The Authoritarian Mill

Reviewed by Joel Schwartz

John Stuart Mill on Liberty and Control
by Joseph Hamburger
Princeton University Press, 239 pages.

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Joseph Hamburger’s fine—and, regrettably, now posthumous—study of John Stuart Mill is of singular interest for several reasons. Hamburger, a long-time professor of political science at Yale University, was among America’s leading scholars of nineteenth-century British political thought. In a career spanning more than three decades, he wrote significant books on Mill, on Mill’s father James (an important thinker in his own right) and on Thomas Macaulay, among others. The current volume serves to round out an important scholarly career, presenting Hamburger’s concluding observations on the British liberal tradition that has so profoundly affected politics all over the world.

The book is important, too, because of the considerable light it sheds on Mill’s extraordinarily influential essay On Liberty. Painstakingly rereading this classic, Hamburger offers a brilliantly original interpretation, overturning much of the conventional wisdom concerning a work that one would have thought had already been studied to death. He demonstrates persuasively that Mill’s views differed greatly from those of many who today purport to follow in his footsteps, including a great many self-styled political liberals, who have set as their central goal the elimination of government involvement in the values or beliefs of individuals. Hamburger shows that far from endorsing such a view, Mill actually harbored a certain authoritarian sentiment, and was certainly not a “libertarian,” as this term is used today.


Hamburger’s central concern in the book is to call into question the intellectual lineage of what we may call the “libertarian” impulse of modern liberalismׁthe opposition to any attempt by government to discourage individual behaviors of any kind, except where these behaviors can be shown to cause undeniable (generally physical) harm to someone else. Basing themselves on this principle, libertarian liberals have sought to curb efforts to prevent or punish acts which can be seen as harming the life of the community, but are perhaps less directly damaging to the individual: “Victimless” crimes such as panhandling, public drunkenness, prostitution, the sale of pornography and so forth.

Hamburger’s reading of On Liberty points to the enormous gulf separating Mill’s views from those of many contemporary liberals. He marshals evidence to suggest that, far from being compatible with the libertarian stream of political thought, “On Liberty should be regarded as being implicitly critical of it.”  Mill himself testified that he wrote On Liberty to prove that liberty is often “withheld where it should be granted”; but as Hamburger reminds us, Mill declared in the same sentence that “liberty is often granted where it should be withheld”.  That sentence explains the title of Hamburger’s book and conveys its thesis in a nutshell: Properly understood, Mill’s essay advocated not only liberty, but also the control of certain damaging behaviors. As Hamburger reminds us, it was Mill himself who argued that if liberalism were understood to endorse “making every man his own guide and sovereign master, and letting him think for himself and do exactly as he judges best for himself,” while “forbidding him to give way to authority,” then “it is difficult to conceive a more thorough ignorance of man’s nature, and of what is necessary for his happiness…than this system implies.”

Hamburger demonstrates that Mill was very much a moralist, with views that in some respects accord better with today’s cultural conservatives than with today’s libertarian Left. Mill approved, for example, of laws forbidding marriage unless the parties could demonstrate their capacity to support a family, and he argued that any policy allowing parents to neglect the education of their children was based on “misplaced notions of liberty [which] prevent moral obligations on the part of parents from being recognized.”  A criminal-justice hawk, Mill was also outraged at what he called the “humanity-mongering” of juries that treated criminals too leniently—for example, by acquitting defendants on the grounds of temporary insanity. And although Mill denied that law could properly curb vices such as gambling, drunkenness, idleness and uncleanliness, he also believed that those who manifested them were “incapable of self-government,” and he hoped that the power of public opinion would discourage them from such behaviors.


To this point, Hamburger’s argument seems to resemble the view of Mill advanced by the eminent scholar of British political thought Gertrude Himmelfarb in her 1974 On Liberty and Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill. Like Himmelfarb, Hamburger contends that Mill endorsed communal cohesion—as well as individual liberty—as a positive good. But Hamburger’s interpretation of Mill differs from Himmelfarb’s in two respects: First, Himmelfarb accepted the traditional view of On Liberty as a libertarian work, while locating the communal aspect of Mill’s thought in other works which she preferred to it; by contrast, Hamburger discerns Mill’s concern for the well-being of the community not only in other works, but in On Liberty itself, albeit often only elliptically.

Of greater importance, the communally oriented Mill was for Himmelfarb a genuinely admirable representative of the moderate liberal tradition embodied by figures like James Madison and Alexis de Tocqueville. She praised Mill for recognizing the need to maintain social cohesion and to promote social morality, and for doubting the wisdom of elevating the expansion of individual liberty as the supreme political goal that must trump all others. But Hamburger’s assessment of this side of Mill’s thought is less favorable. On Hamburger’s reading, the Mill who endorsed social control emerges as an almost sinister figure, a forerunner of contemporary liberalism’s authoritarian (as opposed to libertarian) tendencies, who supported social control over individuals because he wanted to reshape human character, decreasing self-interestedness and dramatically increasing altruism.  “The magnitude of change which Mill sought,” writes Hamburger, “was such that it can be said without exaggeration that he wished to bring about a cultural revolution.”  And while Mill would of course have been horrified by the millions of deaths Mao caused while making his “cultural revolution,” it can fairly be said that Mill’s desired end—though certainly not his proposed means—was not all that different from Mao’s, being based on a belief that “the deep-rooted selfishness which forms the general character of the existing state of society is so deeply rooted only because the whole course of existing institutions tends to foster it.”

Thus Mill too believed that human nature was pliable; he too expected that a “social transformation” would result in “an equivalent change of character.”  In short, Mill affirmed what he himself called “the practicability of utopianism.”  Mill believed that an altruistic society could be brought into being, which would be superior to the middle-class society, supposedly suffused with selfishness, in which he lived.

Although Mill took care to conceal his religious views in works published in his lifetime, Hamburger shows that Mill regarded Christianity as the principal ideological underpinning of the human selfishness he detested. Religions like Christianity are defective, Mill believed, because they “deal in promises and threats regarding a future life.”  They thereby “fasten down the thoughts to the person’s own posthumous interests; they tempt him to regard the performance of his duties to others mainly as a means to his personal salvation; and are one of the most serious obstacles to the great purpose of moral culture, the strengthening of the unselfish and the weakening of the selfish element in our nature.”

Hamburger argues that one of the central reasons Mill endorsed unlimited freedom of discussion in On Liberty was his expectation that it would weaken Christianity, thereby helping to usher in the altruistic age that would come into being when a secular religion of humanity replaced allegiance to the Christian God.  “I always saw in the creation of a true social philosophy the only possible base for the general regeneration of human morality,” Mill wrote, “and in the idea of Humanity the only one capable of replacing that of God.”


Nor was Mills criticism of the society in which he lived restricted to his rejection of Christianity. Mill also harbored grave doubts about the moral legitimacy of the middle-class and capitalist society around him. He deplored European civilization’s emphasis on “the individual’s money-getting pursuits.”  He was sympathetic to, if not wholly supportive of, socialism because capitalist economic competition amounted to “arming one human being against another, making the good of each depend upon evil to others, making all who have anything to gain or lose live as in the midst of enemies.”  Mill also criticized the bourgeois character of English society, attacking the middle classes for their focus on “money-getting,” their conformity, their conspicuous consumption and their quest for the “mediocrity of respectability.” 

If society should not take its lead from the Christian, capitalist middle classes, then from whom? Mills preference was for an intellectual vanguard (“those who have been in advance of society in thought and feeling”), which Hamburger sees as an anticipation of similar views familiar from the self-image of intellectuals in the twentieth century: “Outsiders, rebellious, oppressed by society, anti-bourgeois, agnostic, heretical, original, opposed to custom and tradition, and…the bearers of superior moral values.”

When all this is taken into account, argues Hamburger, one is forced to conclude that Mill was ultimately too insistent on promoting moral transformation to be deemed a liberal.  “So great was his wish to stamp out selfishness that the achievement of moral reform... sometimes superseded individual liberty” in his mind. Moreover, because Mill sought “to shape character, values and motives,” he wished “to limit the choices made by citizens, and this is hardly compatible with the value pluralism often attributed…to the liberal position”.

It is difficult to deny that Mill was in many ways far from the position of today’s libertarians—the true heirs to what Hamburger here refers to as the “liberal position”—who are often associated with political conservatism. But Hamburger’s denial of Mill’s liberalism is less persuasive if one asks to what extent Mill was a forerunner of what we now know as mainstream “liberalism” in almost every Western democracy. Hamburger ignores the more radical aspects of contemporary liberal thought, with which it seems Mill would have been quite at homeׁits suspicion of economic self-interest and its preference for group equality over individual liberty. There is also a striking affinity between Mill’s insistence on shaping the moral character of the public, and modern liberal projects such as the creation of speech codes on university campuses and transportation policies designed to discourage driving (because car owners are seen as selfish polluters indifferent to the public good) in favor of public transportation. The attitudes underlying policies like these—a sense of moral superiority, coupled with condescension towards the “selfish” philistines of the middle class—do in fact reveal an authoritarian streak within contemporary liberalism, of which Mill can quite plausibly be said to have been the prophet.


In fairness to Mill, the “authoritarian” aspect of his ideas must certainly have seemed more humane and necessary when he expounded them 150 years ago than they appear today. Competitive capitalism must have been less attractive in the heyday of laissez-faire than it is now, while virtually nothing was then known of the dangers of socialism. Similarly, the moral shortcomings of a professedly theistic society enjoining conformity must also have been more striking in the past. Today, by contrast, the horrors of twentieth-century experience have made the dangers of an atheistic society all too clear; far better than Mill, we now understand (or at least we ought to understand) the truth of the maxim that when God is dead, everything is permitted.

But despite this hard-won historical knowledge, views like Mill’s continue to be expounded todayׁwith less justificationׁby the many proponents of a distinctly authoritarian liberalism. They share the agenda that Hamburger attributes to Mill, which includes “a reordering of class, property and family relations, the establishing of a new foundation for intellectual and moral authority, and the achievement of a moral regeneration that would subdue selfishness by reshaping human nature.”  Like Mill, they continue to seek “nothing less than a cultural transformation,” one that goes “far beyond anything visualized by moderate liberals.”

But to a considerable extent, today’s liberals are no longer “moderate.”  For that reason, Hamburger’s interpretation does not divorce Mill from liberalism as much as he may suppose. Hamburger convincingly shows that Mill was not the libertarian many have made him out to be; but his analysis also may lead to the conclusion that Mill can fairly be regarded as a sort of founding father of today’s authoritarian liberalism. In short, Mill can be understood as more of a liberal than Hamburger suggests; but that is not very much to the credit of liberalism, or of Mill.

Joel Schwartz has taught political theory at the University of Michigan and the University of Toronto. His most recent book is Fighting Poverty with Virtue: Moral Reform and America’s Urban Poor, 1825-2000 (Indiana University Press, 2000).

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