Monday 11 August 2008

"On Liberty"

John Stuart Mill - one of our greatest libertarians, economist and thinker! My holiday reading has been the brilliant biography recently produced by Richard Reeves (himself a great guy and the new Director of Demos. A somewhat large tome that has been drawing admiring glances at the pool! I hope this has been the holiday reading of our Prime Minister and Home Secretary as the lessons about the importance of individual liberty are as relevant today as they were 150 years ago.

I have always been a fan of Mill ever since studying him at university - required reading for anyone studying politics and philosophy. But Richard's book is a tart reminder that individual liberties matter.

He was concerned that the state and society did not infringe on individual liberty unless a proven harm might result. He was scathing on the knee jerk desires of legislators to make laws in the face of the latest public scare. Jacqui Smith might consider his advice pertinent today:

"Is it the part of a legislature to shape its laws to the accidental peculiarities of the latest crime reported in the newspapers? If the last 2 or 3 murderers had been men with red hair, as well might Parliament have rushed to pass an Act restricting all red haired men from buying or possessing deadly weapons."

Written in 1852. Relevant in 2008.

Mill was as keen to ensure society, as well as parliament, respected difference. As he wrote: "No society in which eccentricity is a matter of reproach can be a wholesome state."

So he was a defender of people's right to speak their minds, even if giving offence. He warned against the "despotism of custom".

"In this country the effective restraints on mental freedom proceed much less from the law or the government, than from the intolerant temper of the national mind; arising no longer from even as respectable a source as bigotry or fanaticism, but rather from the general habit, both in opinion and in conduct, or making adherence to custom the rule of life, and enforcing it by social penalties, against all persons who, without a party to back them, assert their individual independence". An interesting reflection for David Davies perhaps, who has made much of the encroachments by Government on individual liberty (with some force I suggest) but neverless has opposed moves to grant more individual freedoms in areas such as abortion or sexual rights and civil partnerships. And a standing rebuke to the intolerance of some church leaders who attempt to force or oppose legal change to coerce the rest of us into their moral corsets.

Mill's central thesis are his opening lines in his greatest work "On Liberty" these are as true today as when written in 1859.

"Apart from the peculiar tenets of individual thinkers, there is also in the world at large an increasing inclination to stretch unduly the powers of society over the individual, both by the force of opinion and even by that of legislation."

Mill's influence is still strong. You saw it recently in the landmark ruling of the Australian Supreme Court overturning a ridiculous law passed in NSW which made it an offence to "affront" Catholics. As they said this law was "repugnant to fundamental rights and freedoms at common law."

It's an interesting point what Mill would have thought of the 42 day issue. He certainly argued that you can legislate to avoid greater harm to society - hence the terror threat could well be such a cause, but somehow I doubt he would be cheer leading this proposal. And the fact that there has been such a huge debate on this change to what is, after all, one of our most fundamental freedoms shows that the desire for liberty still retains its strength and for this J S Mill can be partly thanked.

It was particularly amusing that I was reading the chapter on liberty in the shady courtyard of my hotel in Catania and discovered the text on his travels in Sicily. He was, apparently, a fan of butter and commented frequently on its quality etc.
He wrote:

"I note as a curious fact, that when I asked for decent butter I was told that there was none available at all in Catania."

I am glad to say that there is now butter in Catania.

And indeed much else in Catania, though the highlight for me was going to see the birthplace of Vicenzo Bellini, one of my favourite Opera composers. In the rather small and poky home they have a manuscript copy of "Norma", as well as his death mask and the coffin in which they brought his body back from Paris so he could be buried in his home town. I went to see the rather splendid tomb in the not so splendid Baroque Cathedral.

They also have St Agatha there. The ornate reliquary in which they take her walkabout on her Feast Day was a sight to behold - all gold and sweet little plaster models and tableaux of her life. But good to have paid tribute both to St Agatha and St Rosalia - the great patrons of Sicily; an island I have become rather fond of since my stay.

No comments: