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Module 8: John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman

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Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) is increasingly acknowledged as one of the most influential thinkers on women’s rights and also as an incisive and observant writer on politics, education, and social issues. Although not consistently libertarian, she was consistently in favor of equal legal rights for men and women, and she operated within a generally classical liberal framework. The audiocassette presents an account of her life as a radical individualist writer as well as discussion of her arguments for equality before the law. In her writings she engaged some of the central issues in political philosophy, notably the debate over whether it was preferable to defend historically situated (“prescriptive”) rights or universal (“abstract”) rights. Burke had defended prescriptive rights but was highly critical of abstract statements of rights and therefore was wary about the application of rights theory to other candidates for rights (for example, women).

Among Wollstonecraft’s more interesting observations is that the characters of subservient wives and of subservient soldiers are similar: both are taught to please and both live only to please. As belief in a “divine right of kings” perverts the character of kings, so, Wollstonecraft argued, belief in the “divine right of husbands” perverts the character of husbands.

The readings by Wollstonecraft and by the sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimké in this module focus on the relationship between rights and responsibilities. One cannot reasonably expect a person to act responsibly if one does not accord to that person both the right and the responsibility of self‐​governance.

John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), one of the best known intellectual figures of the nineteenth century, is especially revered by civil libertarians (as well as by Margaret Thatcher) for his essay On Liberty, published in 1859. Mill’s principal concern was to ensure that individual liberty was not swallowed up in the move toward popular sovereignty. The emergence of the United States as a democratic republic led him to conclude, “It was now perceived that such phrases as ‘self‐​government,’ and ‘the power of the people over themselves,’ do not express the true state of the case. The ‘people’ who exercise the power are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised; and the ‘self‐​government’ spoken of is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest.” Mill’s account of the need to protect individual liberty from “the tyranny of the majority” has been highy influential–notably his defense of freedom of speech as a process of determining the truth; being “protected” from falsehood is the same as being “protected” from the possibility of knowing truth.

The readings from Mill and from Boaz explore the meaning of individual liberty and responsibility for one’s own moral development, and the chapters by the distinguished jurist Bruno Leoni consider different meanings of freedom and constraint. Leoni parts company with Mill on the question of whether freedom should be construed principally as freedom from coercion by the state or as freedom from “social pressure” as well. Mill had argued in On Liberty that “protection … against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them.” Others, such as Bruno Leoni, have argued that liberty should not be confused with freedom from public opinion but should be limited to freedom from coercion, understood in terms of force or the threat of force.

Milton Friedman, in the excerpt from Capitalism and Freedom, argues that private property and a capitalist economy are necessary prerequisites for individuality, freedom of speech, and Mill’s “experiments in living.” David Boaz, in the chapters from his book, considers the dignity and worth of the individual human being and the possibility of the coexistence of individuals of different faiths, philosophies, and cultures in a free and open society.

This module treats the issues of equal rights, especially with reference to women and to the flourishing of individuality and pluralism in a free society. The grounding of the libertarian view in individual rights, rather than in collective claims, provides important insights into the contemporary debate on “multiculturalism.”

Readings to Accompany The Audio

From The Libertarian Reader: Alexis de Tocqueville, “What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear” (pp. 20–24); John Stuart Mill, “Objections to Government Interference” (pp. 25–27), “Of Individuality” (pp. 96–103); Mary Wollstonecraft, “The Subjugation of Women” (pp. 62–64); Angelina Grimké, “Rights and Responsibilities of Women” (pp. 92–93); Sarah Grimké, “Woman as a Moral Being” (pp. 94–95); Milton Friedman, “The Relation between Economic Freedom and Political Freedom” (pp. 292–302).

From Libertarianism: A Primer: Chapter 4, “The Dignity of the Individual” (pp. 94–104); Chapter 5, “Pluralism and Toleration” (pp. 105–14).

From Freedom and the Law: Introduction (pp. 3–25); Chapter 1, “Which Freedom” (pp. 26–42); Chapter 2, “’Freedom’ and ‘Constraint’” (pp. 43–57).

Some Problems to Ponder & Discuss

• What is the relationship between responsibility for one’s behavior and the right and freedom to direct that behavior?

• Do equal legal rights for men and women entail equality in all other respects?

• If an act such as excessive alcohol drinking is harmful to the person who undertakes it, or to others in his or her life (such as a spouse or children), in what sense is the act “victimless”?

• Is it contrary to individualist principles for some people (whether a majority or a minority) to criticize the behavior or choices of others, if they refrain from resorting to force or legal coercion?

• Is there a difference between an immoral act and a criminal act? Are all criminal acts immoral? Are all immoral acts criminal?

• How can people become virtuous if the state does not direct them toward virtue?

• Can freedom of speech and the press exist without private property?

Suggested Additional Reading

Albert Jay Nock, “On Doing the Right Thing,” in Albert Jay Nock, The State of the Union: Essays in Social Criticism, Charles H. Hamilton, ed. (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1991), and in Our Enemy the State, Walter E. Grinder, ed. (1935; San Francisco: Fox & Wilkes, 1994). This essay makes the case for individual liberty and responsibility very eloquently; both of the editions listed include other valuable works by Nock, as well as useful introductions to Nock’s thought by the editors.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty. One can still profit from a close reading of this classic work. One especially noteworthy feature is the way in which Mill considers both state coercion and what he calls “the despotism of culture” enemies of liberty. As Thomas Babington Macaulay noted, this feature of Mill’s argument seems the weakest, although it is often advanced by modern liberals as the strongest part of Mill’s argument.

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Men and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Wollstonecraft argued vehemently for equality of legal rights and liabilities, even if she was not always arguing for a strictly libertarian set of rights. (Her views on state education and the virtues of the Spartans were certainly incompatible with a considered classical liberal view, but her emphasis was on the equal treatment of men and women by the state.)

Herbert Spencer, Social Statics (1850; New York: Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, 1995). This is a brilliant and highly influential statement of the ethical foundations of a free and progressive society. It includes Spencer’s criticism of utilitarianism, which he termed the “expediency philosophy.”

For Further Study

Freedom, Feminism, and the State, Wendy McElroy, ed. (Washington: Cato Institute, 1982). This collection brings together many of the most influential writings of the individualist feminist movement and includes a valuable introductory essay by the editor.

Wilhelm von Humboldt, The Limits of State Action (1792; Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1993). This book exercised a powerful influence on John Stuart Mill, as well as on the general direction of the moral sciences in the nineteenth century. Humboldt was a brilliant Prussian liberal who set his ideas out to, as he put it in the opening words of the book, “discover to what end State institutions should be directed, and what limits should be set to their activity.” Humboldt’s treatment of liberty is less ambiguous than Mill’s better known work.

Lysander Spooner, Vices Are Not Crimes (1875), reprinted in The Lysander Spooner Reader, George H. Smith, ed. (San Francisco: Fox & Wilkes, 1992). This essay originally appeared in a volume titled Prohibition: A Failure, long before the horrible experiences of what we now know as the “Prohibition Era.” This essay shines the light of reason on the attempts of government to use coercion to punish vice.

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