Wednesday, February 23, 2011

On Liberty and Other Writings - J. S. Mill

I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of a man as a progressive being.

There are many editions of J. S. Mill’s On Liberty. I have an edition published in 2010 by Classic Books International, which also includes The Subjection of Women and Utilitarianism. This volume does not include notes or comments: it’s Mill in his purest representation.

On Liberty is famous for its passionate defense of free speech in particular, and of freedom to act as wished without interference of the state or society as long as no harm is done. More generally, Mill is recognized for being one of the first authors to advocate in favor of gender equality.

Utilitarianism as a philosophical idea is the basis of modern economics. The idea that individuals are better off when they maximize their “utility” (a fancy word for happiness) is what economics students learn in their first lecture of Microeconomics 101. It takes a couple of logical (or mathematical) steps to derive the idea, but it is easy to see that, in order to maximize utility, the state must be away from the individual: the resources that the state takes away from the individual in the form of taxes cannot be spent on personal pleasure.

The advocates of drug liberalization base their arguments on the utilitarian idea that individuals are free to do whatever they want, including blowing up their minds, and whatever social cost is incurred by drug consumption can be factored in as taxes. The idea sounds good in theory but is ridiculous in practice: the effects of an overdose of alcohol are different from those of an overdose of cocaine or heroin, and the society would still have to pay for the rehab of drug addicts in the form of taxes. There are other “police” arguments that make the liberalization argument ridiculous: the idea that drug traffic can be "controlled" does not really make sense: once purchased, pure drugs can be modified illegally in ways that alcohol cannot be altered (you can get crack from cocaine or skunk from marijuana; you can only get crappy tonic from 96° alcohol). Surveying that purchasers of drugs do not alter them to obtain better products (from the consumer perspective) would outweigh the fiscal benefits of any liberalization.

It is impossible to guess what Mill would have said about drug liberalization. His book was written in the early 1800s, when the most potent drug was alcohol. In On Liberty, he criticizes some states of the American Union who were legislating in favor of alcohol prohibition, and he does not really get into the issue of externalities. Probably if Mill were alive today and saw the effects of crack and meth on addicts, he would moderate his opinions about free will. After all, Mill lived in an age where words like “honor” and “duties towards society” had some meaning.

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