Conservatism, Libertarianism, and John Stuart Mill

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Although most conservatives of today seem to have forgotten him, conservatives of yesteryear honored and revered Russell Kirk (1918–1994). After receiving his bachelor’s degree from Michigan State College (now University), Kirk earned his master’s degree at Duke University and then his doctor of letters from the University of St. Andrews. Kirk was a prolific writer who wrote not only for conservative publications like National Review but also mainstream media like the Los Angeles Times. He was also the founding editor of two journals: The University Bookman and Modern Age, both of which are still published today.

The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, based at Kirk’s ancestral home in Mecosta, Michigan, “aims to recover, conserve, and enliven those enduring norms and principles that Russell Kirk called the Permanent Things.” It is the work of the Kirk Center “to strengthen the Permanent Things, especially as they relate to America’s tradition of order, justice, and freedom.” According to the Kirk Center:

Russell Kirk authored thirty-two books on political theory, the history of ideas, education, cultural criticism, and supernatural tales. Both Time and Newsweek have described him as one of America’s leading thinkers, and the New York Times acknowledged the scale of his influence when it wrote that Kirk’s 1953 landmark book The Conservative Mind “gave American conservatives an identity and a genealogy and catalyzed the postwar movement.”

President Ronald Reagan conferred on Dr. Kirk the Presidential Citizens Medal in 1989.

Although Kirk often referred to (classical) liberalism in his most notable book, The Conservative Mind, he never mentions libertarianism, even though the seventh edition was published in 1986. However, both before (“Libertarians: The Chirping Sectaries”) and after (“A Dispassionate Assessment of Libertarians”) this date, Kirk pointed out the “many and grave failings” of libertarianism. Unlike many libertarians and conservatives today, Kirk recognized that the two philosophies were not cousins or even compatible, even if he was given to overstatement. Said Kirk: “I venture to suggest that libertarianism, properly understood, is as alien to real American conservatives as is communism.”

One of Kirk’s favorite bogeymen was John Stuart Mill, one of the key voices for the ideals of personal freedom and civil liberty in the nineteenth century. Kirk connected libertarians with Mill, but not in a good way:

The ruinous failing of the ideologues who call themselves libertarians is their fanatic attachment to a simple solitary principle — that is, to the notion of personal freedom as the whole end of the civil social order, and indeed of human existence. The libertarians are oldfangled folk, in the sense that they live by certain abstractions of the nineteenth century. They carry to absurdity the doctrines of John Stuart Mill.

Since Mill, the libertarians have forgotten nothing and learned nothing. Mill dreaded, and they dread today, obedience to the dictates of custom.

What are these doctrines of John Stuart Mill that libertarians carry to absurdity? And what is wrong with obedience to the dictates of custom?

John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) was many things: civil servant, member of Parliament, social philosopher, political economist, reformer, intellectual. He was also one of the most prolific writers in history. The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill published by the University of Toronto Press contains 33 volumes. Although Mill never attended school, he was given an extremely rigorous education from a young age, thanks to his father, James Mill (1773–1836), a noted economist, political theorist, and philosopher. Mill was the quintessential child prodigy. He read Greek at age three, and by the age of eight, he had studied history, physics, astronomy, algebra, and began to study Latin. Then it was on to poetry, logic, and political economy. Mill, who was tutored by some of the brightest minds of his day, was charged with tutoring his younger siblings. At age seventeen, he began a 35-year career at the British East India Company, following in the footsteps of his father.

Mill was not a libertarian in the modern sense of the word. He was a utilitarian, a devotee of Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832). And as Austrian economist Richard Ebeling has pointed out about Mill, he “conceded to the government as necessary responsibilities far more powers of intervention into social and economic affairs than most modern classical liberals and libertarians consider justifiable.” Thus, Mill believed that government funding and providing of schools were desirable in order to ensure the development of a literate, intelligent, and informed citizenry, although he opposed compulsory attendance and a government monopoly on education. In his History of Economic Thought, the late Austrian economist Murray Rothbard pointed out Mill’s contradictory nature: “Was Mill a laissez-faire liberal? A socialist? A romantic? A classicist? A civil libertarian? A believer in state-coerced morality? The answer is yes, every time. There is endless fodder for dispute because, in his long and prolific life, Mill was all of these and none, an ever-changing kaleidoscope of alteration, transformation and contradiction … Mill made numerous concessions to socialism and apostatized from laissez-faire.”


So, is Kirk correct in connecting libertarians with Mill? In one very important respect, absolutely. The essence of libertarianism is the non-aggression principle. As explained by Rothbard:

The fundamental axiom of libertarian theory is that no one may threaten or commit violence (“aggress”) against another man’s person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively against the aggressive violence of another. In short, no violence may be employed against a non-aggressor. Here is the fundamental rule from which can be deduced the entire corpus of libertarian theory.

The non-aggression principle is designed to prohibit someone from infringing upon the liberty of another. It is the core premise and linchpin of the philosophy of libertarianism. Aggression is the initiation of nonconsensual violence, the threat of nonconsensual violence, or fraud. The initiation of aggression against the person or property of others is always wrong. Force is justified only in defense or retaliation, but is neither essential nor required.

If one rejects the principle that the initiation of aggression against someone’s person or property is always wrong, then there are only two alternatives:

  • The initiation of aggression against person or property is never wrong.
  • The initiation of aggression against person or property is sometimes wrong.

The first alternative leads to nihilism, and no civilized person would accept it. This leaves us with the second. The problem with this should be quite evident. When is it right or wrong to initiate aggression against person or property, and who makes the decision whether it is right or wrong? This is why most people would follow libertarians to a certain point. I am sure that even Russell Kirk would not personally assault someone for smoking pot, making moonshine, or selling cocaine.

Yet, many of these same people who might be open to following the non-aggression principle on a personal level have no problem supporting government aggression against certain actions that don’t violate the personal or property rights of others. But if one rejects the principle that the initiation of aggression against someone’s person or property by the government is always wrong, then once again there are only two alternatives:

  • The initiation of aggression by government against person or property is never wrong.
  • The initiation of aggression by government against person or property is sometimes wrong.

Unfortunately, most people would go with option two, and leave it up to the government to determine when is it right or wrong to initiate aggression against person or property.

On Liberty

Published in 1859, On Liberty is the best known and most important of Mill’s political writings. Mill himself, according to the History of Political Philosophy, considered it “to be his most carefully composed work and the one which was most likely to be of enduring value.” Wrote Mill:

The object of this essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil, in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

This, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty. It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological. The liberty of expressing and publishing opinions may seem to fall under a different principle, since it belongs to that part of the conduct of an individual which concerns other people; but, being almost of as much importance as the liberty of thought itself, and resting in great part on the same reasons, is practically inseparable from it. Secondly, the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow: without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong. Thirdly, from this liberty of each individual, follows the liberty, within the same limits, of combination among individuals; freedom to unite, for any purpose not involving harm to others: the persons combining being supposed to be of full age, and not forced or deceived.

No society in which these liberties are not, on the whole, respected is free, whatever may be its form of government; and none is completely free in which they do not exist absolute and unqualified. The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily or mental and spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.

Mill disdained custom and tradition when they are followed without thinking:

Where, not the person’s own character, but the traditions or customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress.

The despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement, being in unceasing antagonism to that disposition to aim at something better than customary, which is called, according to circumstances, the spirit of liberty, or that of progress or improvement.

It is no wonder that Kirk denigrated Mill. He believed, like the bulk of conservatives today, that people should be fined or imprisoned for engaging in private, peaceful, consensual behavior or peaceful activity that doesn’t violate anyone’s personal or property rights. He likewise believed that the government should keep people from harming themselves.


Aaron Ross Powell, director and editor of, has recently, and rightly, said about conservatism: “Conservatism, as a political ideology, seeks to maintain those social and economic patterns that conservatives prefer or believe are conducive to a good society. Thus, in contrast to libertarianism, political conservatism is not about identifying, cultivating, and maintaining those patterns of rules and institutions which maximize liberty. Instead, it is about maintaining social patterns which result in a society that aligns with the conservative’s cultural values and personal tastes.”

Beneath the conservative façade of tradition and culture lies an authoritarian ideology. It is the philosophy of state-coerced morality and virtue, as Rothbard recognized many years ago: “At the heart of the dispute between the traditionalists and the libertarians is the question of freedom and virtue: Should virtuous action (however we define it) be compelled, or should it be left up to the free and voluntary choice of the individual?”

To see the authoritarian nature of conservatism, just look at the issue of the drug war. Conservatism not only has no problem with the government drug war, it encourages the government to arrest people for drug-related offenses, and then fine them, appropriate their property, or lock them in cages for possessing, consuming, buying, selling, manufacturing, smoking, distributing, transporting, cultivating, or “trafficking in” a substance the government doesn’t approve of. And then to make matters worse, conservatives preach federalism and limited government, but refuse to apply these principles to the drug war, even though the Constitution doesn’t authorize the federal government to spend one penny waging such a war, or have a drug czar, a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), or a Controlled Substances Act (CSA).

It should also be said that there is nothing inherent in libertarianism that stands in opposition to custom or tradition — or religion, morality, decency, civility, community, Judeo-Christian ethics, or the common good. But just think what would still exist today if people throughout history never broke free of the bonds of tradition: slavery, torture to obtain confessions, a united church and state, oppression of women, price controls.


Not all conservatives agreed with Russell Kirk’s blanket condemnation of John Stuart Mill. Frank Meyer, a conservative and colleague of William F. Buckley (1925–2008) whom Kirk called “an ideologue for liberty,” responded to an attack on Mill by Kirk in National Review:

It seems to me that Mr. Kirk attacks both Mill and the Victorian Age for those qualities from which we have the most to learn and which, despite all the shortcomings of the man and the age, we must cherish against the blank conformity and power idolatry of our day.

To attack Mill for his philosophical errors, even to stress the decisive effect which in his case those errors had at an important moment in the development of thought, is legitimate enough, and in fact of great value in clarifying some of the most confused issues of the day. To condemn him, however not as having unsound foundations for his defense of liberty, but for that defense itself; to champion against him an antagonist as unsound as Mill philosophically, as utilitarian as Mill himself, one who can be caught blatantly attacking the ideal of the freedom of the person through glorification of the sword; to hold that the triumph of the mailed tyrannies of the twentieth century “refutes” and “dates” Mill’s ringing vindication of liberty; this, it seems to me, is to put forward the claims of power over spirit, blind force over right reason, matter over man, what is over what ought to be.

Conservatives would do well to take heed to the doctrines of John Stuart Mill.

This article was originally published in the May 2022 edition of Future of Freedom.

The post Conservatism, Libertarianism, and John Stuart Mill appeared first on The Future of Freedom Foundation.

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