John Stuart Mill's great essay On Liberty is required reading for libertarians and a good place to start for anyone interested in the politics and philosophy of freedom. What may surprise the reader is how little has changed since 1859 with regard to the way individuals may be oppressed by their own society.
Mill's concept of liberty in its simplest form is comprised of: freedom of thought and expression of those thoughts, freedom of action to live according to our own tastes, and freedom to associate with others for any reason other than to do harm.
On Liberty is about the struggle between liberty and authority. Before the Enlightenment swept through Europe in the middle of the 17th century this struggle was between classes, between the rulers and the ruled.
Though freed from the tyranny of church and kings, of feudal despots and warlords armies, liberal democracy was and is still subject to a tyranny from within, that is, from public opinion and condemnation rather than legislative or executive action.
“Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.”
Yikes. Sound familiar to you? It might to anyone who has experienced a social justice warrior attack over a poorly judged tweet. Or has been banned, boycotted, blocked, trolled or ridiculed online by an enraged mob. Or who modifies their speech or any other form of expression to avoid persecution by such a mob.
But whose mandates are right? Whose can be considered wrong?
Mob rule is enabled by the notion that the opinion and feelings of the mob are the prevailing ones - what Mills calls the “tyranny of the majority”.
“The will of the people, moreover, practically means the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority; the people, consequently may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of power.”
In a democratic society the majority has the right to rule by electing its leaders - so we are conditioned to accept its authority. Note above, however “those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority” are included here. Outside of a polling booth it is not necessary to actually have the numbers - just that they believe they have them and/or can convince others to accept the prominence of their views as prevalence.
You could say that such people wish to exercise power over others that is illegitimate - a minority seeking to oppress others through the false impression of a majority.
These days this process is aided and abetted by social media. Secure in our own echo chambers we surround ourselves with like-minded people we call friends but who are mostly acquaintances with opinions similar to our own. We cherry pick our news from an infinite number of sources and denounce that which offends us as fake, biased or bigoted.
In this environment we can easily convince ourselves that our opinions are the most prevalent - that our feelings are shared by the majority and that it is the others who seek minority rule.
Same-sex marriage in Australia has turned into a pie-throwing beer-spilling Sunday school brawl of competing narratives of majority.
Those to my left claim that the vast majority of Australians approve of marriage equality but are thwarted by a small group of deplorable religious conservatives from the Lib/Nat coalition who just happen to be in power at this moment.
Those to my right insist that they speak for the “silent majority” of everyday normal people who have no desire to change marriage in any way and are being bullied by a vocal minority of attention seeking virtue signallers.
So far the nays have it. But do they really have the numbers?
The left had its chance to legislate in favour of gay marriage when Labour Prime Minister and Christian conservative Kevin Rudd left power and was replaced by unmarried childless atheist Julia Gillard. But her minority government was too weak to tackle such a divisive issue unnecessarily and Julia was a fairly conservative individual. Same-sex marriage was not on her agenda - full stop.
Same-sex marriage reared it's divisive head big time when another Christian conservative came to power. It was used as a weapon against Liberal PM Tony Abbot to make him appear to be out of touch with the progressive majority and has been used against current PM Malcolm Turnbull to drive a wedge between factions in the Liberal Party.
The crunch came recently when the Turnbull government agreed to a referendum on the issue to find out once and for all who actually had the numbers. Fair enough we thought let's get on with it - but no. The Greens and Labour refused to play the ball, left the field and went home leaving a disappointed crowd to yell abuse and throw pies at each other.
The narrative of the left was well and truly busted that day, my friends. Obviously the only reason you would not want a vote is if you were fairly certain that you would lose and therefore lose acceptance as the majority.
For without a vote the show can go on ! And it does. The vocal minority has become louder and angrier while the silent majority starts to speak up and fight back. Things are getting ugly now it's Christians vs. lions. Who knows what ugliness tomorrow will bring?
But a referendum is not a perfect solution either as its effect is a tyranny of the majority also. Thus the libertarian proposition is that marriage is not the business of government or society, and should just be a contract between two consenting adults that is recognised as legal by government and no more. Society will come around in its own good time, it always does.
If it is not possible to change the Marriage Act to suit everyone - then abolish the damn thing and start afresh.
And remember u r free