Unlike modern libertarians, Mill believed the prime threat to freedom in a democratic country is not the nanny state but what he called the “despotism of society.” He argued that in countries like Britain and the U.S. the tyranny of the majority and the intolerance of powerful religious and ideological minorities constitute the real threats to individual liberty. For example, by questioning the patriotism of dissenters, vocal minorities can effectively kill off healthy discussion of policy alternatives. Because Mill believed that no one is ever either all right or all wrong, he saw the function of liberty as guaranteeing that all perspectives could be aired so that the inevitable shortcomings of any policy were more likely to be identified.
What most distinguishes Mill from other great minds of his time is that, in hindsight, he turns out to have been on the right side of history with respect to almost every significant issue he addressed. He was a forceful advocate of free markets and private business ownership (at the same time that Karl Marx was reaching quite the opposite conclusions). Mill’s favorite cause was universal, compulsory education, and he was the first to advocate a school financing system that we would call vouchers. He was a leader of the anti-slavery movement and one of the most vocal British advocates of the Union cause during the American Civil War. He fought for free speech and the right of assembly (Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park is his lasting legacy). He was an early environmentalist, calling for a tax on coal to reduce its consumption and for accessible green spaces. He advocated birth control, fought for Irish home rule, sought a ban on smoking in public places, and legislated to prevent fraud in voting. Most significantly, he worked ceaselessly to expand the right to vote to the British middle and working classes — and not just to those of the male persuasion.
Not surprisingly, almost all of Mill’s views were unpopular among the landed aristocrats who dominated British politics at the time, but none of his causes irked them more than his ceaseless advocacy of the rights of women. If British feminism can be said to have had many mothers (foremost of whom was Harriet Taylor), it had only one father: J.S. Mill. His uncompromising stand that women were entitled to full equality in political affairs, in workplaces, and in the home was viewed as dangerously extremist in an era when women were denied the right to vote and hold office, could work only as domestic servants, and were viewed as mere legal wards of their husbands (in most cases, wives couldn’t own property in their own names). Mill’s views about women were the logical extension of his fundamental philosophical belief that the good life consists of continual learning and growth. He argued that people develop character through their habits — for example, through participating in political, community, and workplace activities. Because women were manifestly denied the opportunity for such development, he felt they were denied their basic humanity.
Moreover, he believed that everyone should be able to develop that character in whatever manner each saw fit. He didn’t believe the state could, or should, make people happy; instead, he argued that the proper role of government was to free people from the involuntary constraints that prevented those who wished to do so from developing their character to the fullest. At the same time, Mill balanced his libertarianism with an equal measure of communitarian responsibility. He believed that we are not isolated islands unto ourselves but, instead, members of moral communities. For example, to build character among the working classes, he believed that established companies ultimately should be owned by their employees (he advocated that a financing system similar to today’s employee stock ownership plans be put in place after the deaths of founding entrepreneurs). He reasoned that workers who were also owners would behave more responsibly and productively than if they were mere hired hands, to the benefit of society and the economy. They would have the opportunity to grow as responsible individuals and, as a fillip, the inequities of capitalism (which led Marx to call for revolution) would be addressed through peaceful reform as every man and woman became a capitalist.