J.S. Mill and the Case for Liberal Intervention<sup>1</sup>

Joe Miller is a professor of philosophy at University of North Carolina at Pembroke. He maintains a blog at Bellum et Mores.

Inspired by Rick’s application of Mill to contemporary controversies, I’d like to examine a somewhat neglected, though these days quite relevant, aspect of Mill’s writings, namely, his case for colonialism. Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not at all interested in defending Mill’s account of colonialism. And I realize the oddity of defending the idea of armed humanitarian intervention in this particular forum, particularly when much of my discussion is going to focus on intervention in failed states. What I am going to argue is that Mill’s arguments for colonialism can be usefully resuscitated as a guide for liberal intervention in states that have utterly failed, not in the anarcho-capitalism-private-institutions-have-replaced-the-state David Friedman kind of way, but rather in the people-are-butchering-each-other-in-the-streets Hobbesian kind of way.

As a number of posts have already mentioned, Mill’s Harm Principle famously prohibits the state from interfering with self-regarding actions. Less well known is that in 1859 (the year which saw the publication of On Liberty), Mill also wrote a short essay entitled “A Few Words on Non-Intervention.” There Mill applies the Harm Principle to international relations, arguing that the citizens of a nation cannot be forced to be free, and that liberty can flourish only where people “are willing to brave labour and danger for their liberation.” Mill argues that only those who are capable of seizing liberty for themselves are ready for free institutions; history has shown that those who are given freedom by outsiders rarely keep that freedom for long. Thus, for Mill, intervention in the internal affairs of despotic nations is almost always prohibited.

But, as with OL, what Mill gives with one hand, he takes away with the other. Mill’s claims about non-intervention are not meant to apply to those he terms “barbarians.” (Mill, 1859a: 408-9). Tellingly, Mill makes a similar move in On Liberty, claiming there that the harm principle “is meant to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties.” For Mill, nations have sovereignty by virtue of the fact that nations are collections of individuals. Since individual liberty is to be protected, for better or for worse, state sovereignty should likewise be protected. But Mill holds that some individuals, because of their particular circumstances, are not properly governed by the harm principle. Given this commitment, it is hardly surprising that Mill would also deny sovereignty to a state composed of individuals to whom the harm principle does not apply. Barbarians, for Mill, “have no rights as a nation, except a right to such treatment as may, at the earliest possible period,” fit them for becoming one (A Few Words).

Mill’s own account of who counts as a barbarian is plagued by a number of racist assumptions that were not uncommon in Mill’s social circles. For Mill, northern Europeans (along with their colonies and former colonies) were the pinnacle of civilization with societies becoming steadily more barbaric as one moved south and east. I’ve no desire whatsoever to defend Mill’s racism. What I propose is that we consider anew Mill’s distinction between ‘barbarian’ and ‘civilized’ nations. Although we are right to be wary of the colonialist implications of Mill’s choice of terms, the distinction that those terms represent is one that does have some plausibility. Mill’s error lies in his conflating ‘civilized’ with Europeans and ‘barbarians’ with pretty much everyone else. But Mill’s misuse of his labels is not in itself reason for rejecting the labels.

In an early essay entitled “Civilization,” Mill writes

In savage life there is little or no law, or administration of justice; no systematic employment of the collective strength of society, to protect individuals against injury from one another; every one trusts to his own strength or cunning, and where that fails, he is without resource. We accordingly call a people civilized, where the arrangements of society, for protecting the persons and property of its members, are sufficiently perfect to maintain peace among them; i.e. to induce the bulk of the community to rely for their security mainly upon the social arrangements, and renounce for the most part, and in ordinary circumstances, the vindication of their interests (whether in the way of aggression or of defense) by their individual strength or courage

What I find remarkable is the extent to which Mill’s language prefigures the contemporary language of failed states. Robert Rotberg, for example, describes failed states as “incapable of projecting power and asserting authority within their own borders, leaving their territories governmentally empty.” Rotberg goes on to offer an extended account of failed states. Economically, such states suffer severe shortages leading to government cutbacks in basic human services. Politically, leaders “subvert prevailing democratic norms, coerce legislatures and bureaucracies into subservience, strangle judicial independence, block civil society, and gain control over security and defense forces,” leading to systematic disenfranchisement and the advantaging of certain privileged tribes, religions or ethnic groups. As these strands converge, states offer fewer services, the people become poorer, and even basic security breaks down.

I’m not going to attempt a defense of statism here, not in this audience. What I will say is that the sorts of conditions that obtain in a failed state are a far cry from polycentric law or from Nozickian minarchy. The conditions necessary for liberty to flourish cannot be created out of a vacuum, an insight which is captured by Mill’s claims about the proper scope of the Harm Principle and the limits of his principle of non-intervention. If Mill is right, then, that “barbarians” (or failed states, to use less inflammatory language) really are not yet fit for self-governance, then we have at least some prima facie justification for intervention in such states. Mill thus argues that nations are justified in intervening in the affairs of “barbarian” states for the purpose of establishing liberal institutions. For Mill, that intervention will be justified for as long (but only as long) as it takes to fit the people of that state for self-governance.

Of course one might object that Mill’s decision to establish liberal institutions really is just another instance of Enlightenment assumptions that Westerners have latched on to some universal truths. To this I respond, “Well, yes.” But one need not defend the Enlightenment or its commitment to objective truth to make out the case for liberal intervention. I think that one can make a pragmatic argument that grounds the value of liberalism in its usefulness as an organizing principle for societies. That usefulness rests on the fact that that, of the various political systems available to us, liberalism is the most promising system for constructing a society that is at least minimally tolerable for its members, particularly in situations in which that membership is diverse. Liberalism, in other words, provides the best hope that diverse communities will settle upon some governing system that every member of the society will find to be minimally tolerable.

Clearly a failed state will not be minimally tolerable, and failed states, I have argued, are candidates for limited colonialism (or intervention, to use the less loaded term). Obviously failed states do not, by definition, have a working indigenous government already in place; indeed, had the form of government previously in use in a failed state been truly viable for that state, it seems unlikely that the state would have failed in the first place. The very fact of state failure is good evidence that a different system of government is required. Since the only justification for colonialism is that the previous state completely failed, the function of colonialism should be the restoration of a state to self-determination as quickly as is consistent with insuring minimally tolerable conditions. Colonialists are then faced with the necessity of deciding what sort of basic structure to establish. Liberalism is hardly the only possibility at this point, but it is, I submit, the best of the available options.

In arguing that liberalism is the most effective way to achieve a minimally tolerable society, I hardly mean to imply that all (or even any) liberal societies are utopias; indeed, the world has seen its fair share of deeply flawed liberal societies. Nor am I claiming that a liberal state cannot fail; clearly it is a possibility, although I cannot think of an example that would count as a liberal failed state. Some failed states have been liberal states at some point, but most devolve into another system entirely before failing (often considerably before). Should liberal states begin to fail regularly, then obviously the rationale for imposing liberalism would fail with them. Moreover, liberal states should not be confused with democratic states. Pure democracy need not be even remotely liberal. A liberal state, as I have characterized liberalism, is one whose laws are generated by something approximating Mill’s harm principle. But as Mill himself notes, democracy is often in tension with liberalism, hence Mill’s concerns in On Liberty with the tyranny of the majority. A majority that is sufficiently large and sufficiently homogenous may very well engage in practices that brutally repress minorities. Constitutional democracies attempt to limit this feature by installing limits on democratic behavior, but insofar as constitutions can be amended, there is still no in principle reason to think that democracies must also be liberal states. It is likely true that all liberal states must be democracies; the converse does not hold. Recent elections in Iraq may well prove to bear this claim out; it is entirely conceivable that democratic elections may serve only to produce theocratic rule.

I am not claiming that liberalism is inherently superior to other sorts of political arrangements, nor am I claiming that liberalism follows inevitably from universal truths about human nature and the intrinsic importance of freedom. Indeed, I am not even arguing that only liberalism is capable of producing states that are minimally tolerable. My claim is only that liberalism is much more likely to produce such a state of affairs than is any other currently available system of government. History shows that liberal states are far less likely than non-liberal states to engage in policies that result in living conditions that are not at least minimally tolerable for all citizens. My defense of liberalism rests purely on pragmatic empirical grounds. A colonial power (call it a trusteeship or a protectorate, the effect is the same) searching for some system of government to replace the previous failed system should choose liberalism based purely upon its track record of success in producing minimally tolerable conditions more often than any of its competitors.

In sum, then, Mill’s arguments for British colonialism still offer some practical guidance for us today. We are right to reject many of Mill’s assumptions about the status of non-European cultures and we may well be right in rejecting, along with Mill’s critics, the assumption of a fixed human nature. Nonetheless, Mill’s “barbarians” do actually have some real-world cognates; what we now call “failed states” match Mill’s description closely. Similarly, we find in Mill a justification for intervention in such states; provided that our aim is the establishment of a society that is minimally tolerable for its citizens as quickly as is feasible, ‘civilized’ (i.e., successful) states may intervene in the affairs of ‘uncivilized’ (or failed) states. For all its bad press, Mill’s colonialism, stripped of its assumptions about culture and human nature, might well serve a useful function still. Perhaps Mill is right that in certain limited circumstances, there is justification for forcing people to be free.

fn1. Portions of this paper have appeared under the title, “Forced to Be Free: Rethinking J.S. Mill and Intervention,” Politics and Ethics Review 1.2: 119-138.

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I'm not sure forcing

I'm not sure forcing institutions on people who don't understand or care about them is going to have the effect of making them more free.
My example is Iraq, where as soon as we get rid of their dictator and give them constitutional power to a variety of groups that want to turn the country into a theocracy much like Iran. Thats not to say that there aren't liberal iraqis, but they definatly seem to be in a small minority. Maybe if the US controls Iraq for the next 20 years a new generation might pop up thats in favor of more liberty than their parents are, but they could just as easily reflexively hate the American Oppressors.

I'm also not sure that the japanese occupation is a great example of forcing people to be free, because in my understanding japan around the turn of the century was a fairly liberal place. The following generation tended to be much more nationalistic and pro-statist, but a large majority of this generation died in the war. In the light of the failure of aggressive nationalistic policy it was probably fairly easy to adopt liberal institutions. Keep in mind my understanding of japanese history is almost entirely based on anime and haruki murakami books, so I could be vastly wrong.

I think the only case where I would feel good about a liberal intervention is where there seemed to be great popular support for a democratic revolution. If thousands of people are demonstrating in the streets for reform and being suppressed it would probably be acceptable to me for the US to help push the government over and prevent the country from sliding into civil war, or french style mass executions.

In my mind, a good liberal foreign policy would be a more subversive one. instead of forcing people to be free, we could show them what freedom is to the point where they want it. Then maybe we can consider helping them institute those freedoms in their own country.

Dain, You're right that,


You're right that, properly speaking, we can't force someone to be free. What we can do, however, is force people to set up institutions that, once in place, provide the necessary framework for allowing citizens to become free. I'm thinking here about, say, what the British did (clumsily, I'll be the first to admit) in India or what the U.S. did in Japan (Germany doesn't really count since it had had most of those institutions in place prior to the Nazis).

As for the NAP, well, as I mentioned above, Mill thinks that things like the NAP (or the Harm Principle in his case) are meant to apply only to people who are already fit for liberty. So Mill would, I think, simply say, "Yes, you're right; this would violate the NAP...if the NAP actually applied in this case. Since the NAP does not apply here, there is no real violation."

Wow. You can argue for


You can argue for forcing people to do an assortment of things, but don't, in the same breath, regard these coercive activities as making said people "free". Definitionally it's impossible.

As I was reading the post I thought "Well, this sounds all well and good, but how could it possibly manifest itself in the real world without violating the NAP?" Your last sentence verified that it can't.

What counts as a failed state? A state that has been unable to achieve law and order? Iraq did that, before the U.S. invasion. So perhaps one can offer the example of Somalia, where the lack of a state has been, on every count except literacy, an advancement in the provision of "basic human services". And guess what, the U.S. is now subversively aiding secular rebels there.

Should we feel bad that the world's foremost imperial power is giving weapons and probably other, more intangible goodies to militias to aid in their slaughter? In the end, is it all worth it because J.S. Mill supports intervention into failed states ruled by "Barbians"? I would define barbarism just as much by aerial bombing as I would hacking with machetes. Or behind the scenes material and intellectual support to militias/armies, knowing full well their subsequent use of force upon innocents.

"What I am going to argue is

"What I am going to argue is that Mill’s arguments for colonialism can be usefully resuscitated as a guide for liberal intervention in states that have utterly failed, not in the anarcho-capitalism-private-institutions-have-replaced-the-state David Friedman kind of way, but rather in the people-are-butchering-each-other-in-the-streets Hobbesian kind of way."

I overlooked this part of Miller's article. I guess I should revoke my reference to Somalia. Though it is an official "failed state".

"You’re right that,

"You’re right that, properly speaking, we can’t force someone to be free. What we can do, however, is force people to set up institutions that, once in place, provide the necessary framework for allowing citizens to become free. I’m thinking here about, say, what the British did (clumsily, I’ll be the first to admit) in India or what the U.S. did in Japan (Germany doesn’t really count since it had had most of those institutions in place prior to the Nazis)."

What WE can do? Anyway.

So in other words, we CAN force someone to be free, only the freedom will take place further on down the line, and the obvious primary effects of violation of private property in one's body and resources will just have to be lived with. And if Democracy, the proclaimed goal of humanitarians-for-intervention is to remain an ideal with any substance, then the reality of overwhelming disdain for American occupation needs to be respected. Then again if Iraqis are not yet "fit to be free", then their democratic sentiments at this point in time mean nothing. Only in 50 years, when U.S. rule is firmly established (and crony capitalists have entrenched themselves) will Iraqis suddenly join the race of civilized men. Is this Mill's position? He's not all he's cracked up to be apparently. There's something awfully paternalistic about it all, something I would think libertarians would be against.

I'm not familiar enough with the history of the British in India, but to say that state agents from afar who declared India their property, and began to rule over millions of individuals without their consent was basically a good thing in the end, is to denounce the very essence of libertarianism. And as for Japan, come on. Two words: Nagasaki, Hiroshima. No amount of rationalizing can make that moral, and it laid the foundation for the subsequent (and continuing) occupation and military presence, with all it's local resentment and increasing costs. The beauracratic imperative to expand is just as applicable in the case of the military as it is with the Department of Health and Human Services.

Joe Miller, Japan is not a

Joe Miller,

Japan is not a very good example for your cause either.

Joe Miller, BTW, I would be

Joe Miller,

BTW, I would be interested to know how you square your thoughts with Hayek's theory of knowledge.

India's not a good example

India's not a good example either. The british may have brought liberal ideas to the subcontinent, but they weren't instituted until the british left.

My feeling is that we are

My feeling is that we are distorting the "market for liberty" every time we intervene in foreign countries, for these reasons:

1. Foreign intervention triggers reactionary nationalism and rallying around the government
2. Both military assaults and sanctions retard the economy of the target country, shrinking the middle class and business sector
3. Markets are smarter than governments about every thing, including the pace, timing and method of institution-building

Pre-globalization despots had an easy time holding onto power. But, it's a lot harder to be a despot in a globalized world, unless you've got do-gooder countries jumping the gun, and trying to fast-forward the evolution of a civilization.

I believe if we had unilateral trade liberalization starting decades ago, if western businesses had all along been free to try their luck with establishing non-coercive relationships with foreign private sectors and if western governments had left people around the globe alone to be their own agents of liberation and development, then we'd be looking at a much more free and wealthy world.

Actually, I take part of

Actually, I take part of that back. If the government was democratically elected, then we can fairly say that those who voted for it are getting what they deserve, and discount any benefits that may accrue to them as a result of intervention. But that still doesn't mean that it's inherently illegitimate to overthrow a democratically elected government.

For Mill, nations have

For Mill, nations have sovereignty by virtue of the fact that nations are collections of individuals. Since individual liberty is to be protected, for better or for worse, state sovereignty should likewise be protected.

The flaw in this reasoning is that states very often violate individual liberty. If state sovereignty derives from individual liberty, then individual liberty must take precedence, and it's perfectly legitimate, if it can be done at no cost, to overthrow even a moderately illiberal government to replace it with a more liberal one. It's not a matter of forcing people to be free---anyone who would be a slave can always find a way---but of forcing them to stop making others unfree.

In practice, of course, this can almost never be done at no cost. But the decision of whether or not to intervene should be based on a cost-benefit analysis that gives no weight to concerns such as national sovereignty or whether the illiberal government in question was democratically elected.

Ya know what, it's easy to

Ya know what, it's easy to criticize. I haven't written anything this long in sometime, so I'm one to talk (or type). Good essay.