Startlingly Pertinent

Last night was the first debate in a Presidential campaign that–whatever else you might say about it–offers a stark contrast between a governing philosophy and a will to power.

This semester, I am teaching a course that I “invented” a few years back, titled “Individual Rights and the Common Good.” Students begin by reading political philosophers–Aristotle, Locke, Mill, Rawls–and observers like De Tocqueville, before considering present-day issues. The question we examine is, essentially, government legitimacy: when does government’s obligation to protect the common good justify constraining the liberties of the individual?

In preparation for our class on Mill, I reread the Introduction to “On Liberty.” It had been some time since I’d read it, and I was struck with how relevant it remains.

Mill begins by noting the age-old struggle between Authority and Liberty, and he traces the evolution of “authority” from a “governing tribe or caste” deriving its authority from “inheritance or conquest” to “tenants or delegates” of the people, and “revocable at their pleasure.” He writes that constraints on the first category were seen as necessary to protect those subject to the whims of the rulers; he then says

By degrees, this new demand for elective and temporary rulers became the prominent object of the exertions of the popular party, wherever any such party existed; and superseded, to a considerable extent, the previous efforts to limit the power of rulers. As the struggle proceeded for making the ruling power emanate from the periodical choice of the ruled, some persons began to think that too much importance had been attached to the limitation of the power itself. That (it might seem) was a resource against rulers whose interests were habitually opposed to those of the people. What was now wanted was, that the rulers should be identified with the people; that their interest and will should be the interest and will of the nation. The nation did not need to be protected against its own will. There was no fear of its tyrannizing over itself.

As he proceeds to point out, however, this is fanciful:

It was now perceived that such phrases as “self-government,” and “the power of the people over themselves,” do not express the true state of the case. The “people” who exercise the power, are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised, and the “self-government” spoken of, is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest. The will of the people, moreover, practically means, the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority; the people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this, as against any other abuse of power. The limitation, therefore, of the power of government over individuals, loses none of its importance when the holders of power are regularly accountable to the community, that is, to the strongest party therein. This view of things, recommending itself equally to the intelligence of thinkers and to the inclination of those important classes in European society to whose real or supposed interests democracy is adverse, has had no difficulty in establishing itself; and in political speculations “the tyranny of the majority” is now generally included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard.

Mill points out that the tyranny of the majority is exercised not just through the law, but through “prevailing opinion and feeling” (something I rather suspect a certain kneeling football player has recently experienced). He then sets out the dilemma which forms the focus of my class:

There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence; and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.

But though this proposition is not likely to be contested in general terms, the practical question, where to place the limit — how to make the fitting adjustment between individual independence and social control — is a subject on which nearly everything remains to be done. All that makes existence valuable to any one, depends on the enforcement of restraints upon the actions of other people. Some rules of conduct, therefore, must be imposed, by law in the first place, and by opinion on many things which are not fit subjects for the operation of law. What these rules should be, is the principal question in human affairs; but if we except a few of the most obvious cases, it is one of those which least progress has been made in resolving. No two ages, and scarcely any two countries, have decided it alike; and the decision of one age or country is a wonder to another. Yet the people of any given age and country no more suspect any difficulty in it, than if it were a subject on which mankind had always been agreed. The rules which obtain among themselves appear to them self-evident and self-justifying. This all but universal illusion is one of the examples of the magical influence of custom, which is not only, as the proverb says a second nature, but is continually mistaken for the first.

Some rules of conduct must be imposed. True. And arguments over the nature of those rules and the justifications for them will probably continue for as long as “we the people” continue.


  1. Wow a long time since I have read Mill.
    Thank you
    The wonderful changing definition of the sloppy look of Democracy.

    ‘The rules which obtain among themselves appear to them self-evident and self-justifying. This all but universal illusion is one of the examples of the magical influence of custom, which is not only, as the proverb says a second nature, but is continually mistaken for the first.’

  2. “Startlingly Pertinent” certainly covers a lot of ground; from the Presidency (including foreign diplomatic relations) down to local zoning ordinances. These issues are also pertinent within individual family structures; when a parent’s responsibility butts heads with laws allowing teens to make decisions against parental/custodial rights. Such laws put control in the hands of teens but the parents are ultimately responsible for their actions.

    As for government; the control is in their hands, paid for by “the people” but government doesn’t seem to be ultimately responsible for the outcome of their decisions and actions or inaction. Pointing out Congressional inaction results seems to be sorely missing from this entire presidential campaign. Understandable on the GOP side but…”Startlingly Pertinent” for the Democratic party which seems to put up little struggle to overcome. With the time restraints imposed on the “debate” last night; Hillary didn’t, couldn’t or wouldn’t use her allotted time to point this out to many of Trump’s accusations. He began by being somewhat restrained but lost it; did his “keepers” drug him or take away the “uppers” he has been operating on throughout his entire public – not political – career?

    A frightening aspect came out after he received his first “security briefing” when MSNBC interviewed a former head of National Security who believed nothing of value would have been given to Trump in the briefing. Hillary, with her years of political involvement, especially as First Lady and Secretary of State, would have already been privy to such information. The scary point was that, while only Congress can declare war on another nation, there is NO DOCUMENT to prevent any sitting president from entering the code numbers and putting his/her finger on that button to set off nuclear attack.

    “…when does government’s obligation to protect the common good justify constraining the liberties of the individual?” Here we have a conundrum; the president has a governmental obligation to protect the common good and individuals but at the same time he IS an individual with too much power in his hands if there is nothing to prevent him from taking that action. Does anyone doubt Trump would take that action?

    We are mired in deep doo-doo, my friends, and it is getting deeper as we get closer to November 8th. Those SIX Trump yard signs I see from my front door and the two I pass on my walks, scares the hell out of me. I find them “Startlingly Pertinent” regarding the outcome of this presidential election because they appear to reflect the mindset of too many individuals who have released their hatred and bigotry with full approval from Trump and the GOP and little apparent reaction or protection from Hillary and the entire Democratic party.

  3. Change takes a long time. We are still mid-shift from a country that embraces racism and misogyny to a country that abhors those two things. The question is whether we will give them another round of power or will we reject the baser part of our collective nature? We will know on November 9th.

  4. I think the first debate was a perfect illustration of how our new president will conduct himself/herself on the world stage. To many it doesn’t seem to matter whether our commander-in-chief is coherent, intelligent, thoughtful, well-informed or capable of putting in the hours required by the office. Maybe we really do (and will) get the government we deserve. We may be seeing the trailer for our live version of “Idiocracy”.

  5. You’re missing the main point. This election will not be decided by debate but by the combination of deception +psychological warfare which has been continuing since the beginning of the construction of the TROJAN HORSE in the late 60’s. Better wake-up!

  6. See Wikipedia:

    While questioning Sinon, the Trojan priest Laocoön guesses the plot and warns the Trojans, in Virgil’s famous line Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes (“I fear Greeks, even those bearing gifts”),[3] Danai (acc Danaos) or Danaans (Homer’s name for the Greeks) being the ones who had built the Trojan Horse. However, the god Poseidon sends two sea serpents to strangle him and his sons Antiphantes and Thymbraeus before any Trojan heeds his warning. According to Apollodorus the two serpents were sent by Apollo, whom Laocoon had insulted by sleeping with his wife in front of the “divine image”.[4] In the Odyssey, Homer says that Helen of Troy also guesses the plot and tries to trick and uncover the Greek soldiers inside the horse by imitating the voices of their wives, and Anticlus attempts to answer, but Odysseus shuts his mouth with his hand.[5] King Priam’s daughter Cassandra, the soothsayer of Troy, insists that the horse will be the downfall of the city and its royal family. She too is ignored, hence their doom and loss of the war.[6]

    Unfortunately, most of the time………. THINGS NEVER CHANGE.

  7. Recent article by Garrison Keillor on the TROJAN HORSE:

    What every New Yorker knows about Donald Trump – The …
    5 days ago … The panhandler knows what every New Yorker knows, which is that the biggest con job since the Trojan horse is taking place in our mist.

    What everyone is missing about Trump is that no doubt he’s pulling off a con job, but he couldn’t do it if he wasn’t riding on the back of a TROJAN HORSE. TRACKING the Trojan Horse is just as important and probably more so than the NUT JOB who is riding the horse.

  8. Republicans were hoping to be redeemed by two transformations.

    Hillary to be transformed from the dedicated policy wonk who out works everybody to the wicked witch of the west of the myths that they’ve been telling of her for 30 years knowing that this moment would come.

    Don the con to be transformed from the arrogant entitled bully that he has always been to a strong leader.

    Neither transformation showed up in the least.

  9. It seems that the heavy thinkers of the Great Enlightenment era proved their worth in the depth of their cognitive abilities.

    But H. L. Mencken also proved his wisdom with observations of the rest of us especially in modern media besotted times.

    “No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.”

  10. While we’re at it why don’t we give a name to Jerry Falwell’s Trojan Horse for a starter: How about the CHRISTIAN-ZIONIST ALLIANCE circa 1967?

    Recommended reading: “Forcing God’s Hand: Why Millions Pray for a Quick Rapture…and Destruction of Planet Earth” by Grace Halsell(Beltsville,MD: Amana Publications, 1999).

    “A great expose’ of the strange marriage of convenience between the U.S. Christian Right and Israel. NEITHER LIKES THE OTHER- but they use one another. It’s not about religion, but about politics. I highly recommend this book for exposing the hypocrisy.” Dr. Alfred Lillenthal, Author-Historian

    Grace Halsell (1923-2000) served President Lyndon Johnson as his speech writer for three years. She covered both Korea and Vietnam as a journalist and wrote for newspapers in the U.S., South America, Europe, Russia, China, Japan and the Middle East. She wrote fourteen books among them the well received Soul Sister, Prophecy and Politics: Militant Evangelists on the Road to Nuclear War, Journey to Jerusalem and The Illegals.

  11. You might want to reread again with the knowledge that it was all made possible by the deception of a Trojan Horse. A modus vivendi between the Christian Right and Israel which acted as a mask for the first wave of overt anti-Semitism in the early 80’s which easily mutated into virulent hatred against other minorities especially African-Americans.

  12. Sheila proves better than anyone that democracy is the best that we can do in terms of organizing and mobilizing ourselves.

    Unfortunately we have to earn it which is more uphill than we hoped.

    But going uphill is still accomplished by one foot in front of the other relentlessly.

    We just can’t stop and rest.

  13. I minored in political science when in college before going to law school and am ashamed to admit that I haven’t read Mill since. He is right; there will always be a minority so the “will of the people” really means the will of the majority of the people (assuming a democratic form of government as opposed to that of dictators and monarchs). The Athenian model of democracy (even though slaves and women could not vote) has nevertheless been torn asunder by the history of some states’ poll tax and voter registration rules (pictures etc.) which rivals the Athenian model’s refusal to allow slaves and women to vote. Democracy is currently under attack on many different fronts from within, economic as well as political. Corporate control of America (my greatest fear) is a direct threat to our democracy and is continuing apace.

  14. I didn’t seem to get today’s post from Sheila. I had to dig around for it.

    Last night’s “debate” made things abundantly clear, didn’t it?

  15. I observed some extra players at the debate last night:
    Narcissist Trump, Bipolar Trump, Petulant Trump, Teenager Trump, Boaster Trump, Frump Trump, Contentious Trump.
    Whom will Trump sue for this disaster?
    Not ready for self-flagellation, Donald? No Tua Culpa?

  16. Via Wki:
    On Liberty involves an impassioned defense of free speech. Mill argues that free discourse is a necessary condition for intellectual and social progress. We can never be sure, he contends, that a silenced opinion does not contain some element of the truth. He also argues that allowing people to air false opinions is productive for two reasons. First, individuals are more likely to abandon erroneous beliefs if they are engaged in an open exchange of ideas. Second, by forcing other individuals to re-examine and re-affirm their beliefs in the process of debate, these beliefs are kept from declining into mere dogma. It is not enough for Mill that one simply has an unexamined belief that happens to be true; one must understand why the belief in question is the true one. Along those same lines Mill wrote, “unmeasured vituperation, employed on the side of prevailing opinion, really does deter people from expressing contrary opinions, and from listening to those who express them.”

    Since many here absolutely loath my posts,perhaps they should take some advice from Mill?

    Trump is a buffoon,but when Hillary referenced Bill last night with approbation,I just had to do a facepalm. Again,I guess the definition of tyranny and the overreaching of government depends on where one sits.

    I don’t want to accuse others of ignorance 😉 So I’m positive everyone here remembers AEDPA,yes?

    This is startlingly pertinent… was its acceptance.

    An enlightening read.

    I wonder what Mill would’ve thought about it?

  17. William 1,

    I now clearly see your point. You can’t legitimately fight Donald Trump and what he stands for and at the same time support Hillary Clinton. Wow! What a Catch 22.

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