JS Mill – On Liberty, Ch. 1-2

This is the reading for our June 17th meeting.  You can find all the details at our Meetup.com page.

Chapter 1 – Introduction

This essay is not about the freedom of the will, but civil liberty—the nature and limits of the power which society can wield over the individual.  In the past, liberty meant protection against government tyranny.  Since the power og government could be used against anyone, citizens had to be in a perpetual state of defence against this power.  This limitation could be carried out in two ways.  First, a set of immunities, called liberties.  Second, constitutional checks.  Constitutional checks eventually became the main defence of liberty.

Eventually, societies decided that government should not be an independent, antagonistic power; rather, government power should be a delegated power and representative of the people.  Once this sort of democracy appeared, people began to think that too much importance had been attached to the limitation of power, since the idea that the people could oppress themselves appeared to be so odd.  As Mill puts it, “The nation did not need to be protected against its own will.  There was no fear of its tyrannizing over itself.” (89)  His response to this is to say that phrases like “the power of the people over themselves” does not actually describe what goes on in democratic republics.  For example, the “people” who exercise the power are not the same people over whom it is exercised, and the “will of the people” means nothing more than the will of a numerical majority.

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