On Liberty,” John Stuart Mill writes that the philosophical foundation for his position, is “….utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions…utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of a man as a progressive being.”

This is essentially the moral-relativism position taken here in the 20th century by John Dewey in his pragmatic philosophy, which rejects all ideas of permanent moral truth, preferring rather to ascribe validity to any proposition that produces the result desired by the person so acting. Pragmatism’s corollary is that the atheistic and materialistic ends of socialism sought by progressive intellectuals justify the necessary means for their implementation.

Mill’s definition of liberty comprises complete freedom of opinion and the unfettered opportunity to express and to act upon those personal opinions, as well as the ability to join with others of like mind to act upon those opinions, so long as doing so does not harm others.

In this we can see an antecedent to the ACLU interpretation of the First Amendment, in which individuals should be free to foment socialist and anarchist actions aimed at overturning the First Amendment itself, along with the Constitution. In that view, the harm being done comes from a society tolerating private property ownership, and overturning such a society is both progressive and supportive of Mill’s “permanent interests of a man as a progressive being.”

For further insight into the contradictions and dangers lying within Mill’s position, read Gertrude Himmelfarb’s essay “Liberty: ‘One Very Simple Principle’?” (published in a volume titled “On Looking Into the Abyss”).



Thomas E. Brewton is a staff writer for the New Media Alliance, Inc. The New Media Alliance is a non-profit (501c3) national coalition of writers, journalists and grass-roots media outlets.

His weblog is THE VIEW FROM 1776 http://www.thomasbrewton.com/

About The Author Thomas E. Brewton:
Thomas E. Brewton is a staff writer for the New Media Alliance, Inc. The New Media Alliance is a non-profit (501c3) national coalition of writers, journalists and grass-roots media outlets.
Website:http://www.thomasbrewton.com/

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