EDIT: Hello from the future! This post is part of the old blog. That means it may be deprecated. However, I deemed it valuable enough to keep around. The new blog starts here!
This is it: the final installment of my "On Liberty" Highlights series. You can find here the first, second and third installments. It's been a long and arduous journey - ok maybe not. But it ends here and now with this, the last chapter, "Applications".
Before going ahead, I remind you the rules of the game. This is not a review, a critique or anything so serious. It is a casual cherry-picking of what I found interesting in the chapter.
The good of the many
In this last part, J.S. Mill concludes his essay by talking about a couple of applications of liberty. But before he does so, he summarizes the two important maxims at the core of his essay. I think he is pretty eloquent in his description of them so let me leave the floor to him:
(1) the individual is not accountable to society for his actions, in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself
(2) for such actions as are prejudicial to the interests of others, the individual is accountable, and may be subjected either to social or to legal punishments, if society is of the opinion that the one or the other is requisite for its protection
The "its protection" part here refers to society's protection. This is actually an important underlying part throughout his essay that I haven't really outlined. The reason why society interferes in the life of others is because it seeks to preserve itself. People are not free to rob each other willy-nilly because otherwise there would be complete chaos and no form of society. It is this idea of protection of the overall society a.k.a the greater good that explains why the government intrudes.
In this mindset, he specifically says the following:
it is one of the undisputed functions of government to take precautions against crime before it has been committed, as well as to detect and punish it afterwards.
He warns about the preventing part as this is the one most open to abuse and thus should be the one we are the most careful about. Hum, hum!
A good application of this (even though he doesn't go into too much detail about it) is upholding commerce and free trade. Even though somebody buying a popularly coveted item prevents others from having it (and thus causes them harm in some sense), the fact that there is this overarching competition is in the end for the best of all. It ensures that the highest return is given to the item producer and in turn spurs the development of alternatives. This is all good as long as it is accomplished in an unadulterated fashion e.g., through cheating, bribery or force. And this is where freedom is set limits by the government to make sure that these exchanges are done correctly (in some cases through preventative measures).
An example: poison (guns)
To bring this back to concrete things, Mill considers the sell and procurement of poison. I think it is a particularly apt example as it mirrors the sell and procurement of guns. Search and replace the word 'poison' by the word 'gun' in the following paragraphs at your leisure!
On the one hand, banning the sell of poison is too much since there are legitimate uses of it (that's right Mr. Rat, run while you still can!). On the other, there is no doubt that poison is dangerous and is the intentional or accidental source of death of other members of society. Labelling poison or poisonous drugs is therefore a necessity to curb the accidental aspect. You can't not want to know the nature (or dangers!) of what you buy - ooh, oh that's right... I guess you can.
To curb the intentional death aspect, a record of the buyer, the quantity and the purpose of the procurement should be kept (even a third party might sometimes be required to attest to the purpose) by the seller. This poses no unbearable burden on the buyer - he/she doesn't need to get an expensive certificate by a professional practitioner - and it can greatly help in dissuading criminal usage of the substance. Plus, it is a safety measure for the seller - it keeps track of his or her inventory.
The level of preventative measures that can be used varies for different things: you need this professional certificate type of deal if you want to get into hedge funds for instance and that's a good thing since you need to know what you are getting into.
The last thing that stuck out to me was Mill's opposition to an elite all dominating bureaucracy in a government. I think where he really sees government in action is not from the top (bureaucrats) down (citizens) but rather from side (citizen) to side (citizen).
In fact, Mill points at the ridiculous bureaucracy of the Russian Empire of his time and his remarks echo what he previously discussed about China. If everything needs to go through a bureaucracy, then the power has shifted from the people to the bureaucrats. Bureaucracy is necessary to some extent to have people caring about the meta, but these people should be amongst the rest. Not above.
That was fun! It's encouraging to see that a foundational essay is approachable to a layman. Sure, most of the sentences are eight lines long, but the concepts make sense. In the end the work truly centers around common sense. Yay for liberty!