Function of government

Sophocles clearly demonstrates this in Antigone. No doubt, Creon attempts to portray himself as benevolent and fatherly. He is convinced that his paternalism is truly in the best interests of Thebes – that criminalizing the freedom to mourn Polynices and to speak against the government entails the greatest good for his subjects. Nevertheless, throughout the play Sophocles underlines how incongruous this executive dogma is with Thebans.

Haemon advises 'don't… assume the world is wrong and you are right' [p.95. Sophocles. 1982, Antigone] – or as Mill may phrase, it is a mistake to be an 'absolute prince' [p. 24], for it is necessary – even for an authority figure such as Creon – to acknowledge that government is corrigible. This tendency is not exclusively fictional. Often in the real world, states presuppose that they know what is best for its subjects and consequently enact (allegedly) paternalistic laws, via minimizing individual liberties. Take, for example, the People's Republic of China (PRC).

The PRC has a longstanding history of restricting the exposure of information to its citizens. This has culminated in over sixty regulations that restrict Internet use in the PRC. Among the most stringently censored Internet locations are pornography websites2. The supposed thinking behind this is that by restricting the freedom to view pornography, the PRC is able to maintain moral integrity amongst its citizens. By terminating certain liberties, the government of the PRC is presupposing that it knows what is best for its people.

Mill would adamantly oppose these restrictive actions of Creon and the PRC. In On Liberty, Mill highlights many utilitarian benefits to tolerating individual freedoms whilst minimizing state and social tyranny. Firstly, Mill dismisses the notion that government knows what is best for its individuals. Rather, Mill argues that individuals themselves know what is in their own best interests. Mill emphasizes that individually made (as opposed to state-directed) choices are best simply because 'it is his own mode. ' [p.77]

By this, Mill meant that due to the multitude of uniqueness among humans ('human beings are not like sheep' [p. 77]), it is futile to impossible to impose 'some small number of patterns' [p. 77] on the way individuals are expected to behave. Mill believed that because there is such diversity in the 'modes of life' [p. 77] of humans, imposing a blanket morality deprives individuals of achieving that 'which their nature is capable' [p. 77].

To clarify his opinion, Mill uses the analogy of a 'pair of boots' [p.77] that are custom-made to fit the wearer; that it is futile to attempt to force the 'pair of boots' on someone else who has different needs and requirements. Surely, it is not the act of viewing pornography that Mill would endorse, but the availability of the choice to do so. When the PRC removes such choices, it is imposing a blanket morality on its subjects; it makes the mistake of supposing that certain behavior (such as viewing pornography) is bad for everyone, when in fact it may be acceptable for certain individuals.

Similarly, when Creon removes the liberty to mourn for Polynices, he makes the mistake of supposing that anyone who mourns for the dead soldier becomes a threat to the polis. Of course, it may be that some who mourn Polynices may indeed be driven to incite revenge, but for many figures (such as his sister Antigone), mourning Polynices does not pose a threat to security. Creon fails to see the variance in his people, and thus seems to impose an unnecessary repression that is unsuitable for a large portion of his subjects.

Mill introduces the idea of the progression of humans via liberty. Mill advises against being 'bowed to the yoke' [p. 70] of conformity. Though he stresses social conformity, it can be argued that conformity manifests when government attempts to streamline the behavior of its citizens by regulating nonstandard behavior. Mill warns that conformation for the sake of conformity creates stagnation in people's development. When individuals do not think for themselves – when they allow government to tell them what is best for them – they fail to develop respectable mental faculties.

Progression as society would be stunted for progression entails challenging a norm; if people are accustomed to being dictated what is best by the government, this habit of challenging norms may fail to exist. Sophocles' Antigone poses a perfect allegory to the question to what extent does government know what is best for its subjects? Creon, like Hobbes, believes the duty of government is to safeguard its citizens. In fact, this much is commonly accepted throughout political doctrines: government exists to protect. However, Hobbes asserts that individual liberties are directly pernicious to this protection.

He calls for a tyrant in the vein of Creon to take the onus of doing what is personally felt to be best for the people. Surely, this cannot be a just doctrine; the opportunities for oppression are all too viable. Furthermore, Mill argues that governments are not always incorrigible, for in reality, nobody is. Furthermore, we cannot have government telling us what is best, because they do not; the PRC may think themselves to be benevolent when censoring pornography but they fail to see that the government's moral values are not necessarily applicable to all of its subjects.

Lastly, the promotion of liberty involves a utilitarian benefit: the 'unfailing and permanent' [p. 80] progression of society. Perhaps we can conjecture another function of government: to promote the progression of its people. If this is the case, rather than dictating a set of values for its people to conform to in the name of security, governments should promote liberties in the name of dignified human development. In conclusion, governments do not know best, and in any case, the greatest good arises from liberty, not dictation.