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On Liberty Hardcover – Dec 1 2002

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd. (Dec 1 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1584772212
  • ISBN-13: 978-1584772217
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 1.6 x 22.9 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 499 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #546,333 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 101 reviews
84 of 86 people found the following review helpful
More relevant today than in 1859 :( July 7 2004
By B. Alcat - Published on
Format: Paperback
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was interested in the nature of Civil Liberty, and the limits to the power that a Government can legitimately exercise upon its citizens. He believed that some worrying tendencies could be observed in the England society of his time, and tried to warn others about them.
The author basically explains his ideas regarding the preservation of individual liberties, not only due to the fact that they are rights owed to everyone, but also because they benefit society as a whole.
For example, when he says that liberty of thought and of discussion must be preserved, he tells us that "Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument: but fact and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind, must be brought before it". How can mistaken beliefs or actions be proven wrong, if dissent is forbidden?. The loss for society is clear: "If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error".
In order to preserve the liberties included in the concept of Civil Liberty, the author points out that there must be limits to the action of the Government. He says 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". Any other reason is simply not good enough. Thus, Stuart Mill highlights the rights of the individual, but also the limit to those rights: the well-being of others.
"On Liberty" is not too long, and I think you are highly likely to enjoy it, if you can get past the first few pages. The problem is that even though the ideas in this book are quite modern, the language is somehow dated. But then, we must remember that "On Liberty" was written a long time ago...
Notwithstanding that, do your best to read the first pages, and you will realize that after a while it will be much easier. This book is well-worth the effort you need to make at the beginning, because it is even more relevant today than when it was first published, in 1859.
Are individual rights important?. Why?. Do they have a limit?. You will found the answer for these questions, and much more, in "On Liberty". What else can I say?. I believe this is a book that will help you to reflect on many important issues... I certainly can't think of a better reason to read it. All in all, recommended :)
Belen Alcat
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
On Liberty: More Relevant Than Ever Feb. 18 2006
By Len Hart - Published on
Format: Paperback
In his classic essay "On Liberty", John Stuart Mill deals with the issue of "civil liberties" -not the metaphysical issue of "free will". While most attacks on civil liberties have historically occurred from the right within the context of a tyrannical or an aristocratic rule, Mill deals with threats against liberty from within the institutions of democracy itself. The issue is especially relevant at a time when widespread domestic wiretapping and surveillance violates the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The aim of early libertarians was to limit the power of the ruler over those governed; Mill, however, identifies a need to limit the power of elected governments and officials as well. Mill is not merely addressing the issue of "who should rule?", he seeks to establish limits on the power that government may exercise over minorities and individuals. His work is more relevant now than ever.

While "government of the people" is an ideal to be aspired to, Mill argues that such an ideal is often not the case in fact. He argues that those exerting the power of the government -elected officials, bureaucrats, the judiciary -often develop their own interests. They are sometimes influenced by those constituencies in ways that are at odds with the interests and liberties of individuals or other groups.

Mill makes no distinction between a tyranny of one and a tyranny of many. A tyrannical majority running roughshod over the rights of individuals and minorities is no less a tyrant because it is a majority, because it is elected, or because it is elected by a majority.

While society may not tolerate criminal behavior, for example, society may not legitimately interfere with or suppress all non-conforming behaviors indiscriminately or because a majority may not approve. What then are the powers that society may legitimately exercise over the individual? Mill answers:

"The only purpose for which power can be rightly exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others."

-J.S. Mill, On Liberty

James Madison -called the "Father of the Constitution" -may have anticipated Mill's ideas in his draft of the Bill of Rights -the first ten amendments to the Constitution. Implicit in the Bill of Rights is the recognition that the power of the state is a blunt instrument. Abused, it can oppress and repress individuals and minority groups alike. The Bill of Rights addresses this issue by guaranteeing "due process of law", limiting state power over individuals and groups, guaranteeing that groups and individuals may speak freely, worship freely.

The Fourth Amendment specifically is a promise that our government made to us in its very founding:

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

-Fourth Amendment, Bill of Rights, U.S. Constitution

Let's make something abundantly clear: there are no "inherent powers", "Implicit" authorizations" that would, in any way, overturn, limit, or repeal the Fourth Amendment. Many politicians are not only wrong about that, they may have deliberately lied about it. Moreover, Congress may not overrule the Fourth Amendment with statutory law. Constitutional Law is supreme and provisions in the Bill of Right are valid until amended as set out in the Constitution itself. Widespread domestic surveillance is illegal whatever is done by Congress ex post facto -and until the Constitution is amended, it will remain illegal. At last, ex post facto laws, themselves, are expressly forbidden by the Constitution.

Mill is all the more remarkable for his insight into issues that remain contemporary. In every literate criticism of "special interest groups", PAC's, the gun lobby, the tobacco lobby, the Military/Industrial Complex, one sees the lasting influence of John Mill.

On Liberty is essential reading for anyone interested in law, the principles of government, political science, political philosophy, indeed, freedom itself. It is also essential reading for anyone interested in learning about the intellectual underpinnings of Anglo-American civil liberties.
21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
Libertarian and useful writings. Feb. 28 2005
By Peter Reeve - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The terms 'liberal' and 'socialist' have undergone many changes in meaning over the past one and a half centuries. By the definitions of his own day, Mill was certainly the former and arguably the latter. By today's definitions, he would be neither. For his time, he was a remarkably progressive, even radical, thinker. He was, for example, an ardent advocate of women's rights. On the other hand, his paternalistic attitude toward developing societies is typical of his age.

The basic principles of both liberty and ethics that Mill propounds have been much criticized. It is easy to list exceptions, provisos and limitations to them, but they relate to extremely complex and intractable problems, and with such issues it is necessary to start with greatly simplified models, on which you can build. As first approximations, Mill's principles are actually quite good. That they are not the last words on the subjects should not distress us. Nothing ever will be. Only bigots arrive at final, absolute answers.

Mill's writing style oscillates between great (sometimes sublime) eloquence, and long, tortuous meanderings. He is often reluctant to finish a sentence and mortally afraid of relinquishing a paragraph. Some parts have to be carefully reread to make sense of all the subordinate clauses. But when he is good, he is very good. The section on free speech is classic.

For a contrasting contemporary view of social justice, the Communist Manifesto is useful. Like these two essays, it is relatively short and readable.

In Utilitarianism, Mill is building on the work of Jeremy Bentham, who in turn was part of a tradition that can be traced back to ancient Greece and the philosopher Epicurus. So if you are looking to achieve a more complete picture, you may want to read a little about those two thinkers first.

The Bantam edition conveniently comprises Mill's two most famous works and is compact and cheap, but the introduction by Alan Dershowitz is appallingly bad. It in no way illuminates the text and serves only as a vehicle for Dershowitz's own prejudices. So if you just want to read the texts, get the Bantam edition, but if you would like useful editorial contributions, look elsewhere.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
An excellent treatise. March 19 2000
By David C. Rodgers - Published on
Format: Paperback
This book deserves to be studied closely; I cannot praise too highly the man or his work. As Mill writes in his AUTOBIOGRAPHY, his education under his philosopher father James was perhaps the most tortuous experience imaginable for a young child, leaving the adolescent John with the impression that he was something of a facsimile of his father. Nevertheless, after much difficulty in assimilating what he was taught and defining who he was, the adult Mill respectfully stepped out from under his father's shadow and went on to make staggering intellectual contributions of his own. In this book, ON LIBERTY, Mill tackles the problem of "the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual." With some reflection, it can be seen how important this question is, for its implications touch every part of our social and private lives. Unfortunately, few recognize its importance, and the question is more often decided by unthinking custom or self-interest than reason. With scrupulous rigor, and impeccable intellectual honesty, Mill asserts the absolute necessity of dissenting opinions, of diversity in all things, and the dangers of concentrated power, be it in the form of a dictator or a democratic majority. The problems treated in this short book are just as relevant today as they were in Mill's time. Perennial political issues such as education reform, gun control, abortion, freedom of speech, taxation, the role of government, etc., are addressed either directly or indirectly; the book abounds with other, more personal, lessons on life as well, not the least of which was later encapsulated by Wittgenstein as: "If you want to improve the world, improve yourself."
27 of 35 people found the following review helpful
This Penguin Version is Excellent July 20 2006
By Sejanus - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
America's defense department should take some of the billions spent on the stealth bomber or the B1 and spend it to make Arabic and Farsi translations of this book in the hundreds of thousands. We could pack the bomb bays of a squadron of stealth bombers with the translations and carpet the cities of Muslim countries with this treatise on freedom. This is The Book, folks. You cannot read this little book without it changing your life. It is an extended argument about freedom, about true morality, about freeing your mind, about untrammeling the possibility of peace and prosperity in the world. This is the book that lays out the path for treating other human beings with respect and opening the way toward progress in any and all societies. For the discussion of the "harm to others" principle alone, this book merits the world's attention and praise.

Perhaps the most famous aspect of Mill's extended argument about liberty is his discussion of the "tyranny of the majority." His argument grows from the long history of religious persecution suffered throughout Europe that led to book bans, bigotry, and even torture and burning at the stake for people who did not conform to the majority superstition, namely the dominant form of Christianity wherever one lived. Mill lived in a time when even the staid and relatively moderate views of the English Church forced people to conform their lives or face public humiliation and financial ruin, and sometimes lynching. The resulting dynamic was that free thought was thus discouraged and progress thwarted. Mill's point is that in such a psychological milieu, people are not mentally free to seek a better way. They are rather trammeled to superstition and the concomitant tyranny of the majority, the majority being emotionally dependent and mentally ham-strung by religion and religious fears and prejudices.

America today is witnessing the truth of this dynamic through the virulent and underhanded tactics of the fundamentalist X-tian political right who seek to thwart medical research and impose a legislated theocracy in parts of the country. The effort to put dark-age arguments about "intelligent design" on a scientific par with evolutionary theory is a perfect and alarming example. Mill's argument in On Liberty was prescient in demonstrating what can happen when people allow religion to influence political life. The brand of literalist religion we see in America has been the bane of societies throughout history and respresents a true pragmatic evil on a scale far worse than any imagined "Satanic" sinfulness that Christians associate with popular and secular humanism. Fundamentalist religion, especially in the forms of Christian and Muslim extremism, is a societal cancer when viewed through the lense of reason and of Mill's enlightened utilitarianism. No society that allows religion to make in-roads to politics can flourish. Proof is in the failed Middle East, where no country can manage to pull its people out of poverty and squalor in spite of sitting on the world's richest oil reserves. Mill's argument in this small book speaks volumes about why Muslim countries are doomed to failure and why the Christian right in America (the blood cousins of Islamic radicals) represent the biggest and most un-American evil in our country's history. If America represents freedom, there can be no room for the "ten commandments" in the county court house.

Highly recommended as a must read for everyone.