Monday, April 23, 2007

On Liberty & Utilitarianism

Radley Balko marvels at the fact that Barney Frank can be both a fan of John Stuart Mill and "a big government socialist on most economic issues". The implication - or assumption - is supposed to be that Frank is being inconsistent, presumably because he hasn't thought through his beliefs very carefully.

Except that, as it turns out, John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism is one of the most influential books in the history of...egalitarian liberalism! Mill was a big fan of freedom, definitely. At the same time, though, he thought that the organizing principle of society - and life generally - should be the "greatest happiness principle", which "holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness." That is the fundamental ethical principle of Mill's philosophy. Note that it says not a single word about liberty.

Once you factor in the law of diminishing marginal utility, Mill's ethics offer a powerful argument that will frequently justify redistributing significant quantities of wealth from the rich to the poor - i.e., big government socialism, as defined by our right-wing friends at Reason.

And not to hassle Balko with needless details, but Mill was also an advocate, in many cases, of government intervention, provided that it was to the benefit of society's aggregate happiness. In later years he was essentially a socialist himself, but even earlier on he advocated free markets primarily because he thought they were an effective way of promoting happiness, not because they were ends in themselves. And that really gets at the central flaw of libertarian thinking, doesn't it?

1 comment:

Matt S. said...

An interesting feature of utilitarianism as a foundational ethical theory is its malleability to reality. It endorses, in principle, no particular mode of governance. Only the ability of a state to create the greatest net-worth of satisfaction gives said state any justification at all. Mill was writing a lot of On Liberty to argue that principles of liberty were part and parcel of any truly utilitarian society. It is not an argument for utilitarianism per se (though he did that as well), it is better seen as an argument from within it. Some libertarians do in fact argue mostly along utilitarian lines (though rarely explicitly). Milton Friedman, for one, argued for massive deregulation on consequentialist grounds. (I don't think he ever described himself as utilitarian but it might have been his de facto position, albeit unknowingly. You don't have to know what a utilitarian is to be one!) This is to be sharply distinguished from the more deontological libertarians like the Randian objectivists and Robert Nozick who see a radically minimal state as a fundamental moral truth, not a contingent one. I don't think that Mill would have been a big fan of a libertarian utilitarian but, then again, I also think he would have loathed even more know-it-all nanny-state liberals; those pandering histrionic Joe Lieberman types who are more concerned with violence in video games than forceful egalitarian tax policy. They, in many ways, are the true conservatives. And as Mr. Mill once said:
"Conservatives are not necessarily stupid, but most stupid people are conservatives."