In those days, I was a democrat, but not the least … a socialist… [later], our ideal of ultimate improvement went far beyond democracy, and … would class us decidedly under the general designation of socialists.—J. S. Mill, Autobiography
John Stuart Mill is rightly considered one of the greatest liberal thinkers. His seminal essay On Liberty is one of the most philosophically rich defences of basic liberal freedoms ever written. It is held in especially high regard these days: an inspiration for critics of cancel culture and postmodern Trumpism alike.
His other works are unfortunately less widely known. He expressed opinions on a range of topics, including colonialism, women’s suffrage and economic arrangements. On some topics, such as British colonialism in India, his views have aged poorly and warrant serious condemnation. But on others, such as the need to extend feminist anaylsis to the private sphere, he was a pioneer (though, as he acknowledged, he was deeply indebted for insights on this topic to his wife, Harriet Taylor).
Mill’s arguments for liberal socialism are particularly relevant today and deserve a wider audience. On Liberty goes beyond a defence of the harm principle: it also synthesizes the ideas of liberal rights, utilitarianism and romanticism into a single theory in defence of a form of expressive individualism.
Mill’s Synthesis of Rights and Utility Theories: Expressive Individualism
Mill was the first to attempt a synthesis of liberalism, utilitarianism and romanticism—three systems many considered fundamentally incompatible. His synthesis is sometimes referred to as a rights/utility synthesis.
The marriage between the three traditions was not entirely happy, but it was successful enough to produce both disciples and critics in every generation since its publication. Mill often seems to be tugged in different directions by one or other of the traditions, which has frustrated interpreters who seek to harmonize the disparate lines of his argument—but which is also part of what gives his work its power.
Mill’s synthesis shows that he is committed to upholding most of the classical liberal rights. Indeed, in many respects, his emphasis on individual liberty is stronger even than what most modern states are willing to allow. He shares Kant’s and Locke’s concern that fundamental liberties can be compromised by an overpowering state—whether it is led by revolutionaries who insist that violence is necessary to fundamentally transform social relations, or by conservative authoritarians who are willing to use coercion to maintain their preferred social hierarchies.
But, as a utilitarian, Mill does not agree with Kant’s and Locke’s emphasis on the fundamental priority of property rights, which is a merely possessive view of individualism. From a utilitarian standpoint, as Jeremy Bentham puts it, “everyone counts as one, and no more than one.” Thus, allowing some individuals to enjoy higher levels of utility than others requires compelling reasons, and cannot be justified merely by appeals to vague, subjective abstractions like merit and desert.
In addition, Mill’s romanticism made him wary of the materialistic and hedonistic conceptions of individualism that he detected both in early liberalism and in utilitarianism. In those conceptions, human beings are primarily defined by the crude pursuit of self-interested pleasure and acquisition, often leading to competitive struggle and even—in the absence of any deterrence—to Thomas Hobbes’ “warre of all against all.”
Mill is not opposed to individualism or materialism per se. He rejects merely possessive forms of individualism, which emphasise only the importance of having what we need and working for what we want. Instead, he advocates an expressive form of individualism, which includes the idea that it is important to become the kind of person we wish to be. In On Liberty, he explains that both liberal rights and a high level of material well-being and equality for all are conducive to this expressive individualism:
It really is of importance, not only what men do, but also what manner of men they are that do it. Among the works of man, which human life is rightly employed in perfecting and beautifying, the first in importance surely is man himself. Supposing it were possible to get houses built, corn grown, battles fought, causes tried, and even churches erected and prayers said, by machinery—by automatons in human form—it would be a considerable loss to exchange for these automatons even the men and women who at present inhabit the more civilised parts of the world, and who assuredly are but starved specimens of what nature can and will produce. Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.
Mill’s emphasis on expressive individualism is crucial to the arguments he makes in his later years for an experimental, liberal socialism. His commitment to experimentalism in politics flowed from his mature Enlightenment conception of science. Early Enlightenment philosophers in the vein of John Locke tend to still be attracted to premodern notions of moral certainty as an ideal, which they express in assertions about natural rights and human nature. By contrast, Mill believed that morality and politics should be experimental, with each individual life serving as a laboratory to test different visions of the good. For this ideal to be achieved, individuals need substantial amounts of freedom to effectively run different life experiments. This expressive individualist freedom engenders plurality and diversity, which Mill thought would enable people to learn about the experiences and outlooks of those who led different lives. Society’s diversity provides a mine of information upon which we can draw for inspiration and guidance. Mill also believed that such a society would be utility maximizing, since no one can know what will make an individual happy better than that individual herself.
Mill’s Arguments for Socialism
Mill’s arguments for a form of liberal socialism are presented most fully in later editions of his Principles of Political Economy, as well as in his short tract, Socialism, and his autobiography. He had substantial reservations about the revolutionary etatism that was emerging in continental Europe. The etatists believed that the only path to socialism was to violently seize state power and use that power to remake the social order. In Socialism, while Mill expresses sympathy for those who want to see “the whole of their aspirations realized in their own time and at a blow,” he warns that using large scale violence to enact change will probably generate far more suffering than it will relieve. He also intimates that these agitations often seem to be motivated more by hatred of the privileged than by a desire to improve the lot of the worst off. He also insists that any socialist reforms will have to respect liberal rights—except, to some extent, property rights. Although the nineteenth-century reformist socialists were more to Mill’s taste, he chastises them for imperfectly understanding the importance of competition in stimulating innovation. He also argues that their critiques of the division of labor—even if well founded—ignore the costs of doing away with specialization. Above all, he notes that socialists have yet to identify a motivator that is powerful enough to compete with self-interest as a spur to economic activity. These objections retain their force today.
Despite Mill’s reservations about socialism, he remains convinced that we need to do everything in our power to organize social and economic arrangements “to work in a manner more beneficial to that large portion of society which at present enjoys the least share of its direct benefits.” In Socialism, he argues that the benefits of dramatically unequal property arrangements are “very insignificant” next to their costs, and he advocates experimenting with economic arrangements, to try to find those that are more in line with justice. These experiments could include offering public services, engaging in extensive redistributive efforts and gradually but steadily replacing capitalist ownership of industry with worker cooperatives. Mill’s arguments for experimentalism lean heavily on his utilitarian ideas. While he acknowledges that the unbridled capitalism of the nineteenth century was extremely productive, he rejects the idea that this productivity somehow makes capitalism the last word in economic arrangements. Rather, he argues, once it is clear that capitalist production distributes goods inefficiently—since it allows them to become concentrated in the hands of the few, rather than distributed evenly among the many—there are no good reasons, other than trepidation about change, for opposing efforts to improve things. Indeed, those who advocate such efforts can offer many compelling utilitarian justifications for seeking improvement.
But perhaps Mill’s most forceful arguments for liberal socialism are straightforward moral ones. He chastises classical liberals, who claim to be committed to the moral equality of all, for not pushing their own philosophical insights far enough. He acknowledges that they supported liberal revolutions in the UK, the Americas and France, to bring down corrupt aristocracies. They rightly insisted on a level playing field. And they criticized the old conceits about inherent human inequality, and the old forms of social hierarchy predicated on abstract or superstitious conceptions of desert and merit—such as the divine right of kings and Aristotle’s claim that some people are natural slaves. Yet, Mill argues, compared to what he calls “their more far-sighted successors, the present Socialists,” classical liberals still remain deeply attracted to vague arguments about merit, hard work and desert to justify the dramatic inequalities that emerged under capitalism.
Mill would have none of that. Anticipating the ideas that John Rawls would articulate a century later, Mill argues that people’s individual merits, and even their efforts, have little effect on whether they rise or fall, which instead is highly dependent on the circumstances of their birth. Ironically, those who are born rich enough can live a life of idleness and indulgence, while “those who receive the least, labor and abstain the most.” A person’s prosperity is also dependent on her natural gifts or defects, for which no one can accept credit or blame. Even when people engage in bad conduct—the kind of conduct to which many attribute the condition of the poor—this is often largely due to circumstances beyond their control. Nor, as Mill notes, can “good conduct can be counted upon for raising [one] in the world, without the aid of fortunate accidents”:
These evils then—great poverty, and that poverty very little connected with desert—are the first grand failure of the existing arrangements of society. The second is human misconduct; crime, vice, and folly, with all the sufferings which follow in their train. For, nearly all the forms of misconduct, whether committed towards ourselves or towards others, may be traced to one of three causes: poverty and its temptations in the many, idleness and desoeuvrement in the few whose circumstances do not compel them to work; bad education, or want of education, in both. The first two must be allowed to be at least failures in the social arrangements, the last is now almost universally admitted to be the fault of those arrangements—it may almost be said to be a crime.
For Mill, since inequality has nothing to do with moral desert, we should reduce it as far as possible. We should reject the arguments that inequality is morally justifiable, that preventable poverty arises from personal failings and that people are morally responsible for their failings or deficiencies. The moral bias of society should gradually tilt towards high levels of material equality. This view is closely connected with Mill’s believe in expressive individualism: he recognizes that material impoverishment and disempowerment hinder each individual’s ability to grow and develop. When opportunities and resources are not made available to all, many people’s ability to become who they wish to be is destroyed, which in turn denies their fellow citizens the chance to learn from the experiments in living that they might have otherwise have run.
Mill’s Liberal Socialism Today
Mill’s liberal socialism is open to criticism from many angles. Neoliberals like Friedrich Hayek, who strongly prioritize property rights, dismiss Mill’s claims that the basic liberties and individualism can all be protected and even enhanced in a liberal socialist society—on the grounds that socialist management corrodes respect for property, and that this will lead to tyranny. Revolutionary socialists criticise Mill’s reformism and his belief that education can inspire people to embrace socialist reform. And Mills’ wariness of democracy limits his capacity to see what kinds of changes it would take to permanently check the influence of money and power in politics. But despite these problems, Mill’s thinking shows that liberalism and socialism, far from being necessarily opposed, can co-exist and complement one another. In a world where inequality is rising and illiberal movements are on the march, the dialogue that Mill’s theories inspire is becoming ever more crucial.