MILL—especially the Mill of On Liberty—has always been linked to liberalism. Mill's essay was published as liberal ideas were gaining great influence, and it seemed to breathe the spirit and articulate the values of the emerging ethos. This association has continued to our time, and in recent commentary he is portrayed as the emblematic liberal by those upholding the traditional interpretation (Berlin, Ten); by the revisionists (Rees, Ryan); by those who suggest he developed a conception of positive liberty (Semmel); and by conservative critics, as well. Cowling, for example, calls him the godfather of modern liberalism. Even John Gray, writing from a postmodern perspective, labels Mill as “the paradigm liberal thinker.”1
This study, however, casts doubt on the suitability of linking Mill so closely to liberalism. The liberal label is questionable whatever species of liberalism is considered, but, of course, the reasons for this conclusion will depend on the particular type of liberalism that is compared with Mill's position.
Mill's distance from liberalism is greatest and most evident when one considers whether he would agree with the liberal doctrine that defends a conception of negative liberty for largely autonomous individuals who are protected within a realm of privacy from intrusions by either government or society and who are free to make choices and develop within this private realm. This kind of liberalism attaches great importance to the public-private distinction, and it upholds the principle of moral pluralism and the related view that governments should be neutral with regard to the moral choices of citizens. Some of those adopting this perspective also attribute certain rights, which are equally distributed, to all individuals— minimally, civil and political rights, but others are sometimes added. Liberalism is most often defined in terms of this constellation of features, though, of course, not all spokesmen for this conception of liberalism agree about each of its attributes or on their relative importance. Although it has been widely criticized, this conception of liberalism dominates contemporary discourse, and one variant or another is attributed to Mill by representatives of several of the varied interpretations of his thought.____________________