Mill himself was a Liberal Party supporter and had a short career as a Liberal MP, but many Conservative and Labour people have tried to claim his text On Liberty for their own traditions. The core claims of the book, I argue, are not socialist, or social democratic, because Mill is against enforcing economic equality; and they are nor conservative, because the core claims are against the power of tradition and custom.
Most famously Mill emphasises free speech both as a value in itself, and as the best way to come close to the truth. Mill is willing to restrict free speech, where the consequences of expressing an opinion are dangerous. However, Mill understands this restriction in a very limited way only, and merely applies it to situations where a crowd might be incited at that moment to assault a particular individual, or individuals. The biggest restrictions on liberty only come in where Mill refers to ‘barbaric’ people, who are not educated enough to exercise liberty. Mill was a colonial administrator in the India Office, and believed that colonialism was justified by the need to bring ‘barbaric’ peoples to an educational level, where they would be capable of self-government according to principles of liberty.
Where Mill discusses liberty of speech, and all other forms of liberty, he is concerned with limiting state power but also with social pressures. His most famous phrase is ‘tyranny of the majority’, which he takes from Democracy in America by his friend Alexis de Tocqueville, and which refers to social conformity as well as majority opinion exercised through the state. Mill believes that liberty is undermined by unthinking adherence to traditions and customs, and by non-state pressures to conform. He is particularly concerned about religion as a form of oppressive tradition; and while he recognises value in some moral traditions from religion, he argues that the best morality must mix religious and non-religious sources. Mill also argues that the pressures of social conformity are good in some circumstances, where bad behaviour should not be punished by criminal law, as with someone who does not provide properly for their children because of excessive drinking. Though Mill thinks the traditions of the past are repressive, he is also concerned that in earlier stages of history there were more strong and diverse characters. These characters created societies based on liberty, but those societies show disturbing tendencies towards uniform passive character amongst all individuals. For Mill, it is a prime concern to encourage diverse and strong personalities. Limiting the role of the state and decentralising to local government is one means to that end.
Mill argues for a limited state, but for more than the night watchman, or minarchist, state which only guarantees life and property. Beyond the night watchman role, there should be compulsory education, for example, but the state should not provide education, only make sure parents have their children educated; there should also be a continuing Poor Law to assist the destitute, but administered at a local level. In economics, there should be free trade (by which Mill understands free markets in general), only limited by moderate legislation for the safety of workers, and for the protection of consumers; and he is completely against socialist demands for equality and restriction on wealth.
There are two areas where Mill is unsure about how far liberty should go: prostitution and gambling. He argues that individuals should be permitted to practice them, at home, but that different arguments apply to publicly setting up a business to encourage and profit from prostitution and gambling. Mill argues that these practices are harmful to the individuals who participate, so that encouraging, and profiting from them, is morally highly undesirable. He leaves it an open question whether the law should criminalise them.
Mill is sometimes presented as particularly British, but as has has been mentioned he does draw on the ideas of the French liberal writer and politician, Alexis de Tocqueville. He also refers several times in On Liberty to Wilhelm von Humboldt’s Limits of State Action, where the German philosopher and politician argues for a society based on the growth and interaction of diverse, but always independent, personalities. Mill is certainly part of the British Utilitarian tradition, in which moral and political principles are grounded on what is calculated to maximise the utility (benefit) of the greatest number. Some Classical Liberal and Libertarian thinkers have strongly criticised Mill on this point, as they think it allows individual rights to be eroded, and some social democrats, or socialists, have adopted Mill for this reason. Mills’ own version of Utilitarianism though is that some ‘utilities’, such as basic liberties, are higher than bodily pleasures and cannot be sacrificed to maximising such utilities.