Copy Book Archive

Losing Steam Those in Power may imagine that a docile and compliant public makes Government run more smoothly, but a society of that kind just won’t move forward.
Queen Victoria 1837-1901
Music: Frederic Curzon

© Bradley Wurth, Wikimedia Commons. Licence: Public domain. Source

About this picture …

The firebox of recently restored GWR ‘modified Hall’ No. 6989 Wightwick Hall, at the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre. To John Stuart Mill’s mind, a meddlesome Government was like an engine driver who damped down the fire so the locomotive would run more smoothly, only to find it no longer made steam. Over 28m people were leading the most innovative and industrious economy in the world, and he found it both ridiculous and dangerous that a few MPs in Westminster, should actually credit themselves with the prosperity they saw around them.

Losing Steam
John Stuart Mill was a firm believer in individual freedom, a conviction which led him to dissent from then-fashionable economic and social policy on women’s rights and American slavery. In On Liberty (1858), he warned politicians that a docile, on-message public might let the engine of State run more smoothly, but it will also rob it of any power to move forward.

A GOVERNMENT cannot have too much of the kind of activity which does not impede, but aids and stimulates individual exertion and development. The mischief begins when, instead of calling forth the activity and powers of individuals and bodies, it substitutes its own activity for theirs; when, instead of informing, advising, and upon occasion denouncing, it makes them work in fetters, or bids them stand aside and does their work for them.*

The worth of a state, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it;* and a state which postpones the interests of their mental expansion and elevation to a little more of administrative skill, or that semblance of it which practice gives in the details of business; a state, which dwarfs its men in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands, even for beneficial purposes, will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished; and that the perfection of machinery to which it has sacrificed everything, will in the end avail it nothing for want of the vital power which, in order that the machine might work more smoothly, it has preferred to banish.

* See William Gladstone on A Spirit of Self-Reliance, and Jeremy Bentham on The Small Compass. Much the same could be said about the pros and cons of technological innovation: when it releases us from drudgery to be more creative it is a blessing; when it takes away our responsibilities and enslaves us to other minds it is not.

* “Some of the best English writers upon commerce” wrote Adam Smith (1723-1790) in Wealth of Nations (1776), pursuing a similar train of thought, “set out with observing that the wealth of a country consists, not in its gold and silver only, but in its lands, houses and consumable goods of all different kinds.” Smith then expresses frustration that soon afterwards they forget about the productivity of the people, and go back to talking about the gold in the Treasury.


Writing in 1858, John Stuart Mill argued that the role of Government is to encourage individuals to pursue their own chosen goals and activities. When Government directs or takes over these responsibilities, it does not make discharging them easier, as some suppose, but weakens and diminishes public character until the people are good for nothing. (54 / 60 words)


From ‘On Liberty’ (1858) by John Stuart Mill (1806-1873).

Suggested Music


Frederic Curzon (1899-1973)

Performed by the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Adrian Leaper.

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