On Liberty: A Translation into Modern English

An ISR Business & the political-legal environment study

This is a modern language version of John Stuart Mill’s classic 1859 essay. Essentially, it translates the work into current English with the aim of improving its readability and understandability. The translation is substantive but retains literalness and original word order and grammar as far as possible.

Mill’s primary concern in the essay is with individual liberty. He is fully aware that personal freedom is only a part of freedom.   People live in societies and their personal liberty depends on – and contributes to – economic and political institutional (etc.) freedom. In the essay, Mill touches on many wider socio-cultural liberties. He does not examine them very systematically or in much depth.     However, he is not setting out to write a comprehensive treatise on human liberty.

Nor does On Liberty just attack state interference with freedom.Mill declares that states are only worth the individuals who compose them. Great states produce great individuals – and conversely, great individuals produce great states. In his book, a great state is not a big state. On the contrary, a great state deliberately avoids doing what private citizens can do independently/voluntarily. Big states concentrate power in a few hands, hamper individual development, and turn citizens into dependents. Any state that dwarfs its citizens and makes them docile instruments in its hands will soon discover that with small people, nothing great is achievable.

Nonetheless, as Mill points out, private bodies such as guilds and trade unions, religious organizations, and families are quite capable of suppressing liberty without any help from the state. In democracies, majorities can oppress minorities. Sometimes, entire communities and social classes will act tyrannically towards individuals.

Mill’s basic thesis is that public authorities have no business restricting the liberty of people unless this is to prevent injury to others.



Editorial foreword

Introduction* The limits of liberty * Mill versus Locke* Mill the utilitarian* Free institutions and societies* The individual and liberty* Freedom of belief and expression* Christianity and liberty* The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism* Christianity and political liberty* Jesus on the liberty of the Christian* Paul on the liberty of the Christian* The state of liberty today (a) progress* The state of liberty today (b) setbacks* Liberty and the constitution*

Chapter 1: Introductory

Subject and purpose of the essay* The historical struggle between liberty and authority* Limiting political power in general* Democratization and the limits of democracy* The tyrannical society* Setting limits on societal authority* The origins of popular notions of good and bad conduct* Liberty and religion* Liberty in England* A general principle to test the propriety of government action* Where coercion is justified* The proper place for liberty: a recapitulation* Authoritarianism old and new*Liberty of thought and expression: the key to understanding other liberties*

Chapter 2: Liberty of thought and discussion

Liberty of the press: a battle won* The peculiar evil of suppressing opinions* The collision between truth and error* The impossibility of absolute certainty and infallibility* Liberty of contradicting and disproving opinions* Learning from our mistakes* Putting opinions and practices to the test* Why there should be no exemptions from free discussion* Assuming religious infallibility* Religious intolerance in action* Persecution versus truth* Truth’ s great advantage* The threat of persecution is not over* Persecution and the vagaries of public opinion* The costs of conformity* The benefits of freedom of thinking* Truth turned into dogmas because of lack of critical examination* How doctrines lose their vitality* Christian doctrine* The importance of tolerating minority opinions: the case of Christian morality* Strengthening of doctrines through questioning and attack* The usefulness of negative criticism* Opinion diversity: another major benefit * Rousseau’s salutary shock to 18th century opinion* The benefits of clashing political ideas, colliding public opinions, and freedom of expression in general* Causing offence is no justification for suppressing any opinion* The importance of sticking to the facts in judging opinions*

Chapter 3: Individuality: One of the elements of well-being  

Individuality as an element of well-being* The importance of freedom of action and of individuality* The negative effects of conforming to tradition and custom* Self-planning and self-deciding* The benefits of strong designs and impulses* The current deficiency of personal impulses and preferences* Calvinism* Viewing God as a good being* Individuality, human growth, and personal worth* Individual liberty as a benefit even to people who find no use for it* Genius and the importance of breathing freely in an atmosphere of freedom* The benefits of originality, individual brilliance, and non-conformity* The importance of choice to most people* The roots of public intolerance of individuality* The negative effects of conformity today* Custom versus liberty and progress* East versus West* Declining individuality in the West* Reversing the trend towards uniformity*

Chapter 4: The limits to the authority of society over the individual

Introduction* Legitimate social limits on individual liberty* Where individuals should have full freedom* Attitudes and reactions towards other people* Maintaining the distinction between individual and social concerns* Non-legal social controls* Counter-productive official regulation* Outraged feelings: no justification for interference* Moral policing: cases of encroachment on legitimate liberty* Religious dietary prohibitions on non-believers* The Spanish ban on Protestant churches* Puritan intolerance* Democratic populism* Socialist collectivism* Alcohol prohibition* Sabbatarian legislation* The persecution of Mormons*

Chapter 5: Applications

Introduction: applying the principles* Competition: socially beneficial not damaging* Free trade* Official intervention to prevent crime, accidents, and offences against public decency* Freedom of advising, instigating, and inducing* Freedom of ordinary buying and selling* Punitive taxation* Licensing of public houses* Freedom of contract* Family relationships and freedom* Education and liberty* Procreation* Other arguments against government interference* The road to despotism* Bureaucracy and the unfree society* The free civil society* Checks, balances, and accountability in the government machine*   Conclusion: the worth of the state*

Price & specifications

Print book

First published 2013

ISBN 9780906321515

133 pages


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Sample passages

Such infringements have demonstrated once again the impossibility of taking the progress and security of freedom for granted.

Historically and internationally, the greatest advances in liberty have come when (a) reforms have taken place across the board (rather than in just one or two areas) and (b) there has been effective constitutional entrenchment of the gains made.   Liberty and its sister ideals of democracy and equality before the law are indivisible. Economic rights and freedoms are inexorably bound-up with political, judicial, communications, and personal rights and freedoms. It is not possible to maintain personal liberty in a society without free markets, a democratic polity, an independent judiciary and the rule of law, a free media, or overall freedom of association and contract. In addition, the effective constitutional-legal protection of freedom from authoritarian assaults is essential. The Founding Fathers of the United States well understood this when they drew up the US Constitution with its in-built, comprehensive, and court-enforceable Bill of Rights. For centuries, Americans have enjoyed a high level of formal legal security against governmental attacks on their liberties.

Britain has also long had basic laws limiting state power. Indeed, such British constitutional documents as the Magna Carta or Great Charter of Liberties, the Habeas Corpus Act, the Petition of Right, the Bill of Rights, and the Act of Settlement shaped the American and many other national constitutions.

Nonetheless, various major official subversions of liberty, democracy, and equality before the law have taken place in this country of late.   The more-robust enforcement of existing basic rights-laws is plainly necessary. Beyond this, the long-term constitutional protection of economic, political, judicial, communicational, and personal freedoms probably requires a new British Bill of Rights. To be effective, the latter would have to be far more comprehensive and up-to-date – i.e., prohibit a far-wider range of specific authoritarian actions – than the original 1689 bill (etc.). It would also have to create a new independent Supreme Court with the power actually to nullify government laws and policies violating its provisions… (Editorial foreword, pages xx,xi)

Fortunately, there is a bright spot. Current opinion does substantially recognize the main principle of liberty in one field. That is in relation to liberty of thought and the inextricably related liberties of speaking and writing.

These liberties are part of the political morality of any country professing religious toleration and free institutions. However, the philosophical and practical grounds on which these liberties rest are not familiar to everybody. It is clear that many present-day commentators do not fully appreciate them.

When rightly understood, the grounds of liberty here have a much wider application. Thus, thoroughly considering the liberty of thought and discussion will provide a good introduction and platform for analyzing other important liberties.

I hope any reader who finds nothing new in what I am going to say will excuse me. The subject has received much attention from writers over the past three centuries or so. Nonetheless, I do think it worthwhile returning to it once again now… (pages 34-35)

I hope it is no longer necessary to defend the liberty of the press – that vital security against corrupt and tyrannical government.   Nowadays, nobody would seriously argue for permitting a government opposed to the interests of the people to prescribe opinions and determine what doctrines the public can hear. Over the years, libertarians have mounted such a successful case for freedom of the press that there is no need to rehearse it here.

In theory, the laws of England have as much capacity to shackle the press today as they had in Tudor times. However, there is little danger of the authorities actually using the law to halt freedom of political discussion – except perhaps during some temporary emergency when fear of insurrection might panic ministers and judges into acting illegitimately… (page 36)

The general well-being of humankind depends on their mental well-being – and freedom of opinion and freedom of expressing opinion are essential for that well-being.

There are at least four major reasons for this.

First, any opinion forced into silence may be true. To deny a voice to some other opinion is to assume one’s own infallibility.

Second, even erroneous silenced opinions may contain some truth. The general or prevailing opinion on any subject is unlikely ever to be the whole truth. Only the collision of adverse opinions will bring out the remainder of the truth.

Third, lack of vigorous and earnest contending of received opinions (even when they are entirely true) will mean people holding them in the form of prejudices. They will have little understanding of the rational grounds of their opinions.

Finally, because of this, there will be a danger of true meanings and doctrines becoming lost or feeble and having no vital effect on character and conduct. Beliefs will degenerate into formally professed dogmas. They will have no good effect in themselves – but they will encumber the ground and stifle the real, heartfelt convictions that grow from reason and personal experience… (page 68)

Imperial China was a great success at what some latter day English philanthropists are trying to achieve – i.e., the creation of people who think and act alike and govern all their conduct by the same set of maxims and rules.

The miserable fruits of this policy are increasingly evident.

In present day Europe, we find the regime of public opinion having much the same negative effects as the conservative Chinese educational system. There is a yoke around the neck of individuality. Unless the impediments are thrown-off, Europe will become another China – notwithstanding its noble historical antecedents or its professed Christianity.

What has preserved Europe from stagnation so far? What has tended to make the Continent an improving rather than a declining part of the world?

It is certainly not some kind of superior inherent European excellence. Excellence does of course exist – but as an effect and not a cause. Rather, the great source of Europe’s progress has been its remarkable diversity of character and culture – or, quite simply, the fact that people are not like one another.

Historically, European nations have taken a great variety of paths. Each of these has tended to lead to something valuable. At times, peoples travelling along different paths have become intolerant of one other.   Some have wanted everybody else to travel their particular road. However, to date attempts at thwarting divergence have not been successful. People for a time have enjoyed major developmental leads – but eventually, the good things achieved by the pioneers have diffused to everyone else.

In my view, Europe is entirely indebted to this diversity for its progress. However, the Continent is starting to standardize and lose the beneficial results of diversity. Europe is decidedly moving towards the Chinese model of having everybody think, act, and look alike.

In his last major work, Alexis de Tocqueville remarked how much more present-day Frenchmen resembled one another than those of even the last generation did. That observation would be even truer of Englishmen.

As said, von Humboldt pinpoints two things as essential for making people unlike one another and thus generating progress: freedom and variety of situations.

In England, the second of these conditions is diminishing daily. The circumstances surrounding different classes and individuals and shaping their characters are becoming steadily more alike. In the past, different ranks, neighbourhoods, trades and professions lived in significantly different worlds. Nowadays, their worlds are largely the same.

People today read, hear, and observe much the same things. They go to the same places and direct their hopes and fears towards the same objects. They have the same rights and liberties, and the same means of asserting them. Some significant differences in status and position remain but these are nothing compared to those formerly existing.

This general process of standardization and assimilation is ongoing.

Nowadays, all objects of ambition (even the highest) are open to general competition. The desire to rise no longer typifies one class in society but all classes. Political reform promotes uniformity by raising the low and lowering the high. Meanwhile, the extension of education promotes cultural similarity – bringing people under common influences and giving them access to the same general stock of knowledge, beliefs, and opinions.

Improvements in the means of communication promote uniformity by bringing the inhabitants of distant places into direct contact and increasing geographical mobility. The expansion of trade and industry promotes it further by improving living standards and increasing social mobility across the board.

However, public opinion is probably the single most powerful factor making for uniformity in countries… (pages 88-89)

● Trade is a social activity. Buying and selling goods and services affects the interests of other persons and the public in general. Thus, the regulation of commerce is in principle within the jurisdiction of society.

Whether it is wise to intervene in practice is another matter. In former times, governments considered it their duty to control prices, economic production, and distribution. However, after a long struggle, societies came to recognize that having private businesses and consumers operate freely in competitive markets is best for the cheapness, quality, and improvement of products.

The case for free trade and markets rests on ground other than the principle of individual liberty asserted in this essay.     That general case is solid and well established. The economic costs aside, restrictions on trade and production for sale are a restraint on liberty – and all such restraint is an evil in itself.   Nonetheless, restraint here affects that (social) part of human conduct that government in principle is competent to restrain.

The principle of individual liberty is not involved in most issues relating to commerce.   However, official restraints on trade and markets are often bad economics and produce results very different from those intended. It is undeniable that society can impose health and safety laws – legitimately and in principle. Nevertheless, we are still entitled to ask, How far should the government enforce sanitary precautions and arrangements to protect workers employed in dangerous occupations? or What amount of public control is admissible to prevent fraud by adulteration? Such questions do affect liberty – and other factors being equal, leaving people to themselves in such matters is better than controlling them.

Meanwhile, some official interventions in trade and markets amount to illegitimate interferences in the liberties of buyers and sellers. Blanket curbs on selling alcohol, drugs, or poisonous substances that prevent people from obtaining these items for their own use and personal benefit are cases in point… (pages 111-112)

There are no libertarian objections to the state making the education of children compulsory. However, there are to the state providing and directing education.

I go as far as anyone in deprecating that the whole or any large part of education should be in the hands of government.

Individual freedom and diversity in people’s characters, opinions, and modes of conduct require freedom and diversity in education – and any general system of state education would be a contrivance for casting people into the same mould and shape. Education would aim to suit the governing power – whether a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or a majority of the existing generation. The more efficient and successful state education was, the greater the despotism the state could establish over the minds and bodies of the people.

If societies allow state-schools and universities to operate at all, these institutions should be just one among many competing forms and experiments in education. The government might establish them simply to provide models or examples of how to achieve certain standards of educational excellence.

Some poor and backward societies might be incapable of developing proper systems of private/voluntary education. Then, government might have no option but to get involved in educational provision – as the lesser of two evils. However, any country with the resources and teachers to provide a satisfactory education through the government would be more than capable of providing a good private/voluntary system of education.

It is neither necessary nor desirable for the state to pay teachers. Once the law made education compulsory, private school fees and official subsidies to low-income households would easily ensure the remuneration of teachers.

It would be necessary to uphold certain common educational standards. However, this again should not be overly difficult or expensive. The government could legislate for the compulsory public examination of all children at regular intervals.   To begin with, children might take an examination at an early stage to ascertain whether they could read. If the parents of an illiterate child had no satisfactory excuses, the courts might fine them and require they put the child to school at their expense. Public examinations could take place every year in a gradually widening range of subjects. That system would ensure all young people acquired and retained a certain amount of basic knowledge.

Beyond this, I believe there should be voluntary examinations in all subjects and that certificates should be available immediately to anybody reaching the required standards of proficiency in public tests.

It would be necessary to prevent the state or any other body using education, training, and examinations to exercise an improper influence over public opinion, occupational access, employee promotion and remuneration, or the general life chances of people. There are several possible ways of guarding against such abuse… (pages 120-122)

Suppose a government nationalized all roads, railways, banks, insurance offices, great joint-stock companies, universities, and public charities. In addition, suppose the central administration took over all presently devolved local government functions. Then, the government would control the employment, pay and promotion, and general personal advancement of most people in the country.

That country might still have a free press and an elected legislature. However, a society with such a concentration of activity and power in the hands of the state would not be free except perhaps in name.

The more efficient and scientific the state’s administrative machinery was – in particular, the more skilfully government recruited the best-qualified people to its ranks – the greater its capacity for despotism would be.

In Britain recently, there has been a proposal that the government should select all civil servants by competitive examination – to ensure recruitment of the most intelligent and educated personnel available. The proposal has attracted much argument for-and-against.

One argument against has been that civil service jobs are unlikely ever to offer sufficient rewards and opportunities to attract the best talents: the most capable individuals will always find more-attractive careers in the professions, industry, or other sectors. However, that is not really an argument against the proposal. In my view, an inability to recruit the best people would be the only effective safety valve in such a system. If it were indeed possible for the government to draw all the best talents of the country into its service, that would be very bad indeed for liberty and progress… (pages 125-126)

Absorbing all the main talents of the population into the governing body is fatal to the liberty, mental life, and progressiveness of a society.

It is very different in a country where the people are accustomed to transacting their own business. In a free society, no central bureaucracy will dictate and force the people into doing things against their will.

In France, a large part of the civilian population has served in the army – many with at least the rank of non-commissioned officer. Thus, there are usually plenty of people around competent to lead and plan popular insurrections in that country.

However, while the French are skilled at organizing military-type operations the Americans are skilled at general civil business. Should they find themselves in a situation without a government, any ordinary group of Americans will be able to improvise one and conduct public business with intelligence, order, and decisiveness.

That is how a free people ought to be.

Any society with that capacity can be certain and secure in its liberty. Nobody can enslave a citizenry able to seize and hold onto the reins of the central administration themselves… (page 127)