I have been re-reading the classic work On Liberty published in 1859 by John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). In it, he emphasizes the importance of allowing complete freedom for people to advocate ideas, even if they seem to contradict what seems to everyone to be obviously true because he says that we never know what is true or false and that it is by being challenged by alternative views that ideas become strengthened if they are good ones or overthrown because they are false, both outcomes being preferable to a fossilized unquestioned orthodoxy. He says, “The fatal tendency of mankind to leave off thinking about a thing when it is no longer doubtful, is the cause of half their errors.”
He says that while England in his time may seem tolerant, that is not really the case. Mill lived in a time and place when belief in the Christian god was the orthodoxy and where heresy was enough to get one ostracized if not outright punished.
“It will be said, that we do not now put to death the introducers of new opinions: we are not like our fathers who slew the prophets, we even build sepulchres to them. It is true we no longer put heretics to death; and the amount of penal infliction which modern feeling would probably tolerate, even against the most obnoxious opinions, is not sufficient to extirpate them. But let us not flatter ourselves that we are yet free from the stain even of legal persecution. Penalties for opinion, or at least for its expression, still exist by law; and their enforcement is not, even in these times, so unexampled as to make it at all incredible that they may some day be revived in full force.”
He pointed out that “no person can be allowed to give evidence in a court of justice, who does not profess belief in a God (any god is sufficient) and in a future state” and then goes on to add that people would be surprised if they know how many well-known people were actually unbelievers, saying “it is historically true that a large proportion of infidels in all ages have been persons of distinguished integrity and honor); and would be maintained by no one who had the smallest conception how many of the persons in greatest repute with the world, both for virtues and for attainments, are well known, at least to their intimates, to be unbelievers”.
In this, he was clearly speaking from personal experience. He himself was clearly a skeptic. He reported that his father James Mill once told him, “There is no God but it is a family secret.”
I was also interested in his attitude towards politics and how ideas in that sphere get developed and implemented. I was struck by how he spoke about the need for a party of stability and a party advocating change.
In politics, again, it is almost a commonplace, that a party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life; until the one or the other shall have so enlarged its mental grasp as to be a party equally of order and of progress, knowing and distinguishing what is fit to be preserved from what ought to be swept away.
Truth, in the great practical concerns of life, is so much a question of the reconciling and combining of opposites, that very few have minds sufficiently capacious and impartial to make the adjustment with an approach to correctness, and it has to be made by the rough process of a struggle between combatants fighting under hostile banners.
The party of stability, fighting to retain the status quo, is what we traditionally called conservatives while the party of reform is the one that argues that changes are necessary in order to achieve important social goals.
In the US, the Republican party used to be the party of conservatives but it struck me that that assignation is now somewhat doubtful. Republicans seem to be wanting to return to the way things were in the 1950s. Mill would have called such an attitude conservative if it was still the 1950s or the 1960s when major social changes were being advocated. But now, Republicans seem like a radical fringe party, seeking to overthrow established institutions, even the basic ones that govern elections, so that they can implement their radical agenda of reversing the rights that have been gained by various minority groups in so many areas, in favor of increasing the power of white Christians. It is now the Democrats who are ‘conservative’, seeking to preserve those hard-won rights.
Clearly, the labels ‘conservative’ and ‘reform’ no longer apply to large umbrella groups like the two major parties in the US. Those labels only apply to specific policies and for which the labels assigned to the parties’ policies can switch.