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rulers became the prominent object of the exertions of the popular party, wherever any such party existed; and superseded, to a considerable extent, the previous efforts to limit the power of rulers.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.