“The right to be left alone,” said Justice William O. Douglas, “is indeed the beginning of all freedom.”
And regarding the authority of society over the freedom of the individual, where should the line be drawn? What’s the right balance between individual independence and collective social control?
John Stuart Mill, arguably the most influential 19th-century British political writer, asked those questions in his most popular essay, On Liberty, published in 1859. Mill’s position is that “the individual is not accountable to society for his actions in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself.”
Singer Billy Holiday, nearly a century later, said the same thing: “I never hurt nobody but myself and that’s nobody’s business but my own.”
Individually or collectively, the sole end that justifies interfering with another’s liberty is “self-protection,” contends Mill. “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”
The problem is that the definition of “self-protection” can be quite elastic. Opponents of gay marriage, for instance, argue that they’re protecting the institution of marriage. The Economist magazine, in contrast, editorially takes a position that’s more in sync with Mill: “Why should one set of loving, consenting adults be denied a right that other such adults have and which, if exercised, will do no damage to anyone else?”
Citing infidelity and divorce rates, the Economist points out that the “weakening of the institution of marriage has been heterosexuals’ doing, not gays.” In point of fact, Massachusetts, home to same-sex marriages, has the nation’s lowest divorce rate, with marriages coming apart at roughly half the rate as in the red and more born-again states of Kentucky, Mississippi and Arkansas.
On flag burning, one can quite easily deduce Mill’s opinion about whether a constitutional amendment is necessary for “self-protection.”
Mill makes the case not just for individual liberty from unwarranted government control but also a case against undue interference by “the collective authority of public opinion” against “a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression.”
It’s by way of this “tyranny of prevailing opinion and feeling,” warns Mill, that society attempts to compel conformity and “fetter the development and, if possible, prevent the formation of any individuality not in harmony with its ways.”
The passion to impose this social repression, to enchain the spirit of others, Mill asserts, has its roots in arrogance, envy and prejudices, but most commonly in people’s “desires or fears for themselves.”
Conversely, what fosters social progress is liberty, “absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical and speculative, scientific, moral or theological,” counsels Mill. “We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.”
Societal advancement, Mill maintains, occurs in an atmosphere that encourages “different opinions,” “deviation from custom,” “spontaneity,” “varieties of characters,” “different experiments of living,” and “eccentricity of conduct.”
Constrain that diversity, hold down what some might judge to be behavioral or ideological excesses, and “human capacities are withered and starved,” Mill asserts. We become “automatons in human form,” losers to a “despotism of custom” and a tyranny of opinion that thwarts our ambition, energy, courage and individuality.
Mill wasn’t optimistic: “Society has now fairly got the better of individuality; and the danger which threatens human nature is not the excess, but the deficiency, of personal impulses and preferences. That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of the time.”
In place of individuality, Mill saw a growing conformity to a deadening and approved standard: “And that standard, express or tacit, is to desire nothing strongly. Its ideal of character is to be without any marked character — to maim by compression, like a Chinese lady’s foot, every part of human nature which stands out prominently and tends to make the person markedly dissimilar in outline to commonplace humanity.”
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