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On Liberty

The iconic political text on how to balance authority, society and individuality

By John Stuart Mill
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  • Contains 9 key ideas
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On Liberty by John Stuart Mill

The iconic political text On Liberty delves into questions of how to balance authority, society and individuality. Combining abstract philosophical reasoning and concrete examples, On Liberty provides a thoughtful and vivid defense of personal liberty and self-determination that has made a huge impact on our liberal societies and political thought today.

Key idea 1 of 9

Democracy alone is no guarantee of personal liberty.

Throughout the course of history, democratic self-government was developed in order to end tyrannical rule. From ancient Greece to England, nearly every society has struggled with its share of tyrants. In fact, in the somewhat distant past, tyrannical and strong leaders were even viewed as an important tool for ensuring societal security and order.

Gradually however, it became obvious that these leaders, who had either inherited or conquered their lands, often acted against the interests of their subjects. More and more people began realizing that the power of political authorities should have limits. The democratic process is designed to achieve this check on political powers, with the key component being the people electing their officials.

Yet, democracy didn’t solve everything. Democratically elected officials can threaten personal liberty, just as tyrants do. Those who fought for democracy thought that, once the interests of political rulers and the people are identical, there would be no danger of tyranny. Not so!

Even when the government is elected democratically and acts responsibly, there is still a need to limit the power of society and government; democracy doesn’t equate to self-governance, but governance over every individual by the majority.

This majority can easily become tyrannical and therefore threaten personal liberty via social tyranny, i.e., the imposition of beliefs and ideals onto those who hold different views. Imagine, for example, that the majority adhered to a single religion. By using the democratic rule, the majority could use the force of the government to impose this belief on religious minorities.

Clearly, democracy alone cannot guarantee personal liberty. But there are some steps we can take to avoid the dangers of social tyranny.

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