Beyond Libertarianism: Interpretations of Mill's Harm Principle and the Economic Implications Therein

The harm principle does not stipulate strict rights of the individual, applied uniformly.

To justify a system of redistribution via Mill’s harm principle, we must first grant that taxation, in a general, nonspecific guise is a legitimate action of the state.1

I am trying to make the goal of reducing inequality and providing for social security and insurance compatible with the harm principle.

Adhering to the harm principle the state should only act (restrict people's free will, coerce them into doing something) in order to prevent harm and safeguard third persons' rights. Further the presumption in favor of liberty (in dubio pro libertate) makes a liberal state do so only when the harm (or danger since the probability of harm is harm in itself) to third person's rights is actually known and proven and not presumed.

I can't see how amassing wealth (in itself when it is devoid from any enriching actions that have a negative externality) can harm third persons'. I can't see how I am harming anyone by inheriting or by dying and having my inheritance passed to my heirs only (obviously there is an exclusion of the general public and any other person).

People (that have been infected) transmit (probabilistically) SARS-COV-2 now the (specific) vaccines after more than one year of testing have been finally proven to reduce transmission. I appreciate that not preventing (reducing) a harm (danger) to others that you know (or should and could know) is in itself a harm (i.e states that coerce their subjects/citizens into getting vaccinated are not illiberal).

I don't feel that reducing inequality and reducing the transmission of SARS-COV-2 are of the same nature. One is clearly a harm while I find it difficult to accept the other is harm.

I don't feel Taxes are illiberal but they seem against the harm principle.

How could we adjust the Harm Principle so as to allow Taxation not to infringe upon it?

I obviously don't mean by simply adding a perfunctory exemption (e.g excluding taxes or excluding reasonable burdens) but essentially and substantially altering Harm Principle's content without allowing obviously tyranical and despotic state actions either.

1Towery, Matthew A., "Beyond Libertarianism: Interpretations of Mill's Harm Principle and the Economic Implications Therein." Thesis, Georgia State University, 2012. https://scholarworks.gsu.edu/political_science_theses/45

  • 2
    This sentence People (that have been infected) transmit (probabilistically) SARS-COV-2 now the (specific) vaccines after more than one year of testing have been finally proven to reduce transmission. I appreciate that not preventing (reducing) a harm (danger) to others that you know (or should and could know) is in itself a harm (i.e states that coerce their subjects/citizens into getting vaccinated are not illiberal). with seven parentheticals is very hard to read. Probably could take an editing pass at this Q. Sep 14, 2021 at 23:02
  • 2
    I'm a little confused by the highlighted question. Are you asking how taxation is acceptable with respect to the Harm Principle? Are you specifically interested in inheritance taxes, or do you mean taxation more generally? do you want an answer based the linked thesis, or just a general explanation? Sep 15, 2021 at 1:48
  • Hello, and welcome to politics SE! Please read the tour and the help center, they are very helpful for writing good questions and answers (not that this question is bad, but improving is always a good thing) :) Sep 15, 2021 at 2:48
  • Note that there is also no need to avoid inequality when nobody is harming another person. If I build a swing set in my backyard, now we're unequal but there's also no reason everyone else has to have a swing set. The problem is when large scale economic relations cause everyone else to go down in wealth when some people go up. For example, when a lot of people in some area get paid more, it causes rent in the area to go up, causing other people to have less money left after paying rent. Sep 15, 2021 at 13:23
  • @user253751 I appreciate how bad inequality is. I am not saying transmission of SARS-COV-2 is somehow worse that inequality. I would earnesty want an envy-free society. I am just saying that intuitively refusing to get vaccinated is (causes) harm (to third persons') while inheriting or dying isn't. Somehow I want my Social Democratic and Social Liberalistic ideology to comply with the Harm Principle as it is stictly defined. Sep 15, 2021 at 13:48

3 Answers 3


This is where the difference between intrinsic goals and instrumental goals is important to discuss.

Mill is expressing an intrinsic goal in the Harm Principle, that is, a thing which self-justifies. Any moral philosophy that results in a self-defeating decision tree is incoherent and therefore not one we need to bother ourselves with. The principle of philosophical charity holds that when considering a philosopher's argument, one should do so in the terms that represent it as strongly as possible - so any interpretation of the Harm Principle, that governments should act to protect citizens from harm, including infringements on their liberties - including from the gov't itself - which leads us to recommend a government incapable of protecting anyone is not reasonable for us to offer.

Without taxation, governments have no resources and no capacity to enact policies or offer protection to anyone. Taxation is, therefore, an instrumental goal in support of the intrinsic goal of the preservation of liberty. You can't have the one without the other, period. Even if your soldiers/police work for free, they still need equipment, training, facilities, and other things which must be paid for.

It's not that wealth its itself harmful, it's that the whole political/moral philosophy becomes incoherent if you insist that the government should protect your person and freedoms... but may not have any resources with which to do so.

Similarly, redistributive policies are not punishments against wealth but protective measures to stave off ruinous poverty (the harms from which are obvious and well recorded). Taxing the poor to turn around and provide for them is equally incoherent as would be insisting that laws are enforced without resources. Taxing the wealthy to fund these protections is an instrumental goal that serves the intrinsic goal of protection.

No modification of Mill's Harm Principle is needed, per se. Only the context within which it is being contemplated. If you try to apply the Harm Principle as if every act happens in a vacuum, wholly independent of all other acts, then you wind up with a Harm Principle that only permits total anarchy - since in order for a government to act at all it must have the resources and capacity to do so. Considering taxation as an independent act, as you discuss in the comments, does result in the HP proscribing against it, thus a government may never have resources or capacity, and thus a government may never rightfully exist.

John Stewart Mill, however, was not an anarchist - and this line of argument is absurd on its face besides.

Therefore we must consider the Harm Principle in the context of the interdependent nature of acts, which forces the acknowledgement of the existence of the intrinsic vs. the instrumental. An instrumental act is justified by the ends it is made in pursuit of.

This means that insofar as a government's intrinsic acts are solely to prevent harm, all instrumental acts necessary to that end are similarly permitted by the Harm Principle. An interesting consequence here is that if the final, intrinsic end, is NOT to prevent harm (or has elements besides the prevention of harm) then the entire chain of acts is now in violation of the Harm Principle, without exception.

If you read the rest of Mill's body of work, however, you'll find that he (at the least) flirted with the beginnings of what became Rule Utilitarianism - which permits actors to make errors, so long as they have evidence to support their conclusions that their acts are likely in furtherance of greater utility to the greatest number.

  • Mill's Harm Principle is not one of Positive Justification (when the government should act) but of Negative Justification (when the government is allowed to act, i.e unless there is harm to third parties it shouldn't/isn't allowed to act). I want a modification of the Harm Principle (that is what I asked for). Otherwise it could help if you helped me understand the context within which it is being contemplated (and how it should be modified). Sep 15, 2021 at 19:16
  • @GeorgeNtoulos Mill's Harm Principle, in Mill's own words, is: "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." The exercise of taxation power to develop the capacity to carry out that protective mission is entirely consistent with the Harm Principle insofar as those taxes are being levied to fund gov't operations that are themselves consistent with the Harm Principle. Because Mill presupposes the existence of power to act, he opens the door for instrumental goals towards that prior. Sep 15, 2021 at 19:22
  • @GeorgeNtoulos If no one has mentioned this yet, you should consider looking up John Rawls' concept of the Veil of Ignorance. It's a pretty solid revisiting of Utilitarian principles from a liberal lens. Sep 15, 2021 at 19:32
  • 1
    @GeorgeNtoulos As I explain in my answer, read that way, the Harm Principle only allows one type of political structure: anarchy. A government that has no resources cannot act, to prevent harm or otherwise. This makes the Harm Principle incoherent against the remainder of Mill's body of work (Utilitarianism). I don't think I can explain this any other way than the numerous ways I've tried. I think what's going on here is that you've gotten stuck on one word in the statement of the principle and aren't reading the rest of it. As I explain my answer: the power to tax is part of a power to act. Sep 16, 2021 at 13:19
  • 1
    @GeorgeNtoulos What I'm trying to point out is that Taxation is included under that umbrella. I (a government) can levy taxes only if those taxes are being used to protect people from harm (or, I guess, if levying taxes somehow protects people but that's an absurd position to take) - the allowability of the taxation becomes dependent upon and inherits the allowability of the subsequent act. Sep 16, 2021 at 15:43

In the words of Adam Smith, commonly accepted to be the father of modern Capitalism

"A power to dispose of estates for ever is manifestly absurd. The earth and the fulness of it belongs to every generation, and the preceding one can have no right to bind it up from posterity. Such extension of property is quite unnatural. There is no point more difficult to account for than the right we conceive men to have to dispose of their goods after death."

Capitalism works when the excess wealth gained from enterprise is spent by the person who earned it - stimulating demand and creating jobs. However, in the failure of "trickle-down economics" we can see the disconnect between theory and reality - people are not obligated to spend the fortunes they amass. An estate tax handles this in part, incentivizing the spending of accumulated wealth, but a wealth tax is of the same vein. However, it is incredibly challenging if not impossible in practice to evaluate everyone's wealth in both cash and assets, with things like offshore tax havens and ownership of anything in foreign countries complicating the issue. Thus taxing income became the next best thing. Income tax is not an ideal way of preventing infinite accumulation of wealth, but it was the accepted alternative to the challenging task of enacting a true wealth tax. This may prove easier in the modern era, and we have seen a strong political push recently for a wealth tax. Note that this does not defend such regressive taxes as sales tax or excise tax.

Addendum - Oligarchy

This is a problem not dealt with by taxation generally speaking, but addresses your question of how amassing wealth can harm third persons. The primary problem with accumulation of massive wealth wrt harming others is that infinite amassing of wealth (this necessarily including assets, not just cash) can lead to Oligarchy. Granted, it is not guaranteed to lead to Oligarchy, but there are real-life examples (to your statement - known and not just presumed) such as the botched privatization of Russia. Oligarchy is a problem not because it inherently harms third persons, but that it prevents the State from its minimalist position of preventing someone from harming others. To quote J. Paul Getty, "If you owe the bank $100 that's your problem. If you owe the bank $100 million, that's the bank's problem." There comes a certain point of accumulation of the private sector where the State is at the mercy of private individuals, and it can thus no longer stop said individuals from engaging in anti-competitive practices. This is generally addressed with antitrust legislation and deeming some goods and services utilities.

  • It sounds as if you are saying that the state has a duty to stop people from being too successful. Do I read this correctly?
    – acpilot
    Sep 19, 2021 at 4:48
  • @acpilot its less about hampering success as hampering consolidation of power, and more a business concern as opposed to private citizen (but citizens run the businesses). For instance, if a single oil company provided all the oil for the US and undercut entry of competitors or the CEO threatened pols with "turning the power off" this would be "too successful". But if a financial titan had greater money but less market share in their industry it wouldn't necessarily matter as much since they don't exert the same undue power on people and the state but are more wealthy - success being relative
    – Gramatik
    Sep 27, 2021 at 13:53
  • We agree there - monopolies are bad. And this is a wicked problem. The problem is that imperfect, often politically motivated people hell-bent on "doing good with other peoples' money" are the people responsible for determining the threshold of "too successful." These people bear no personal risk for being wrong yet are in a position to tell those who actually take risk and produce what is "too much." This is a well worn path that invariably leads to unintended consequences that can only be "solved" with more regulation.
    – acpilot
    Sep 27, 2021 at 19:59
  • And, for the record, a wealth tax in lieu of an income tax is something I'd like to see. The ultra wealthy get to pay capital gains while I get to pay income rates! Why won't politicians overhaul the tax code to place a greater emphasis on WEALTH than on INCOME...I wonder? Hmmm.
    – acpilot
    Sep 27, 2021 at 20:01

The text of the 'harm principle', as given in the linked document, reads as follows:

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.

There are actually two formulations here, and it's useful to consider the difference. The two formulations are:

  • The 'prevention of harm', from the second sentence, and from which we get the common name of the principle, and...
  • The activity of 'self-protection', from the first sentence.

I suspect people focus on the concept of harm because harm seems like a quantifiable, measurable, objective concept. Intuitively, pinching someone does less harm than punching them, which does less harm than hitting them with a baseball bat, and we like to think that we can extend that intuitive rank-ordering to any sort of harm whatsoever. Obviously this suffers serious problems in practice — I mean, is living with the lingering effects of 300 years of slavery and oppression more harm or less harm than getting hit with a baseball bat? — but it is difficult to shake that intuition completely.

On the other hand, the principle of 'self-protection' is intuitive in a different, more subjective sense. We all know more or less what we want to protect ourselves from, and there is a broad range of events and activities that most of us would agree everyone wants to protect themselves from. This also changes the nature of our relationship to government. Instead of government being an aloof, paternalistic entity that determine what is objectively harmful and tasks itself with preventing it from happening, government becomes a tool that we actively use for collective self-protection. The question is no longer that ambiguous determination of what is and is not objectively harmful, with all the caveats and pitfalls that entails; it is a more Kantian question or what things we collectively decide that we collectively want to protect ourselves against.

This naturally changes our perspectives on the issue. We no longer try to measure (say) the harm of taxation against the harm of poverty (which are deeply incommensurate metrics in any case). Now we concern ourselves with the idea that people in general want to protect themselves against abject poverty (not to mention heritable poverty), and we take the least invasive approach to ensure that people can protect themselves against abject poverty. We no longer care about the wealth divide, or how wealthy any individual gets, so long as everyone can protect themselves against falling into poverty.

It's worth noting that this move is inherent in Marxism. Marx shifted the metric away from harm to property and towards harm to labor; one must protect the effort one expends towards producing a good, because one must live by the profits of the labor one expends. And if we follow the Marxist thread all the way we find that the ultimate harm (in his view) is the segregation pf people into 'groups' or 'classes' that are treated differentially under government and law. This leads us straight into social democratic and left-Libertarian principles, where the creation of 'others', of second class citizens and excluded groups, is the root of all structural harm within society.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .