Sunday, November 18, 2007

John Stuart Mill

It's curious that Mill is suddenly in vogue again. There's been a rush of articles on him in recent weeks, including this by Richard Reeves yesterday in the Guardian.

One of the difficulties I have with Mill is that his theories of liberty, while interesting in themselves, are premised on such nonsensical views about civilisation. I've written about this before, I think, but his stages view of civilisation is just so much bunkum. This isn't his fault - we are all products of our time, and he was taking the accepted view of his age - but it is still a flimsy basis on which to hang a theory of liberty.

Reeves makes the valid point that liberalism is neither left- nor right-wing, and Mill is certainly an example of that. Some of his beliefs - universal eduction etc - are based on good socialist principles. And Reeves also mentions something I have written of before on this blog, Mill's dislike of inheritance and his inclination to tax it heavily: again, that could be thought of as left-wing (certainly too left-wing for this craven government, which has just taken the opposite position) but at the same time Mill talked of a single income tax rate, in order to encourage entrepreneurialism and good business, a classic right-wing position.

No wonder people scratch their heads at Mill. They look to him for easy answers, for a simple justification of their liberal beliefs, and he confounds them with the depth of his thinking.

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