Johann Hari: We've never needed John Stuart Mill more

Mill is our contemporary and our guide in a way that is true of very few philosophers
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The Independent Online

The British people find it hard to cherish their philosophers. In France, the recent centenary of Jean-Paul Sartre was virtually a state event, with massive newspaper pull-outs bearing his toad-face. But here, the bicentenary of the birth of one of our greatest philosophers - John Stuart Mill - is passing in the night.

This is tragic, because Mill is our contemporary and our guide in a way that is true of very few philosophers. If you read his Collected Works after scanning the day's newspapers, it is as if he is an unimaginably brilliant columnist, commenting on yesterday, today and tomorrow. Last week, after reading the front pages of right-wing newspapers shrieking at the distribution of contraceptives to teenagers, I read Mill's account of his spell in jail for distributing leaflets about contraception. Over the past year, as debates have blistered across Parliament about how best to circumscribe and stunt free speech, I kept returning to Mill's On Liberty, the greatest defence of free speech we have.

And on his relevance goes: some of the bravest Muslim women in the world, such as Fadela Amara and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, have been begging their sisters to read Mill's book On the Subjection of Women - one of the first great calls for gender equality - as a solution to the community's worst problem. His works represent a clarion Liberal Manifesto, and have endured far better than the Communist Manifesto or nationalist screeds. Mill's fights are our fights. Mill's words should be our words.

At its core, his philosophy boils down to two concepts: utilitarianism and liberty. In a world where people passively followed moral rules they believed had been handed down by God, Mill picked up and developed utilitarianism as an alternative - a philosophy as blazingly radical as it was easy to understand. The only way to measure the morality of an action is to ask if it increases the overall happiness of human beings and minimises their suffering. It was radically egalitarian - everybody's happiness is equal - and a radical affront to a world organised for the happiness of a few wealthy people under cover of "divine laws".

But he did not stop there. He went on to argue that the best way to maximise human happiness is to maximise human freedom. We must "give full freedom to human nature to expand itself in innumerable and conflicting directions". There is no single form of Happiness for us to discover; it is only by allowing innumerable "experiments in living" that people will find their own personal slivers of happiness. We must never ban each other from acting and speaking as we wish, unless we can show that clear, immediate and considerable harm to other people arises from it.

If we were to follow the broad contours of Mill's philosophy today, the world would look very different. Let's look first at economics. Currently, our society (and the planet) is structured and geared almost exclusively to maximise the gross national product. The bottom line runs like a thread through everything. But recently the brilliant utilitarian economist Richard Layard - with one eye on Mill - asked a challenging question: what if we tried to maximise the Gross National Happiness instead? Layard's starting point was a stark statistic: although Britain has doubled its national wealth since the 1950s, the evidence shows that we, the British people, are not any happier. Why? Like monkeys, humans are status-seeking primates: our happiness comes from knowing we are respected among our peers. So where chasms of inequality grow - where the rich are so far beyond us that we feel inescapably low-status - we become more miserable. We become less secure in our status and less able to trust each other. That's why our doubled wealth has not made us happier.

Mill not only understood this problem; he foresaw the solution. He called for an ongoing redistribution of wealth from rich to poor, and hefty inheritance tax to prevent the development of a high-status class of "the undeserving rich". This will surprise many people today who claim to be liberals and speak in Mill's name. I think of them as glibertarians, the people who think the only way to increase liberty and happiness is by reducing the state to a flaccid bystander. For them, every tax cut is an advance in freedom. This was not Mill's view. He knew that the amazing ability of markets to generate wealth was an essential tool, but he also knew markets had to be matched by an active state or they would in turn hinder human happiness in countless ways.

But it is not only our economics that Mill would reshape; it is our politics. We live in a time and in a country where the most basic freedom of all - to speak your mind - is being eroded. In the past year, a religious mob has closed down a play - written by a member of their own faith - and government ministers have rallied to the defence of the mob.

Mill said that silencing an opinion "robs the human race", because "if the opinion is right, we are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, we lose the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error". Yet there are revivified religious movements calling for just that.

There is a new mood in Britain that encouraging conflict is somehow bad. Mill knew that conflict is in fact the very basis of progress. It follows that offence to religion is not a regrettable lapse: it is a positive good. One of the reasons Christianity has lost its power to oppress and terrorise people in this country is because it has been so thoroughly poached and pilloried by comedians; who can hear the Christ story now without also hearing the line: "He's not the Messiah - he's a very naughty boy"? Islam will only lose its own terrible sting - applied mostly to Muslim women and gays - if it too is mocked mercilessly, including, yes, with cartoons of Mohamed. Moderate Muslims are keenly aware of this. That's why the most eloquent speakers at Saturday's rally for free speech in Trafalgar Square were practising Muslims, and why they received the biggest cheers.

Of course, Mill had some terrible flaws too. His liberalism was contaminated by the racism of Victorian culture. As an official in the East India Company, he defended the corporate rape and plunder of India - the creation of holocausts that killed as many as 29 million Indians - as "for their own good". But if a 200-year-old John Stuart Mill could see the country of his birth today, he would tell us - for starters - to redistribute far more wealth to the poor, to worry more about real happiness than about acquiring ever-greater baubles of wealth, and to protect our free speech against all-comers. As he lay dying, Mill muttered: "I have done my work." If only, John, if only.