John Stuart Mill

What John Stuart Mill actually said

Liberty (the National Council for Civil Liberties) has quoted John Stuart Mill as being in favour of traders being allowed to continue selling in pounds and ounces. It is therefore useful to read what Mill actually said, and we print below the relevant passage from chapter 5 of his famous essay “On Liberty”, published posthumously in 1859.

In truth, Mill’s argument is tortuous and difficult to follow, and you may need to read it several times in order to understand it. We have highlighted the passages which seem to be crucial. Essentially, what Mill seemed to be saying was that:

  • Society is entitled in principle to regulate the conduct of traders
  • Regulation should be avoided if its objectives can be achieved in other ways
  • The state should not limit the freedom of purchasers to buy what they like
  • Regulation in order to prevent fraud by traders is justified

Read for yourself. This is what Mill wrote:

“. Again trade is a social act. Whoever undertakes to sell any description of goods to the public does what affects the interest of other persons, and of society in general; and thus his conduct, in principle, comes within the jurisdiction of society: accordingly, it was once held to be the duty of governments, in all cases which were considered of importance, to fix prices, and regulate the processes of manufacture. But it is now recognised, though not till after a long struggle, that both the cheapness and good quality of commodities are most effectually provided for by leaving the producers and sellers perfectly free, under the sole check of equal freedom to the buyers for supplying themselves elsewhere. This is the so-called doctrine of Free Trade, which rests on grounds different from, though equally solid with, the principle of individual liberty asserted in this Essay. Restrictions on trade, or on production for purposes of trade, are indeed restraints; and all restraint, qua restraint, is an evil: but the restraints in question affect only that part of conduct which society is competent to restrain, and are wrong solely because they do not really produce the results which it is desired to produce by them. As the principle of individual liberty is not involved in the doctrine of Free Trade, so neither is it in most of the questions which arise respecting the limits of that doctrine; as, for example, what amount of public control is admissible for the prevention of fraud by adulteration: how far sanitary precautions, or arrangements to protect workpeople employed in dangerous occupations, should be enforced on employers. Such questions involve considerations of liberty only in so far as leaving people to themselves is always better, ceteris paribus, than controlling them: but that they may be legitimately controlled for these ends is in principle, undeniable. On the other hand, there are questions relating to interference with trade which are essentially questions of liberty; such as the Maine Law, already touched upon; the prohibition on the importation of opium into China; the restriction of the sale of poisons; all cases, in short, where the object of the interference is to make it impossible or difficult to obtain a particular commodity. These interferences are objectionable, not as infringements on the liberty of the producer or seller, but on that of the buyer.”

So what would John Stuart Mill have made of weights and measures law?

UKMA believes it is quite clear from Mill’s writings that he would have supported legislation to ensure that all traders use “honest” scales which have been tested for accuracy. Similarly, he would scarcely have objected to traders being required to display prices which enable customers to compare goods on the same basis.

UKMA therefore believes that the case brought before the European Court of Human Rights (apparently supported by Liberty) – the so-called “metric martyrs” case – would not have been supported by Mill. In fact it came as no surprise when it was rejected on 25th February 2004 (see our press release) as it stood no chance of success. Indeed had it succeeded it would have undermined consumer protection legislation throughout Europe. The great man would not have wanted that!