Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Tag: JSMill

The political marketplace

By now most of you have seen this hard-hitting speech by Member of the European Parliament Backbencher & Conservative Daniel Hannan.

As speeches go, it’s a nice effort, clear and concise, and whilst relying a little too heavily on common instead of economics sense it makes a few good points. It’s interesting therefore to see Hannan’s own reaction to the video going viral:

When I woke up this morning, my phone was clogged with texts, my email inbox with messages. Overnight, the YouTube clip of my remarks had attracted over 36,000 hits. By today, it was the most watched video in Britain…..Breaking the press monopoly is one thing. But the internet has also broken the political monopoly. Ten or even five years ago, when the Minister for Widgets put out a press release, the mere fact of his position guaranteed a measure of coverage. Nowadays, a politician must compel attention by virtue of what he is saying, not his position.

It’s all a bit unsettling for professional journalists and politicians. But it’s good news for libertarians of every stripe. Lefties have always relied on control, as much of information as of physical resources. Such control is no longer technically feasible.

I want to raise two contradictory points here, so as to really assess what is going on. First, politicians have always known that bold or controversial claims always attract far more attention, and this is what compels journalists to listen to them, and secondly, this is not necessarily a good thing.

To the first: Ever since there have been politicians, the need to say something that captures the ear and quickens the pulse of your listener has been the politicians basic requirement. Whilst legislators may themselves appoint Solon’s to fix problems, and wise elder statesmen for Head of State roles, to get into the legislature itself you need to be bold. Some like Winston Churchill just seemed to attract controversy wherever they went in life, and combined this with actual administrative and parliamentary ability. Some, develop it over time, and through sheer determination force the media to pay them attention such as former PM John Howard. And some are fools who say the first thing that pops into their head, or deliberately make outrageous claims so as to gain attention. Such as Pauline Hanson.
In short, this is not a new phenomena. I’ve been reading David Day’s biography of Andrew Fisher recently (5th Prime Minister of Australia), and time and again the mild mannered, careful and cautious Fisher had to either get a running mate who could attract attention, effectively run his own left wing paper so as to be heard, or spend most of his waking hours visiting communities so as to be head. He proved a very capable parliamentarian, and all who met him were impressed by his talents, yet as a politician he struggled in large part due to his own cautious temperament. Something that proved of great virtue when Prime Minister. A further example. Whilst probably not cut out for the Parliamentary life, and certainly not adverse to saying controversial things(letting women vote for instance), John Stuart Mill, Englands greatest ever philosopher, barely won one term. Mill’s difficulty in public stemmed in part because he did not deign to be controversial on the stump, and preferred to discuss rather than rant, and sometimes even grant the point of his opponents, so as to make his own position clearer. Voters didn’t much like this and soon kicked him out. In short, the need for politicians to say something noticeable over something sensible is as old as the profession. And whilst the argument can be made that the standard of debate and political literacy (ie references to philosophy or literature) has surely dropped, it never was that high in the first place.

So when Hannan says that finally a politician must “compel by virtue of what he is saying”, he’s not saying anything particularly new. And whilst he uses the word “virtue”, controversy, outrageousness, and deliberate hyperbole all seem a better fit. Hannan is not the first, nor the wisest to criticise Browns many economic failings, but because he was concise and willing to dip a bit into hyperbole it got attention.

Now, to the second point: is this a good thing or not? Well yes and no. The internet is clearly a wonderfully democratising tool, of which this blog is evidence. Yet as we’ve seen -and again I want to stress how over the top politics and its coverage has always been- and by adding a million new voices, both online, and now elected officials around the globe (I’m an Australian, talking about a British Member of a European Parliament, who I was first linked to by a man living in America), then the overall level at which you have to speak has to keep rising and rising. In short, I fear we are slowly drowning out the more sober and softly spoken voices, in favour of the brash and the bold. Cable TV is the all too easy example of this, Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh do more to influence the political thought of Americans today than all the University Professors in the country combined. In large part, that is their own fault, and our own fault. There are no excuses for an inability to communicate. But whilst democratising, this does run the risk of debasing just as much.

For this reason, as strong as my democratic spirits are, I dont see a justification for having a popularly elected president for Australia’s republic, over someone chosen by 2/3rds of the House of Representatives. Afterall, who would the public pick, but someone who has made their name entirely outside the field of politics. Anyone who has spent their lives learning & talking about political issues necessary for a head of state role, is either too unknown (from Uni Professors to elder Community figures like Major Michael General Jeffery or Quentin Bryce) or too controversial (Hawke, Keating, Howard). Instead it would be former sports stars, or perhaps a TV news reader or former actor. In other words, the greater the number of voices involved in the decision, the more likely someone entirely unqualified will take attention and hence the position.

So Hannan is right to welcome in the challenge to the stuffy control that the political media still exercises over the political process. I can’t count how many times I’ve ranted to journalist friends at the herd like nature of the press gallery for following the same story and refusing to let new voices in. As a liberal who pushes issues outside the mainstream approval such as legalising Marijuana, Homosexual Marriage, and severely cutting down on our middle class welfare state, I know all too well the impossibility of getting such views heard.

But there isn’t always a correlation between ability to say something that will get noticed, and ability to actually govern. Winning elections is a very different skill from governing well, as George W. Bush proved eloquently. So whilst I think it’s great that Hannan’s speech got noticed, lets neither convince ourselves this is a new era of politics, nor that it is a change without its own associated problems and risks.

(I was going to put in the self-pittying point that such a conclusion is neither bold nor controversial so wont be heard, but what’s the point as no one will read that either :P)

The inspiration for this blog

Rather than just recounting the details of my “About” page, I thought i’d post an article I wrote a few years back that is the real inspiration for my blog and academic career:

 

150 years ago this year John Stuart Mill published ‘On Liberty’. To my mind, no finer work of english language has been written, not just for its clarity and force of language, but the importance of its cause.

The point and purpose of Mills classic essay ‘On Liberty’ is to advance one simple principle

“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 a sufficient warrant.”

These words, when I first read them as a disillusioned 20-something rang out to me like no other piece of literature, film, philosophy or writing ever has. Mill in two short sentences lays out the absolute limits of societies hold over the individual, in a way that can be applied in each case and circumstance as calculatingly and rationally as Mills Utilitarian ethics demands.

But for me, whilst there is such great intellectual resonance in this phrase, and however quickly it formed a key principle on which I base my own political philosophy, it was not simply the intellectual, but the emotive which makes this work stand out for me above all else. 

Mill’s own education and formative years are unlikely to be matched by anyone of contemporary eras, and nor should it be. He was reading Plato in the original Greek by the time he turned seven, Latin commentaries on the Roman Republic at eight, and devising his own logic systems in response to Aristotle at twelve. Mills education by his fathers hand was designed for the express purpose of turning him into the chief proponent of the system of Utilitarian ethics, summed up blandly as ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’. 

Mill suffered for these trials, and by age 20 he experienced a mental breakdown and deep depression for over 6 months. This black spell only began to abate when he turned to literature and poetry and found in them the non-purely rational and intellectual demands and rigors as had been so harshly forced upon him by his father’s expectations. 

I first encountered JS Mill when I was of a similar age, though a very different background. I had cruised through school, convinced my schools name and status would entitle me to a place in university, and when I found myself only able to scrape into the local TAFE I had to wonder at my choices. I attempted to overcome this through my own program of study, beginning with the man to whom all western philosophy is mere footnotes, Plato. (Whitehead in Russell 2004)

But in Plato, however great my admiration for his thought, language and ability to challenge common dogma and encourage philosophical inquiry, I found a man whose totalitarian system of political organisation I began to loathe. Further pursuits into Philosophy, notably Hegel, Kant and Sartre seemed similarly torturous, either for their repulsive ideas or turgid language. 

I first read Mill sitting on the bus one evening on my way home, and when I first came across that passage ‘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’ I was dumfounded.
Mill for the first time in my education seemed someone who could not just write but express the very notions and principles that were beginning to form within my own conscious. I found in Mill not just a realization that participation within the great political and philosophical debates was possible, but that there were natural allies and reasonable, and sensible men involved in these to whom I could look for inspiration and agreement. Finally I could escape having to grit my teeth as I read Plato or Aristotle for the purpose of improving my mind, all the while detesting most of what they advocated.

Mill’s purpose in the essay is to stress the importance of individual liberty, not simply from the tyrannous king, but also from the majority when acting as a mob. In the face of those who argue we must censor thought or discussion, he recognizes that it is as wrong for one man to stop all humanity thinking or advocating a certain position, as it is for all humanity to stop just one man. Likewise, those who are possessed of the truth are as much robbed when discredited and heretical views are censored, -for they lose the ability to test and prove their own beliefs-, as those who actually holds such views are damaged by this censorship.

Mills individualism is a classical individualism. He does not see man, as Thomas Hobbes or John Locke might, once free and now in the chains of the state (to which all good liberals and individualists must seek to hold back its omnipresence), but rather his individualism, and liberalism is a search for development, and the pursuit of character.

Though I was only dimly aware of it at first, each time I re-read On Liberty, Mill’s declaration of the supreme sovereignty of the individual, what resonates is not just the demand for personal freedom as self-protection, but a clarion call for self-development.

Mill advocated the supreme liberty of the individual not according to some abstract ‘natural right’ handed down by god or nature, and never utters the words ‘human rights’ but instead seeks that we may use freedom to develop our utmost in character and virtue. This Mill argues is the true aim of human freedom and purpose.

As Mill writes in an often ignored passage in ‘On Liberty’ 

“the cultivation of an ideal nobleness of will and conduct, should be to human beings an end, to which the specific pursuit either of their own happiness or of that of others (except so far as included in that idea) should, in any case of conflict give way.”

Mill does not seek liberty simply for its own sake, but according to his utilitarian principles so that we may for our own sake become who we truly are. Mill does not seek to hector or demand we follow his moral or personal as a local priest might, but instead demands the state guarantee us the freedom to take real responsibility for our own passage in life and use of that freedom.

For a disillusioned young man, John Stuart Mill’s work ‘On Liberty’ spoke to me of three great themes. One was recognition that there were great and sensible philosophical minds I could honestly engage with, and find some common agreement. And If I could agree, I reasoned, I could surpass. I also found in Mills simple principle the most honest and forthright principle for the organisation of the states laws that has been before or since been presented. 

And finally, I found in the space and freedom he offers via his principle, an opportunity, and a calling to take responsibility for the use of that freedom. The slave is never answerable for his actions, only the free man is. That is the burden and the joy of freedom. And for Mill, it was the development of that character and virtue as would guide us in our choices to which individuals must turn their focus and thought. 

Mill’s work gave me reassurance I could understand and argue at this level, it gave me opportunity, it offered clarity and common sense, and perhaps most importantly it demanded I take responsibility for my choices from that moment forth. That I am where I am today, PhD student, Lecturer, blogger, is in large part due to the influence of John Stuart Mill and his essay ‘On Liberty’.

p.s – I chose the image for this post because it shows Harriet Mill, his beloved wife, and too whom ‘On Liberty’ is dedicated and is her proper memorial. Also because the more traditional image of Millas the dour faced victorian doesn’t do justice to the passion of the man in both his writing and life.