I admire John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. In it, the author succinctly describes the limits of the state and individual liberty. His defense of individual liberty against the transgression of the state and the majority is impressive to me, who is already familiar with core points Mill articulated in On Liberty even before learning Mill’s name. While all points are well-argued and logically derived from reasonable premises, I am hesitant to embrace a few of his conclusions. One of those conclusions revolves around talents and government.

Near at the end of On Liberty, Mill makes the case against government interference in the market. The context in which he frames the argument is the enhancement of the capacity of the government, or rather the state, to do evil. In order to limit this capacity, he disagrees in having the best and the brightest individuals be employed as part of bureaucracy of the state.

The idea of having the best and the brightest as part of the civil service is quite relevant in Malaysia. Various individuals in Malaysia have suggested that the civil service should attract the best through various means, including, and possibly, mainly by offering most competitive salary. Apparently, the same argument was raised in England at least before 1859, the year On Liberty was first published.

Mill’s opposition is beautifully put in a way that uses the benefits proponents of such mechanism celebrate as the mechanism’s weakness. He writes that these highly talents individuals would make the bureaucracy highly capable and beyond criticism of the public. Why? Paraphrasing Mill, the public will become ill-qualified “to criticize or check the mode of operation of the bureaucracy“. This sort of shield from criticism brings about authority to the bureaucracy to embark on programs which may or may not be useful. Furthermore, with the freedom from criticism, the bureaucracy will be comfortable in where it is and not improve.

According to Mill, if the bureaucracy is to be on its toes, they must be entity or individuals capable of raising criticism against the bureaucracy, “independently of the government“.

Perhaps, most eloquently, the more well-stocked the government is with the ablest of all mankind, the capability of evil by the state “would be greater“, delivered more “efficiently and scientifically“.

This as well as other points made against the idea of big government made in On Liberty are persuasive. I am doing an injustice by summarizing his idea here. The best way to fully appreciate the robustness of arguments made by Mill is to read the book.

Regardless of that, I think Mill may have taken a step too far down the street in forwarding the proposition on talents and the state.

I do not see how having the less capable becoming part of the bureaucracy can necessarily be beneficial to free individuals. Such bureaucrats, holders of public office and perhaps politicians may as well introduce policy based on unenlightened policy that incongruous to culture of liberty, considering that there is a relationship between being a liberal and education level.

Capable if not the best of talents will be needed to introduce and enforce policies, including those which are the most liberal. Without these talents, others out of the government would be able to outwit the state in matters such as protection of individual liberty and fraud, which is the function of a state in liberal tradition. A state that is unable to perform such function effectively is a worthless state.

Besides, Mill in On Liberty is concerned with capability of the bureaucracy to improve. Criticism is important but only capable talents can effectively bring about improvement to the bureaucracy. If improvement is a concern, surely capable talents need to be hired as part of the system to act upon the criticism.

More ominously is that the argument, while maybe attractive in a world where there is only one state and no external threat, does not account for a world with multiple different states. In a world where there are other hostile states, having incapable individuals running the bureaucracy may be disastrous. States compete with each other to forward its interest that may not coincide with the agenda of promotion and conservation of liberty. Wars do happen and incapable bureaucracy increases the likelihood a state — we are interested in liberal state — capitulating to tyranny originating from external forces.

The argument cuts both ways really. The trick is to ensure there are the brightest in and outside of government. The brightest in government will be tasked to introduce and to carry out good policies while the brightest outside will be free to criticize those inside apart from pursuing their own interests in the free market.

Therefore, I think Mill’s proposition should not be accepted unconditionally. The position taken by Mill should only be accepted when a majority or sufficiently large fraction of the best and brightest are already hoarded by the government. It should be a matter of degree, not of absolute.

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