Libertarianism with Limits

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John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand By Richard Reeves Atlantic Books Pounds 30 (624pp) Pounds 27 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

Nearly 150 years after it was published, John Stuart Mill's essay On Liberty is still a canonical text in arguments about the limits of individual freedom. Liberals who attack the Government's anti- terrorist policies regularly invoke Mill as an ally in the fight against creeping authoritarianism, picturing him as a thinker who believed that the duty of government is to promote liberty above all other values - a view echoed by Gordon Brown when he attacked Mill's "extreme view of liberty" in 2005.

The Prime Minister has acknowledged that Mill believed government has duties that go beyond the protection of freedom. Brown still seems suspicious of what he sees as his "crude libertarian" view of society, reinforcing the conventional view of Mill as an intransigent liberal who refused to compromise liberty for other values.

It would be more accurate to see Mill as a consistent critic of this kind of rights-based liberalism. Certainly, he wanted personal liberty firmly protected from the intrusions of government and - no less importantly - public opinion. Equally, there can be little doubt that Mill would have been strongly opposed to current proposals for detention without charge, for example. But this was not because he believed in a fundamental human right to freedom. Rather, Mill believed such policies to be self-defeating.

As he made clear in On Liberty, Mill had no time for any "idea of abstract right, as a thing independent of utility". Liberty was a means to human well-being, and could be restrained whenever it failed to serve this end. The "one very simple principle" that Mill defends does not say that liberty must be restrained only for the sake of liberty, but that it may be restrained when there is a risk of harm to others - giving government a wider remit. Moreover, Mill is clear that this principle only comes into play when society is at a certain stage of development. Until that point, he wrote, "despotism is a legitimate mode of government".

The type of liberalism dominant today, which views freedom as a universal human right, was alien to Mill. On Liberty is an attack on what he saw as the chief enemy of liberty in his time: the tyranny of public opinion, which he had experienced (he believed) as a result of his relationship with a married woman, Harriet Taylor, who was later his wife. Mill has often been seen as a comic figure, and it cannot be denied that this fierce advocate of nonconformity who craved public approval had something of the ridiculous about him. But there's more to Mill than his assault on social conformism.

Richard Reeves's sparkling new biography can be read as an attempt to do justice to this eminent thinker, and it succeeds triumphantly. Practically every aspect of Mill's life and thought is freshly presented, from his unhappy early education at the hands of his father, who had sealed up emotion in himself and tried to do so in his children, to the relationship with Harriet that freed Mill emotionally and enabled him to produce On Liberty - his most impassioned book. …