Experiments In Living and Law

There is a longstanding tension within the broad sweep of liberal philosophy which has been characterized as "rationalism" versus "pluralism." This terminology obscures the issue somewhat by focusing on the downstream political manifestations of upstream differences in epistemology; where one falls on the rationalist-pluralist axis correlates very highly with the extent of one's optimism or skepticism toward the human capacity for knowledge.[1]

J.S. Mill stood with one foot firmly planted in both camps at the political level; not coincidentally, this is reflected in his epistemological stance as well. Mill's A System of Logic is a work of thoroughgoing empriricist philosophy, which rejects Cartesian rationalism but maintains an underlying Victorian optimism toward human rationality and the ability of inductive methods to reveal the truth. For Mill, in potitics as in science, the proof is in the pudding and there's no substitute for experimental evidence. Hence in Chapter III of On Liberty, Mill writes:

That mankind are not infallible; that their truths, for the most part, are only half-truths; that unity of opinion, unless resulting from the fullest and freest comparison of opposite opinions, is not desirable, and diversity not an evil, but a good, until mankind are much more capable than at present of recognizing all sides of the truth, are principles applicable to men's modes of action, not less than to their opinions. As it is useful that while mankind are imperfect there should be different opinions, so is it that there should be different experiments of living; that free scope should be given to varieties of character, short of injury to others; and that the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically, when any one thinks fit to try them.

Mill was skeptical enough to recognize that what constitutes the good life is far from obvious, and that the most benefit is likely to arise from allowing individuals to beat their own paths in a multitude of directions and observing the results of their experiences.[2] His "experiments in living" elegantly captures the compelling consequentialist rationale for libertarian social policies, and has subsequently been echoed by later thinkers such as Hayek. The value of Mill's contribution to classical liberal thought is not to be understated.

However, in many ways Mill did not apply his own reasoning on this point broadly or consistently enough. It seems not to have seriously occurred to him (in print, at least) to apply this same experimental pluralism to the realm of political order itself. Surely the fallibilism he applies at the level of individual experience should apply just as well at a higher scale.

The original founding philosophy of the United States can be considered a pre-emptive extension of Mill's pluralism dating long before he formulated it; the notion of smaller political units being left free to shape their own laws, within the constraints of a few basic liberal principles, is a loose analogue of Mill's principle of leaving individuals to pursue their own goals, subject to the constraint of not harming others. By letting the government of Massacheussetts pass laws very different from those of Texas, we have the advantage of learning from many experiments in governing rather than attempting the unwise task of deducing from our armchairs what would be the best policy for the entire country.

Of course, the analogy is imperfect: Mill's argument works in a large part because individuals, as a rule, tend to internalize the consequences of their actions in their personal lives. Individuals bear the cost of their experiments, but government experiments as a rule have the character of public goods (or bads, as the case may be) -- costs and benefits are not very strongly linked to the same sets of people. This results, predictably, in major infficiencies in the market for laws which seems to get worse as the scale and scope of government jurisdiction increases.

Following this pluralistic line of thought even further, then, it would seem even better to craft institutions that more fully internalize the costs and benefits of legal experiments, and allow for even more diverse experimentations. One way of moving in this direction is by breaking the current states up into smaller chunks and delegating lawmaking to as local a level as possible. A more complete solution, however, is polycentric law -- the elimination of geographical monopolies on law, enabling even greater and more vibrant experimentation through competition on an open market.

Mill was not the first or the last liberal theorist to stress the importance of pluralism, but he provided what seems unquestionably to be the most influential argument for it and grounded it in thoroughly empiricist and utilitarian sensibilities. Although Mill himself may not have carried his own argument far enough, he pointed the way forward; this alone is enough to warrant him a place of honour in the canon of liberal thought.

1It also correlates strongly with orientation toward what Thomas Sowell calls the "constrained" and "unconstrained" visions of human nature.

2Cf. Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, who argues that because people are not very good at predicting their own future happiness, the best strategy is to observe those who've had similar experiences. Mill was there first.

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