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Monday, June 26, 2017

Week 4 - June 26 - Liberty

         In the introduction to his book, On Liberty, Mill states that “The struggle between Liberty and Authority is the most conspicuous feature in the portions of history with which we are earliest familiar….” He then defines liberty as protection against the tyranny of the political rulers.[1] Though the power of government was and currently is considered necessary, it is also extremely dangerous. Government, Mill contends, is all too often used as a weapon against those under its governing power. “The aim, therefore, of patriots, was [and is] to set limits to the power which the ruler should be suffered to exercise over the community; and this limitation was what they meant by liberty.”[2] Liberty, as defined by Mill, was attempted to be secured by two methods. “First by obtaining a recognition of certain immunities, called political liberties or rights…” and second by constitutional checks by which the consent of the community, or of a body of some sort supposed to represent its interests, was made a necessary condition…” Though Mill was not necessarily talking about the United States, but about Greece, Rome and England, the narrative fits well with America also. Governments tend toward increasing their power and ours is no different. Even with the constitutional checks and balances, government grows its power over the citizens and it limits their liberties in favor of more and bigger government control. Just as the natural tendency of government is to want more power, “the principal object of the “lovers of liberty” is to limit government to its bare necessities. Rather than government being an “independent power opposed in interest to themselves,” people came to believe that it would be better if government in general and government officials, more specifically, “should be their tenants or delegates, revocable at their pleasure.”[3]  This is a description, to some extent, of self-governance, although neither Mill nor the Founding Fathers desired a democracy where the majority ruled. Mill was not necessarily describing the government of the United States, but a general yearning of many humans in their desire for liberty. And even with this type of government where the officials are subject to recall and disfavor in elections, government grows and becomes more and more oppressive. It is its nature. When “lovers of liberty” are absent, a benevolent government will, by means of a natural process, morph into a tyrannical and oppressive totalitarian government.   

[1] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Dover Thrift Editions (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2002), 4.
[2] Ibid, 4
[3] Ibid, 4


  1. "When 'lovers of liberty' are absent, a benevolent government will, by means of a natural process, morph into a tyrannical and oppressive totalitarian government" - especially when our temporary trustees in government, our elected officeholders, are not themselves imbued with a love of liberty (which is not always coextensive with a professed love of country). But when they are so imbued, there's no intrinsic reason to regard government per se as a hostile institution. Its appropriate function, Mill would agree with the American founders' best intentions (though not always their actions-specifically with regard to slavery and the rights of women and minorities), is to secure the rights of the governed and extend the blessings of liberty to all. It's hard to see how, especially in the American historical context, that function can be discharged a government limited to its "bare necessities." Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all are bare necessities too, and can't (history shows) be entrusted entirely to the beneficence of private citizens.

    But, when officeholders betray contempt for citizens and for all the institutions of government (judiciary especially) tasked to safeguard liberty and justice for all, look out.

  2. When office holders suppress or attempt to suppress dissent they threaten liberty. They can do this in multiple ways. They can use police force such as Putin has done and continues to do, including assassinating those who might voice dissent. Or they can see to deny access to the press to ask reasonable questions as President Trump has done recently by not allowing press briefings to be televised. Also, Trump makes a perfect example of an elected official who only wants to hear from those individuals who agree with him and who only attends golf courses or rally events where the people in the crowd are his supporters. Additionally, members of Congress do this by refusing to hold public hearings on issues related to the public or where they only allow supporters to attend. This should be a cause for concern and generate an appropriate response from all citizens regardless of their party or non-party affiliation.

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