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Quotations about Liberty and Power

About this Quotation:

Once again we have a classical liberal warning us about the problem of “who will guard against the guardians.” In this case it is John Stuart Mill in On Liberty and he uses some very colorful language to describe those who use the government for their own benefit (“vultures”) at the expence of the ordinary people. The vultures have their followers and accomplices, which he calls “harpies” (named after the mythical Greek winged spirits who stole food by snatching it away). The people supposedly set up government in the first place in order to protect themselves from the “vultures” and their “harpies” but inevitably the government is seized by “the king of the harpies” and the cycle of struggle begins again. Mill thought that only constitutional limits on government power, a system of checks and balances, and a vigorous legal and political protection of basic rights could keep the “vultures” at bay. The passage is also significant for his broad perspective on history as an ongoing struggle between “Liberty and Authority” (or “Power” as we call it in this collection of quotations).

Other quotes about Politics & Liberty:

20 April, 2009

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John Stuart Mill on the need for limited government and political rights to prevent the “king of the vultures” and his “minor harpies” in the government from preying on the people (1859)

Read the full quote in context here.

This year is the 150th anniversary of the publication of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859), one of the key texts in 19th century classical liberal thought. In the second paragraph of this work, Mill states that societies need a system of legal and political rights and constitutional checks and balances in order to prevent the stronger, the "innumerable vultures" and their allied "minor harpies", from oppressing ordinary people in a perpetual struggle between "Liberty and Authority":

To prevent the weaker members of the community from being preyed upon by innumerable vultures, it was needful that there should be an animal of prey stronger than the rest, commissioned to keep them down. But as the king of the vultures would be no less bent upon preying on the flock than any of the minor harpies, it was indispensable to be in a perpetual attitude of defence against his beak and claws. The aim, therefore, of patriots was to set limits to the power which the ruler should be suffered to exercise over the community; and this limitation was what they meant by liberty. It was attempted in two ways. First, by obtaining a recognition of certain immunities, called political liberties or rights, which it was to be regarded as a breach of duty in the ruler to infringe, and which, if he did infringe, specific resistance, or general rebellion, was held to be justifiable. A second, and generally a later expedient, was the establishment of constitutional checks, by which the consent of the community, or of a body of some sort, supposed to represent its interests, was made a necessary condition to some of the more important acts of the governing power.

The full passage from which this quotation was taken can be be viewed below (front page quote in bold):

The struggle between Liberty and Authority is the most conspicuous feature in the portions of history with which we are earliest familiar, particularly in that of Greece, Rome, and England. But in old times this contest was between subjects, or some classes of subjects, and the aGovernmenta . By liberty, was meant protection against the tyranny of the political rulers. The rulers were conceived (except in some of the popular governments of Greece) as in a necessarily antagonistic position to the people whom they ruled. They consisted of a governing One, or a governing tribe or caste, who derived their authority from inheritance or conquest, who, at all events, did not hold it at the pleasure of the governed, and whose supremacy men did not venture, perhaps did not desire, to contest, whatever precautions might be taken against its oppressive exercise. Their power was regarded as necessary, but also as highly dangerous; as a weapon which they would attempt to use against their subjects, no less than against external enemies. To prevent the weaker members of the community from being preyed upon by innumerable vultures, it was needful that there should be an animal of prey stronger than the rest, commissioned to keep them down. But as the king of the vultures would be no less bent upon preying on the flock than any of the minor harpies, it was indispensable to be in a perpetual attitude of defence against his beak and claws. The aim, therefore, of patriots was to set limits to the power which the ruler should be suffered to exercise over the community; and this limitation was what they meant by liberty. It was attempted in two ways. First, by obtaining a recognition of certain immunities, called political liberties or rights, which it was to be regarded as a breach of duty in the ruler to infringe, and which, if he did infringe, specific resistance, or general rebellion, was held to be justifiable. A second, and generally a later expedient, was the establishment of constitutional checks, by which the consent of the community, or of a body of some sort, supposed to represent its interests, was made a necessary condition to some of the more important acts of the governing power. To the first of these modes of limitation, the ruling power, in most European countries, was compelled, more or less, to submit. It was not so with the second; and, to attain this, or when already in some degree possessed, to attain it more completely, became everywhere the principal object of the lovers of liberty. And so long as mankind were content to combat one enemy by another, and to be ruled by a master, on condition of being guaranteed more or less efficaciously against his tyranny, they did not carry their aspirations beyond this point.

[More works by John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873)]