John Stuart Mill, Dead Thinker of the Year

The 19th century thinker still has much to teach us on liberty.

By , the Robert Strausz-Hupé chair in geopolitics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Wikipedia Commons
Wikipedia Commons
Wikipedia Commons

Fundamentally, the past year has been about grappling with the most profound question in political philosophy: how to create legitimate central authority. In one Arab country after another -- Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria -- populations have taken to the streets to demand the downfall of their rulers, even as it is unclear what will follow in their wake.

And the question applies not only to the Arab world. It is unclear, for example, whether Iran's quasi-clerical system of revolutionary rule has a long-term future, given the intense infighting within the regime and the intense dislike it stirs within significant swaths of the population. Can China's one-party system of control last indefinitely? Can Burma's? Whereas the United States basically inherited its democratic system from the British, and its main drama over more than two centuries has been about limiting central authority, the challenge in too many other places is the opposite: how to erect responsive government in the first place.

No thinker has tackled these questions as painstakingly and as eloquently as the 19th-century English philosopher John Stuart Mill, which is why he is such an appropriate guide for these complicated times. Mill asserts, in On Liberty, and especially in Considerations on Representative Government, that while democratic government is surely to be preferred in theory, it is incredibly problematic in its particulars. This, of course, is part of Mill's larger exploration of liberty, and why ultimately the only justification a government has to curtail that liberty is when a person's behavior impinges on the rights of others. Despotism may work better in some instances, if only as a temporary measure, he writes; democracy is not suited for each and every society during significant periods of its development. I am crudely simplifying Mill, who is so clear while being so incredibly nuanced, and thus immensely readable.

Fundamentally, the past year has been about grappling with the most profound question in political philosophy: how to create legitimate central authority. In one Arab country after another — Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria — populations have taken to the streets to demand the downfall of their rulers, even as it is unclear what will follow in their wake.

And the question applies not only to the Arab world. It is unclear, for example, whether Iran’s quasi-clerical system of revolutionary rule has a long-term future, given the intense infighting within the regime and the intense dislike it stirs within significant swaths of the population. Can China’s one-party system of control last indefinitely? Can Burma’s? Whereas the United States basically inherited its democratic system from the British, and its main drama over more than two centuries has been about limiting central authority, the challenge in too many other places is the opposite: how to erect responsive government in the first place.

No thinker has tackled these questions as painstakingly and as eloquently as the 19th-century English philosopher John Stuart Mill, which is why he is such an appropriate guide for these complicated times. Mill asserts, in On Liberty, and especially in Considerations on Representative Government, that while democratic government is surely to be preferred in theory, it is incredibly problematic in its particulars. This, of course, is part of Mill’s larger exploration of liberty, and why ultimately the only justification a government has to curtail that liberty is when a person’s behavior impinges on the rights of others. Despotism may work better in some instances, if only as a temporary measure, he writes; democracy is not suited for each and every society during significant periods of its development. I am crudely simplifying Mill, who is so clear while being so incredibly nuanced, and thus immensely readable.

"Progress includes Order," Mill writes in Considerations, "but Order does not include Progress." Tyranny may be the political building block of all human societies, but if they don’t get beyond tyranny, the result is moral chaos and stagnation. Middle Eastern despots of our day too often supplied only Order; Asian ones have brought Progress, too. Thus China’s rulers, who must retire at a certain point, who bring technical expertise to their rule, and who govern in a collegial style, are much to be preferred over the North African variety, to say nothing of those in Syria or Yemen. Yet even in those cases, the prospect of a collapse of central authority indicates that, pace Mill, there may be no alternative to some sort of dictatorship, at least in the very short term.

Mill’s philosophy actually builds on that of his 17th-century compatriot, Thomas Hobbes, another thinker all too relevant for our times. Hobbes is often regarded as a preacher of doom and gloom. In fact, he wasn’t. He stared into the abyss of anarchy and realized there was, indeed, a solution that could lead to order and progress. That solution was the state. Hobbes extols the moral benefits of fear and sees violent anarchy as the chief threat to society. For Hobbes — best known for observing that the lives of men are "nasty, brutish, and short" — fear of violent death is the cornerstone of enlightened self-interest. By establishing a state, men replace the fear of violent death with the fear that only those who break the law need face. So while Hobbes made the case for central authority, Mill built on him to help us understand how humanity must get beyond mere authority in order to erect a liberal regime.

Such concepts are sometimes difficult to grasp for today’s urban middle class, which has long since lost any contact with man’s natural condition. But the horrific violence of a disintegrating Iraq, or this year’s fears of state collapse in places such as Yemen and Syria, have allowed many of us to imagine man’s original state. In fact, as more and more nondemocratic systems find it harder and harder to survive in this age of instant electronic communications, Mill and Hobbes will top the dead thinkers list for years to come. Iraq, with its mixture of democracy, creeping authoritarianism, and anarchy, is a place made for Mill and Hobbes, while Afghanistan is pure Hobbes. Imagine the relevance of Hobbes in the event of a regime collapse in North Korea; or of Mill as Egypt struggles for years to transform a military dictatorship into a civil democracy. These men may be long dead, but their philosophy is a sure guide to today’s headlines. The need for order — even as order must be made free from tyranny — is precisely the issue that hangs over the Greater Middle East.

Robert D. Kaplan is the author of 20 books, most recently Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age. He holds the Robert Strausz-Hupé chair in geopolitics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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