On Liberty

by: John Stuart Mill

Chapter 5, Applications

Finally, Mill examines the issue of whether the government should intervene to help people, instead of letting them do things for themselves. This is related to his discussion of government action, but does not directly deal with the issue of liberty. Mill gives three objections to such interference. First, the person most qualified to perform an action is usually the person with a direct interest in it. Second, it is useful that people do things themselves for their personal development. Third, it is bad to add to the government's power. A powerful bureaucracy will stifle reform as a means to preserve its own interests, and thus goes against the interests of free people. Drawing the line where big government becomes dangerous is one of the most important political questions. Mill's answer is to decentralize power as much as possible, but to centralize the dissemination of information. He warns about the evils of giving the state so much power that it stifles human development, because ultimately this lack of development will stifle the state itself.


This chapter is significant because it provides a much clearer sense of what kinds of actions Mill believes should be respected by society. Most of his examples deal with legal requirements and the role of the state. Why might he have chosen to focus on government action in this chapter? In particular, think about how this approach might work as a rhetorical strategy. It is important to remember, however, that in general Mill does not limit compulsion to state activities. It is likely that in most of his examples he would also say public judgment would be inappropriate.

In general, Mill's applications seem to reinforce the view of liberty of action previously developed. Some examples, however, may be surprising. For example, Mill's statement that gambling houses can be limited reflects an imposition of social values on the business activities of others. Given his argument about the fallibility of social values, Mill's willingness to restrict "bad" businesses might appear inconsistent. In thinking about the significance of such examples, it may be useful to think about two ways of interpreting them. First, such examples might show a depth of Mill's theory that was not previously apparent. Indeed, this is why Mill provides a chapter on applications of his theory. In fact, this example does reinforce the point that while society must not punish behavior, it does not have to actively promote vices. A second interpretation of difficult examples is that Mill himself failed to appreciate the full significance of his theory. It is possible that Mill simply did not see the full logical implications of his previous discussion. When looking at his examples, think about which category Mill falls in to.

Another interesting point is Mill's insistence that parents do not have full ownership over the lives of their children. The good of society requires certain behavior on the part of parents and potential parents, and society is fully justified in compelling that behavior. In thinking about Mill's argument, consider whether he gives an adequate account of the rights that parents have to raise their children as they see fit.

Finally, Mill ends with a discussion about the importance of people having the freedom to develop their capability to make choices. Mill uses the example of a government that is trying to help people make the right decision through institutionalized means. But this help, according to Mill, is no beneficial to either the individual or to society. Mill adheres to his principal that it is only through dissent, only through disagreement and conflict of ideas, that society can be bettered and an individual can gain the perspective to help himself. The freedom that Mill wants for the individual is a freedom to make mistakes, to assert falsehood. Mill is committed to the idea of progress, his theory of the hierarchy of civilization demonstrates his belief that man can improve himself. But Mill sees this progress as only able to emerge from an open culture, one free from conformity; the utility Mill promotes is not one of comfort in the present, it is one designed to create the ultimate good in the future, human progress.

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