On Liberty John Stuart Mills - compare the price and the sentiment!

01 March 2018

 With several snow days making many of us homebound I went searching for a book I ought to read. Ironically, during my incarceration due to bad weather, I chose 'On Liberty' by John Stuart Mill, a classic philosophical treatise first published in 1859. I often struggle with the high brow language of the philosophers and often have to read a sentence twice to really appreciate the thinking and reasoning of these learned men and women. Nietzsche, for example, leaves me with a really bad headache. Mill's 'On Liberty', surprisingly, is relatively easy to read and readily applicable to our current political turbulence where certainty is lacking. So during my reading of Mills, I have applied his words to my own confusion about the impact of Brexit. I considered the question I have, which is why people believe a better situation in the UK will exist when we leave the EU, when all around politicians, artists, economists, business, Lecturers and ordinary folk like you and I are bewildered.

So how has reading 'On Liberty' clarified my view? Well the rhetoric was 'take back control'. Are we so out of control? Control is word which has a multitude of meanings; it represents skill, the operator of a mechanical switch, the ability to manage something, rules – such as import duties, and limits and restrictions. 
But we live in a time when we have never had such an abundance of freedom and rights. From Universal Rights enshrined by the League of Nations, now the UN and The European Human Rights Act 1998 we europeans (and British Europeans) have been recently bestowed with more freedoms than any other period in history. We live in a constitutional democracy, have free universal healthcare (albeit with some financial constraints), and our children have free education from 2 to 18 years of age. We are blessed with freedom of movement, goods and services across a huge swath of land called Europe and we have freedom of expression with the rule of law protecting these freedoms. As for controlling rules, we have as much say as the other members of the cooperative union we joined and have been a leading rule maker.
To look at freedom and liberty from another perspective it is worth considering that as I write, the gritters are out ensuring our journeys are free from snow so that we can go about our business and essential emergency workers can get around; farmers are working to free up their new-born lambs so that we are free to choose the best food sources since history began, and deliveries of choices fuel and foodstuffs are abundant for most of us. Any reduction in freedoms comes from our own electoral decisions and we can change that at the next election as long as we know the truth about the values and beliefs of our local representatives who seek our votes. 'On Liberty' discusses these freedoms we take for granted and since it was written more freedoms have been created. Women can now vote and respect for Equality, diversity and rights has allowed discrimination to be outlawed We no longer restrict the freedom of people to explore their spirituality and challenge religious piety, people with learning disabilities are not sterilised, and consensual homosexual men are no longer chemically castrated. Is this the control people who want to leave the EU want to take back? Or is it simply border controls – which we currently have anyway? I am genuinely mystified. 
A few statements within On Liberty from John Stuart Mill have really helped me to ponder further the questions raised by my lack of appreciation of why it would be in our interests to leave the EU.The first starts with representation. In a democracy we have to make decisions about the character of the people who represent us. Mills asks the question about persons whose judgement has 'become deserving of confidence'. He says there are three characteristics in these persons:
  • He has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct
  • He values a variety of opinions
  • He studies all modes and where opinions arise from any character of mind.
We have to forgive John Stuart Mill for his lack of reference to a female perspective here but this was 1859 and he did go on to advocate for equality for women in his book 'The Subjection of Women' (1869). What he is saying though is important for us all. He stresses the importance of being open minded and doesn't just surround him or herself with people who reinforce their already held prejudices but looks to those who would disagree with him and understand their perspective. He was talking of' 'confirmation bias' before the term was coined. He cites Cicero who suggests we 'study the case of our adversaries with greater intensity than our own'. Now this is a really useful point and one I think I have not paid sufficient attention too in relation to Brexit, which is perhaps why I remain confused on it.
 I think I appreciate the voters in favour of leaving the EU – to an extent. I know people are worried about cultural change, wage constraint and the cost of housing.  These however are not the protestations of those vocal advocates in power. So I took a little time to consider Jacob Rees Moggs position and his argument for leaving seems to be based upon the idea that import tariffs could be lowered for goods such as clothing and shoes from outside the EU. So your goods from China and Vietnam will be even cheaper. An interesting thought until you consider that our own manufacturing in the UK is in a poor position and may be further undermined by such a move. Is this really enough of a reason or just his mere opinion? According to John Stuart Mill 'The usefulness of an opinion is itself a matter of opinion'.
Of course Mills has a full appreciation of the importance of experts  and denounces critics of those who think the public don't really understand experts and that the search for knowledge for many is futile, reminding us of the phrase used at the time ' defenders of new truths may have been desirable once but we have had enough of them now' . This put me in mind of Michael Gove MP statement during the Brexit campaign 'we've all had enough of experts'. Is this actually true? It would appear another leading Brexiteer characterises Mills belief that 'some don't value the benefactors of new truths'.  However, if we are not searching for truth we become passive recipients of political decisions and our democracy becomes a mere vessel for a few powerful individuals to hold the rest of us ransom to fortune. Well at least it simplifies my quest in trying to responding to Cicero's challenge to appreciate the case of the adversaries' position. I don't need to delve further into perspective of someone who is not interested in the opinion of experts.
I will ponder on to my next course of action, that is to respond to Mills statement ' no one can be a great thinker who does not recognise his first duty is to follow his intellect towards whatever conclusions it may lead'.  I'm still none the wiser on the Brexit question but perhaps a little more aware of how to develop my appreciation of the arguments of those whose opinions on which I currently disagree and to continue, for the moment , to exercise my freedom of thought and expression.