Yes, reader, it is time for you to hear my confession. I was That Guy. At the age of seventeen, with my sixth form school tie loosened casually from a BHS shirt, I knew it all. I had read two J.S. Mill books, which was two more than anybody else I was in contact with, and therefore not only did I have All The Answers but I also felt the burden of duty to share All The Answers with everybody else. Or, at least, with everybody else who could bear my smart-arse precocious company for long enough. I blush, reader, hotly I blush.
My 1986 print of Utilitarianism and On Liberty still sits proudly on my shelf, in fact. Here it is, underlined on almost every page. As you can see, I was so taken with Mill that I underlined more than I left untouched. I read it and discussed it and pondered it and decided that Mill had just beaten Rousseau in my internal game of Political Philosophy Top Trumps and was officially My Fave.
As is the way with Faves, though, Mill is problematic (and nothing I say below changes that). But he himself is nowhere near as problematic as his fans who, like seventeen year old me, are looking for All The Answers to a confusing and frightening world instead of looking for All The Questions that they should be asking ourselves.
Now, when I was seventeen years old, Tim Berners-Lee was busy scratching his head over a vague idea called the World Wide Web. Which was extremely lucky for me, and for the world. Nobody outside of my immediate circle of family and acquaintances had to listen to my inane pronouncements. And nowhere in the world is there a permanent, indelible record of them. My exercise books and scribblings and pool room rhetoric are all swept away, lost forever, and not a day passes when I am not delighted about that. Because, had I been seventeen years old today, it would be me you were becoming exasperated with on Twitter. I would, I expect, be INSISTING that you listen to me as I reveal the conclusions that my enormously clever brain had reached after extensive reading. I would know my brain was clever because Mum had told me so, and I would know my reading was extensive because none of my mates had read J.S.Mill and I had. I had the “Best Politics Essay In Year” certificate so you’d better respect mah authoriteh.
I would be telling you that not all men are like that. I would be telling you that all lives matter. I would be telling you that porn and ‘sex work’ are wonderful choices that men and women should be free to make. I doubt I would have actually been an MRA. I mean I was a dickhead but I wasn’t THAT much of a dickhead. Still, I would have had some sympathy with them I imagine. And when you told me that I was being a dickhead and immature and had no real understanding of the world, I would have done the crying laughing emoji (forgive me, father, for I would have sinned) and explained that ACTUALLY I wasn’t immature at all ACTUALLY.
And worst of all, twenty something years later, I’d have the pain and anguish of knowing that all of that nonsense was still out there. Somewhere. A friend or a family member or a colleague might, at any time, dig into the internet archive and find it and say “DID YOU REALLY SAY THIS SHIT?!” and I’d have to admit it. I would have to say that yes, I was a teenage libertarian.
We didn’t use the word ‘libertarian’ back then, though. Liberal would do. Liberal as in liberty as in freedom. As in, by default, people should be free to do whatever they want as long as it doesn’t harm others. As in, the government and police should leave you alone to live your life however you like, as long as you’re not harming others. And to that extent, I still am a liberal. I still absolutely agree with all of that. What has changed is my understanding of what is meant by ‘harm to others.’
A combination of confirmation bias, naivete and small town inexperience led me to a very simple view of harm. More or less, if nobody was complaining loudly enough for me to hear then no harm was being done. Choicey choicey choicey, you know the tune. Pornography: great, those people look like they’re having a great time and they aren’t complaining loudly. Super. Prostitution: Hey, one person wants sex, another person wants money, both get what they want, nobody’s complaining loudly. Win win. Super! I’m sure I could find some people in both of those professions to confirm my view, and that would be enough. I couldn’t hear anyone complaining and I sure as hell wasn’t going to go looking for them. If anyone else had a problem with those things, well they didn’t have to look, they could live their own lives however they want and leave the rest of us alone. Choicey choicey choicey. Don’t burst my bubble. Don’t tell me those aren’t real choices.
So here I am this morning, twenty sumpty sumpty years later musing on this while I wash my hair, and I decide to blame J.S. Mill for my past stupidity. I still think I have all the answers, you see. I still think I have a Very Clever Brain. My Mum told me so, once. So, I think, Mill got it all wrong. Liberty, harm, utility, it’s not as simple as he led me to believe. Sometimes the harm is invisible, or hard to see. Sometimes we don’t see it because we choose not to, and don’t even realise we’re doing so. Sometimes the harm is so far removed from the source that we have plausible deniability of the link (‘Correlation is not causation,’ is the chorus as if that means correlation negates the possibility of causation). Sometimes the people who are harmed are prevented from, or lack the resources, to speak of the harm. There are lots of reasons why Mill was entirely wrong, and why I am now Better And Cleverer Than What He Was.
And so I walk downstairs to the bookshelf and pick up my copy of On Liberty and flick it open, thinking I might find some damning section that vindicates me and shows me how stupid Mill was and how brilliant I am. I swear to God, the picture above is the page where it fell open. I’ve even underlined it for crying out loud:
“No one, indeed, acknowledges to himself that his standard of judgement is his own liking…Men’s opinions, accordingly, on what is laudable or blameable, are affected by all the multifarious causes which influence their wishes in regard to the conduct of others, and which are as numerous as those which determine their wishes on any other subject.”
Dammit, it was there all along. He told me. I even bloody underlined it. My opinion on what is good or laudable or at least acceptable (porn, prostitution etc.) is influenced by my desires for how I’d most like others to behave (women showing me their naked bodies etc.). Mill was warning me to look out for those issues where my personal desires magically accord with what looks like rational justifications. If I want to look at women’s naked bodies and am aggressively defensive of their right to show me their naked bodies then…hmm…consider that I may be missing a trick. Maybe there’s something else to think about here. Maybe I could take a minute to scratch the surface and see what’s behind the welcoming smiles of the women on the glossy pages of a Best of Club International. After all, if I was so sure that this was all happiness and joy and win-win, why was I blushing while hurriedly buying the magazine in the quietest corner shop I could find, far from home or work or where anybody might know me. Why was I hiding it in my bag inside a copy of The Guardian instead of openly carrying it, proud of my support for women’s choicey choices?
“Wherever there is an ascendant class, a large portion of the morality of the country emanates from its class interests, and its feelings of class superiority. The morality between Spartans and Helots, between planters and negroes, between princes and subjects, between nobles and roturiers, between men and women, has been for the most part the creation of these class interests and feelings.”
Here is Mill, in On Liberty, the de facto handbook of the teenage libertarian, recognising that there is an ascendant class of men who impose their interests and feelings upon the class of women, and that it is not good enough to continue ruling a country like that. That the vague feelings of ‘well I don’t hear anyone complaining’ choicey choicey liberalism are no more an argument for, say, pornography or prostitution, than the feelings of ‘Jesus said it was a bad thing’ would be against it. Such decisions should be based on evidence, and not just the evidence of confirmation bias where a few financially interested parties insist that everything is A-OK, but evidence where the potential harm is actively sought and listened to and given priority.
All that is left for them to argue is that the ascendancy of the male class over the female is a historical reference, as obsolete as ‘Spartans and Helots.’ “Show me one right men have that women don’t,” they’ll scream, ignoring the evidence all around them on every street and in every newspaper and in the experiences of their female relations and friends and colleagues, insisting that equality has been achieved and women need to shut up about it before things get nasty.
The new libertarians, the teenage libertarians, That Guy on Twitter, seventeen year old me, will argue until they’re blue in the face that all they want is freedom. All they want is as much joy and as little harm in the world as possible, and the Gospel of John Stuart Mill has given us the tools to achieve it if only we would accept him as our Lord and Saviour. They are a mere dinghy on the gushing river of liberty, who are they to complain if they are caught in an eddy where they get to stare at pictures of boobies for a while. Choicey choice, get on board.
They miss the warning that Mill himself gave them to watch carefully for their own self-interest. I missed it too. I underlined it, probably nodding to myself and thinking, ‘Yes it’s very important for other people not to be self-interested.’ He didn’t mean me, though. Oh no. Except he did.
Mill knew it in 1859. Wright et al knew it in 2015 when they wrote
“The accumulated data leave little doubt that, on the average, individuals who consume pornography more frequently are more likely to hold attitudes conducive to sexual aggression and engage in actual acts of sexual aggression than individuals who do not consume pornography or who consume pornography less frequently.
It is acknowledged that the results of the present meta-analysis will not change the minds of those committed to the position that pornography cannot affect sexual aggression.”
Because the teenage libertarian, and the middle aged libertarian who has yet to grow out of it, is only interested in the liberty that gets them what they want and only sees the evidence that their choices cause no harm.
Depressingly, if I somehow went back in a time machine and told my seventeen year old self all of this, he would probably do a crying laughing emoji and say I was a bitter old man who had lost his intellectual faculties or something. Trying to convince the teenage libertarian that there are harms they are blind to is as pointless as trying to convince the Pope that God doesn’t exist. Probably more so. All I can hope is that a few of them keep their copies of Mill, and occasionally read them back, and occasionally realise that they were missing something. They were missing a lot. In spite of their arrogance and certainty, their eyes aren’t even halfway open and, if they choose to open them fully, they might not like some of what they see. That they could help make the world a better place if they realised that freedom is about freeing others from harm, not about serving their own desires.