what things regulate
JOHN STUART MILL WAS AN ENGLISHMAN, THOUGH ONE OF THE MOST INFLUENTIAL political philosophers in America in the nineteenth century. His writings ranged from important work on logic to a still striking text, The Subjection of Women. But his continuing influence comes from a relatively short book titled On Liberty. Published in 1859, this powerful argument for individual liberty and diversity of thought represents an important view of liberal and libertarian thinking in the second half of the nineteenth century.
"Libertarian," however, has a specific meaning for us. It associates with arguments against government. 1 Government, in the modern libertarian's view, is the threat to liberty; private action is not. Thus, the good libertarian is focused on reducing government's power. Curb the excesses of government, the libertarian says, and you will have ensured freedom for your society.
Mill's view was not so narrow. He was a defender of liberty and an opponent of forces that suppressed it. But those forces were not confined to government. Liberty, in Mill's view, was threatened as much by norms as by government, as much by stigma and intolerance as by the threat of state punishment. His objective was to argue against these private forces of coercion. His work was a defense against liberty-suppressing norms, because in England at the time these were the real threat to liberty.
Mill's method is important, and it should be our own. It asks, What is the threat to liberty, and how can we resist it? It is not limited to asking, What is the threat to liberty from government? It understands that more than government can threaten liberty, and that sometimes this something more can be private rather than state action. Mill was not so concerned with the source. His concern was with liberty.
Threats to liberty change. In England norms may have been the problem in the late nineteenth century; in the United States in the first two decades of the twentieth century it was state suppression of speech. 2 The labor movement was founded on the idea that the market is sometimes a threat to liberty—not just because of low wages, but