Friday, May 30, 2003
By Steven Taylor

James of OTB links to a thread started by Eugene Volokk and continued by Kevin Drum on the ideological underpinnings of libertarianism, and the “Harm Principle” in particular.

For those who care, here’s the origin of said Principle from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty:

The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil, in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

While clearly there is much that requires definition is such a statement, there is a rather significant question being asked here: when is it legitimate to interfere with the liberty of others? A question that the government had to address constantly, and one that governments frequently get wrong.

Indeed, the main issue here is when should the government be able to force me to do, or not to do, something. And the main claim that is being argued against is that the government should not be allowed to control my actions just because it would be good for me to do so.

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2 Responses to “The Harm Principle”

  1. Anonymous Says:
  2. Deinonychus antirrhopus Says:

    Libertarianinsm and the Harm Principle: Part 2
    Earlier I talked about these concepts here. In the comments Kevin Drum felt that we were saying the same thing.

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