In this essay at The Future of Freedom Foundation, Professor Richard Ebeling discusses John Stuart Mills 1859 essay On Liberty which discusses his three dangers to liberty: the tyranny of the minority, the tyranny of the majority, and social pressure to conform. Our US government was designed with the intent to mitigate both the first and second tyrannies. The executive branch would be balanced by the judicial and legislative branches. In the legislative branch itself, there would be both a Congress whose membership would be based on the population of a state which allows for a tyranny of the majority, but this would be balanced by the Senate whose membership would be equal regardless of the population. Likewise, the electoral college was created as a compromise between the danger of a tyranny of the majority that would be created by a straight popular vote and the danger of corrupted electors if the Congress were to select the president. In our current times there are people calling for both the destruction of the electoral college and changes to the Senate composition in order to make both more reflective of population which would directly reinstate these dangers of tyranny by the majority.
JOHN STUART MILL’S 1859 ESSAY “On Liberty” is one of the most enduring and powerful defenses of individual freedom ever penned. Both advocates and enemies of personal freedom have challenged either the premises or the logic in Mill’s argument. They have pointed out inconsistencies or incompleteness in his reasoning. But the fact remains that after almost 150 years, few essays continue to justify being read and pondered with the same care and attention as “On Liberty…”
But within the context of his own premises, Mill was a fairly strong advocate of much of what today we usually call civil liberties. Thus, for example, he opposed the attempt by some to prohibit the consumption of alcohol by others, insisting that it was an inappropriate restraint on individual freedom of choice.
Men of the most honest intentions and goodwill may reason with their fellow human beings and offer their own lives as examples of better ways of living.
But it would be an unjustifiable violation of another’s personal freedom to coercively attempt to prevent him from ingesting some substance that he — however wrong-headedly from the critic’s perspective — finds desirable, useful, or pleasurable.
But Mill, unfortunately, conceded to the government as necessary responsibilities far more powers of intervention into social and economic affairs than most modern classical liberals and libertarians consider justifiable.
Three forms of tyranny
And this gets to the issue of what can stifle or prevent an individual from exercising his personal freedom in the manner he wants. Mill argued that there were, historically, three forms of tyranny which have endangered liberty through the ages.
The oldest was the tyranny of the one or the few over the many. A single dictator or an oligarchy imposed prohibitions on or commanded certain forms of behavior over the majority of the society. The spontaneous individualism and individuality of each person was denied. The one or the few determined how others might live and what they might say and do and, therefore, in what forms their human potential would be allowed to develop.
The newer form of tyranny, Mill said, was the rule of the many over the one. The revolt against the tyranny of the one or the few resulted in the growing idea that the people should rule themselves. And since the people, surely, could not tyrannize themselves, the unrestrained will of the people became the ideal of those who advocated unlimited democracy.
But in practice this inevitably became the rule of the majority over the minority. Individual freedom was denied purely on the basis of numbers, that is, on the basis of which group or coalition of groups formed that larger number of people dominating the political process. Their ideas, ideals, and values were to be imposed on all those representing less than 50 percent of the electorate.
But whether it was the tyranny of the few over the many or the many over the few, the source of their tyrannical power was the control and use of political coercion. State power is what enabled some to deny liberty to others. The threat or the use of force by government is what enabled freedom to be taken away from individuals who believed in ideas, ideals, or values different from those holding the reins of political power.
The “tyranny” of custom and tradition
Mill also said that there was a third source of tyranny over the individual in society, and this was the tyranny of custom and tradition. He argued:
The despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement, being in unceasing antagonism to that disposition to aim at something better than the customary, which is called, according to circumstances, the spirit of liberty, or that of progress or improvement…. Custom is there, in all things, the final appeal; justice and right mean conformity to custom…. All deviations … come to be considered impious, immoral, even monstrous and contrary to nature.
Mill argued with great passion that societal customs and traditions could, indeed, very often be the worst tyranny of all. They were binding rules on conduct and belief that owed their force not to coercion but to their being the shared ideas of the right and proper held by the vast majority in the society. They represent what the ancient Greek Pericles referred to as “that code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace.”
Customs and traditions weigh down on the individual, they stifle his sense and desire to be different, to experiment with the new, to creatively design ways of doing things that have not been tried before, and to break out of the confinement of conformity. Custom and tradition can be the straitjacket that restricts a person’s cry for his peaceful and nonviolent individuality…
The danger to liberty arises when those who resent breaches of tradition cry for coercion to be used to impose obedience to custom. Only then does the tyranny of custom, as understood by Mill, become the coercion of the many over the few. Only then is freedom denied, indeed suffocated, by politically enforced conformity.
It is the misuse and abuse of political power — the threat or the application of legitimized force by a government within a geographical area — that always has been the greatest threat to liberty. All tyranny, whether it be the few over the many or the many over the few, results from the use of force to make others conform to the conduct desired by the rulers, even when those being coerced have done nothing to violate the rights of others…