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John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty was published in 1859. In it he presented one of the most persuasive defences of individual freedom in nineteenth century social and political philosophy. Today it is probably still the most widely read liberal argument in support of the value of liberty. At present we seem not only to be losing some of our liberty by stealth but becoming accustomed to the distorted messages, even lies, that tell us our democracy is being enhanced. How would Mill view the world at present? His opening paragraph says:

The subject of this Essay is not the so-called Liberty of the Will, so unfortunately opposed to the misnamed doctrine of Philosophical Necessity; but Civil, or Social Liberty: the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual. A question seldom stated, and hardly ever discussed, in general terms, but which profoundly influences the practical controversies of the age by its latent presence, and is likely soon to make itself recognised as the vital question of the future. It is so far from being new, that, in a certain sense, it has divided mankind, almost from the remotest ages; but in the stage of progress into which the more civilized portions of the species have now entered, it presents itself under new conditions, and requires a different and more fundamental treatment.

Since those words were published 162 years have passed. With every step forward, always slow and cautious, there has been a yoke on the shoulders of those who would lead us toward a world in which the reins that guide them to speak out are pulled before they ever come to the point in time when we enjoy the full liberty of hearing their words. We are told that controls are in our best interest; we should trust our governments. There is a political credo that endeavours to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are ignored by established elites.  There is no particular dogma that positions it on a left–right political spectrum although both right and left wing versions of populism exist. Much is said about populism, the governments, governing parties and their dominant, often almost dictatorial, leaders. They are pulling those reins. Is it a case of do we never learn? Or is it a case that 19 century visionaries like Mill were just simply too optimistic?

Is there is direct relationship between liberty and democracy? In order to have democracy, a country should value individual liberty and proclaim liberal values. Yet increasingly people are seeing liberties constrained. George Orwell wrote in his unused preface to ‘Animal Farm’ that was published in 1945 that ‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’ His publisher did not use the preface for reasons of expediency. It was ‘rediscovered’ in 1971; those words have subsequently been very much quoted. That citation has perhaps far more relevance today than in Orwell’s lifetime. So what is that liberty he described? For most of his career, Eric Blair, George Orwell was his nom de plume for many of his publications, was a journalist who believed profoundly in freedom of the press. It was the liberty of those who wrote to preserve liberty in truth; that truth was the bedrock of democracy for him. Even then truth was an incidental to be dispensed with by some people, other journalists especially. What then is liberty? It is the capability of an individual to pursue their own ends with little interference from external forces. However, to achieve those ends does not demand truth when very often a lie is more useful.

Democracy is rule by the people of their nation, at least by those who have franchise, where they hold the power to elect leaders who are accountable to them. The relationship between liberty and democracy is a complex system of checks and balances, whereby neither one nor the other can be allowed to grow too large without threatening the other. That relationship is somewhat convoluted because living in a democracy usually necessitates limiting some personal liberties at the cost of democratic principles at the same time as others protect individual liberties by placing limitations on democracy. The assumption has always been that where you find one, you will obviously find the other. They may be mutually compatible, but neither is necessary for the existence of the other. So where liberty allows a lie where truth is expected, one can justifiably argue that democracy is not damaged. This is where rule by the people ends, liberty and democracy fashioned by those elected, so that to retain what remains people must be compliant, thus accept lies as truths chosen by those who have the liberty to use them.

It has been 162 years for the principle of liberty Mill wrote about to sit as though on a shop shelf waiting eternally to be bought. A bit less than half of that time ago, Orwell described liberty as the ‘right to tell people what they do not want to hear’, which can also be seen if liberty actually defines what the person speaking says to tell people what they want to hear. Even if that is a lie.  H. L. Mencken, the American journalist, essayist and satirist, wrote ‘I am strongly in favor of common sense, common honesty and common decency. This makes me forever ineligible to any public office of trust or profit in the Republic. But I do not repine, for I am a subject of it only by force of arms.’ The last few words are the metaphor that defines what liberty is and where it stands in democracy, two lies that are made truth by exploiting personal liberty. It is why populism claims democracy for the people by limiting democracy and personal liberties in order to ‘protect’ them? Thus, 162 years on, those of us on small islands of truth attempting to live by the principle Mill described, but circumscribed because the liars tell the people that we lie, see their democracy stolen from under their feet, because people are told they are free to choose what they believe, as long as it is what they are told.

Orwell believed that journalists hold the key to the preservation of liberty and democracy. Originally a journalist was one who kept a personal journal, who wrote in it regularly, often daily, eventually it came to describe somebody whose occupation is journalism, originally those who wrote in the printed press. Today it is a description of those who work in all possible media, very often no longer recording and reporting events, but holding opinions. They have the liberty to hold a diversity of interpretations and opinions of events and people, thus may express themselves using truth, lies or a blend of both, thus share in shaping what is described as democracy. Media are the hand servants of those making money by subscribing to and defending particular ideologies. However, they return what appears to be loyalty by influencing politicians to the point they have the power to bring them down. We still use the expression ‘free press’ although it is far more than just the printed word today. ‘Free’ implies having liberty. Ironically, in democracies the corporate liberty of media often feeds information and news shaped to manipulate its followers, effectively depriving them of the liberty to form their own views. Where will that take us, will liberty be sacrificed on the altar of expediency at the cost of democracy? Must those of us who write discard Mill’s defence of individual freedom, surrender what Orwell set out to defend and ignore the message behind Mencken’s cutting remarks? Or is it our liberty to decide, thus abandon such notions?

Featured image by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.

Brian Milne
A Social anthropologist who specialises in the human rights of children. In practice Brian Milne has worked on the street with 'street children', child labour, young migrants, young people with HIV and AIDS. Brian’s work has taken him to around 40 countries, most of them developing nations; at least four of them have been in a state of conflict or war, thus taking him to the front line in two. Brian’s theoretical work began with migration; working on, written and publishing on citizenship and generally best known as an 'expert' on the human rights of children. Brian has a broad knowledge of human and civil rights for all ages, environmental issues and has been politically active most of his life. An internationalist and supporter of the principle of European federalisation.

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