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The History Of The Liberal Neutrality Politics Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 2219 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The question is should all government decisions be made on a neutral basis or is there a point where the government should be able to make a decision that they believe if for the best interest of the individual? This issue is discussed by multiple authors and looked at from different angles. John Stuart Mill discusses his opinion of government authority as it affects an individual’s interests in his essay “On Liberty”. Joseph L. Sax discusses his opinion of government authority as it affects the national parks and individual’s different interests within the parks in his book Mountains without Handrails. Both Mill and Sax look at government involvement and decision making in two different ways. One as it applies directly to any interest of an individual and the other as it applies only to an individual’s interests in a specific area.

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The main topic of Mill’s essay is civil or social liberty. He defines social liberty as “the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual” (Mill, 5). Social liberty allows an individual to govern themselves to a certain point. This point is where they potentially could cause harm to others. Once an individual has reached this point, society or the government can step in to prevent harm of another person. Society is neutral in an individual’s interests until this point has been reached and they have the authority to interfere with an individual’s interest if they deem it harmful to others. This is the idea of the harm principle. Mill says “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” (Mill, 14). In one sense social liberty follows the idea of liberal neutrality but it has a loop hole that allows for some bias decision making by society to protect others. Where society does interfere with an individual’s interest it is doing so for the best interest of the rest of society and preventing harm to them. The negative effect of interfering with a single individual’s interests is outweighed by protecting one or more individuals from harm that is not necessary for them to endure. All decisions come down to choosing between protecting the interests of an individual or society as a whole.

One topic that Mill discusses is the struggle between liberty and authority. Liberty was put in place as means of protection for people from their political rulers. At the time people were born into power and liberty was kind of like a clause if the ruler became a tyrant. Authority is needed to prevent individuals from taking actions that would be morally wrong (causing harm to others). Society then changed and all rulers were no longer born into power, they were chosen to represent the people. The representatives of the people were to represent the best interests of the individuals and this would eliminate the need for some forms of liberty and authority since the people would be need to be protected from their own will. One thing that was over looked was the fact that a single group of representatives cannot accurately represent the entire population, they can only represent the majority and the majority is made up of the individuals who are active in getting their voice heard and does not necessarily represent the entire population. This is the idea of tyranny of the majority. Tyranny of the majority occurs when the majority’s interests are placed above the minority’s interests and causes minorities to be discouraged in getting their opinions heard.

This brings society back to the same struggle of liberty and authority and where to draw the line between the two. Individuals want to have the power to so as they please but there should be some guide lines or limits to this power. Mill does not explicitly state what all of these guidelines or limits should be with the exception of causing harm to others. Are more guidelines really needed than that? What is society as a whole just decided to do away with rules, regulations and all types of society authority with the exceptions of something that enforced not doing harm to others and just let an individual decide how they wanted to live their life? This is what libertarians advocate for, liberal neutrality. Having a society with no rules or regulations with only a few minor exceptions, would allow for an individual to focus on their interests and preferences and allow them to achieve their version of the good life since there would be not interferences from society.

Having liberties can produce a positive effect in individuals if they are given the opportunity to effectively utilize their liberties. Although Mill’s essay was published in 1859, the ideas he presents are still currently being discusses such as in Mark Sagoff’s “Can Environmentalists be Liberals?”, Cary Coglianese’s “Implications of Liberal Neutrality for Environmental Policy” and Andrew Vincent’s “Liberalism and the Environment”. There is no wrong answer to the struggle between liberty and authority and there is a possibility of multiple right answers for this struggle. Mill discusses liberty in a broad sense, and does not apply it to a specific area of interest but to all areas of interest to an individual.

Sax discusses liberty and authority as it directly affects national parks and the individuals who benefit from them. He tries to answer or at least present the different sides of answering the question “should the national parks basically be treated as recreational commodities, responding to the demand for development and urban comforts that visitors conventionally bring to them or should they be reserves as temples of nature worship admitting only the faithful?” (Sax, 2) Preservationists represent one side of this issue and want national parks to remain undisturbed by human activities. The preference for undisturbed nature and recreation in nature is merely just a matter of taste specific to each individual and no policy will be able to please all parties. One individual’s interest and preference for a national park may contradict another individual’s interests and preferences, which make it difficult for society to remain neutral n its decision making process.

National parks are owned by the public and consist of remote and scenic land in large quantities. Parks were first preserved for the scenery they provided so the average citizen would be able to enjoy them. It was though that the more people who came to the national parks the more support there would be for the future preservation of other parks. People wanted different things from the parks though; some wanted them for sites for picnics and resorts while others wanted them preserved as museums. The parks could potentially provide “engagement with nature which provides an opportunity for detachment from the submissiveness, conformity and mass behavior that dogs us in our daily lives; it offers a chance to express distinctiveness and to explore out deeper longings” (Sax, 42). The nature within the park has the ability to stimulate reflectiveness and self-understanding. It provides a model of continuity, stability and sustenance, adaption, sustained productivity, diversity and evolutionary change. Humans can learn a lot by observing nature and applying it to their lives. If this nature is disturbed then these revelations cannot be observed and applies to other aspects of daily life.

The problems of recreation can cause many conflicts in national parks. Recreation can be defined in different ways depending on the individual and can vary from hiking to snowmobiling and from five stat resorts to building your own lean to. A compromise has to be made between the many types of recreation. “One possible compromise is to try fully to serve the quantitative demand for conventional recreation and to provide opportunities for all of the different kinds of activities the public wants, but not to assure those opportunities in locations that have a special value for reflective recreation” (Sax, 63). There is a demand for different types of recreation including intensive-use activities. A balance has to be determined on what types of recreation can take place where and to what extent do they damage the environment and prevent future usage.

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Sax described how he believes the national park ought to be. One important note that he makes is to discourage motorized travel within the national parks. He also mentions decreasing crowds and allowing visitors the opportunity to experience the park at their own pace. The problem with some of the ideas that Sax proposes is that there is no easy way to determine how to effectively please each individual’s wants from the park. The park service is in a dilemma between too many people wanting to utilize the park and not enough park resources to go around and conflicting interests between multiple parties. Sax recommends dealing with this dilemma by separating the choices that have to be made from each other. This will allow clarity about each decision that is made and how it will impact future decisions made. All decisions made have to bear in mind that the park belongs to all individuals but some forms of activities that consume a lot of the resources for everyone should be avoided so more individuals can potential benefit. The parks are there to be utilized by the individuals but individual’s attitudes contribute to decisions made directly affect the potential future of the park. A certain level of tolerance is required for all parties to allow for the most effective use of the park and its resources.

In Sax’s book he looks at the government’s role in the preservation of the national parks. The government has the authority to put in place rules and regulations that would limit the activities allowed within the parks. This would interfere with an individual’s liberties to make their own decisions to pursue their individual interests and preferences. Sax’s opinion is to limit an individual’s liberties within national parks and to allow for the government to have the authority to control what happens within the parks.

Sax and Mill seem to stand on different sides of liberal neutrality. Mill agrees with liberal neutrality with the exception of causing harm to another individual. Sax disagrees with liberal neutrality and thinks that the government should enforce rules and regulations for the individuals within national parks even if they interfere with an individual’s liberties and their versions of the good life. Although Sax is talking about a specific situation were liberty and authority conflict, it can be assumed that Mill’s argument applies to all aspects of an individual’s life including national parks. Assuming both Mill and Sax are focused on national parks and an individual’s liberties within the park they are really not all that different.

Mill and Sax both want individuals to be able to pursue their interests and preferences within national parks. Mill allows for these interests and preferences to be followed until they will cause direct harm to another individual. Sax allows for these interests and preferences to be followed until they will cause direst harm to the environment and potentially cause indirect harm to other individuals trying to utilize the national park’s resources. Sax allows an individual to govern themselves to a certain point and his point is where an individual’s actions will potentially cause harm to the environment. Causing harm to the environment will limit the availability of current and future park resources for other individuals to enjoy and could harm them and not allow them to pursue their interest and preferences within the national park. In this sense preservationists and environmentalists are liberals and allow people to do as they please without interference form society until they reach the point of harm.

The idea of liberal neutrality centers around being open to different individual’s version of the good life and being neutral in the decision making process that will affect an individual’s ability to achieve their version of the good life. Mill’s essay he defines liberty and discusses limiting the authority society has over the individual/ Sax’s book focuses more on allowing society to have the authority to interfere with individual’s liberties as they pertain to the national parks. Both Mill and Sax present different points about the struggle between liberty and authority, they both agree on the authority to interfere with an individual if they are going to cause harm to something else. Mill’s version of harm focuses on harm to other individuals while Sax’s versions of harm focuses on harm to the environment which is a public good and could cause harm to others if not looked out for.


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