John Stuart Mill grew up in an atmosphere dense with the teachings of utilitarianism and classical economics. From his father, he received an education almost without parallel for intensity and speed.
He began the study of Greek at three, was writing history at twelve, and at sixteen organized an active Utilitarian Society. At the age of twenty the overworked youth suffered a breakdown. He turned for renewal to music and to the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge; presently he fell in love with Mrs. Harriet Taylor, to whom he assigned the major credit for his later writings.
They remained friends for twenty years, until the death of Mr. Taylor at length enabled them to marry. The intellectual partnership was important to them both, and they endowed the liberal creed with the warmth and humanity it had lacked.
Mill’s humane liberalism was expressed most clearly in his On Liberty (1859), Utilitarianism (1863), The Subjection of Women (1869), and his posthumous Autobiography (1873). But it is evident, too, in his more technical works, notably Principles of Political Economy. He first published this enormously successful textbook in 1848 and later revised it several times, each revision departing more and more from the “dismal science” of Ricardo and Malthus.
Mill outlined the schemes for curbing overpopulation by promoting emigration to the colonies and “elevating the habits of the labouring people through education.” This one example is typical of the way in which Mill’s quest for positive remedies led him to modify the laissez-faire attitude so long associated with liberalism.
He asserted that workers should be allowed to organize trade unions, form cooperatives, and receive a share of profits. However, these changes could best be secured within the framework of private enterprise, and not by public intervention. But he also believed that there were some matters so pressing that the state would have to step in—to protect laboring women and children and to improve intolerable living and working conditions.
Mill made universal suffrage and universal education immediate objectives. All men should have the right to vote; all should be prepared for it by receiving a basic minimum of schooling, if need be at state expense; women should have the same rights. He proposed the introduction of proportional representation in the House of Commons so that political minorities might be assured of a voice. Protection of the rights of the individual became the basis of his essay On Liberty.
Liberalism, as it is understood today, is the legacy not of the “dismal scientists” but of Mill and other political thinkers and politicians who have shaped modern Western democracies. What, in fact, was liberalism?
Those who thought of themselves as liberals were somewhat less unified than those who referred to themselves as conservatives, though they had certain characteristics in common.
They began with the assumption that people ought to enjoy as much freedom as possible, in keeping with an orderly society. And they believed that law was the root cause of that orderliness, and that laws ought to grow from the participation of the governed. They saw humanity essentially in social terms and believed that social organization preceded political organization. They sought to educate the individual, so that in the pursuit of personal ambitions and in the service of personal ideals, a person would also contribute to the general welfare.
Although the liberals spoke of “self-realization” (developing the inner being), “self-improvement” (individualism), and “moral autonomy” (the right to private moral commitments), they saw these individualistic needs of humanity as contributing to a collective sense of community.
They believed, therefore, in self-criticism, in free speech, in freedom of worship, and in restraining the state. They recognized the delicate balance needed to protect the coherence of a nation while still preserving the rights of the minority. Depending upon the particular liberal democracy, this balance would fall at different points on a scale.
In time—especially within the liberal democratic states—they tended to engage in “social engineering” to better the standard of living through improved communications, sanitation, and education. Thus, though they professed to believe in the autonomy of differing systems of ethics for different societies, they could not resist the temptation to apply their system of government, their system of education, or their system of commerce to their colonial dependencies.