John Stuart Mill was a leading figure in the intellectual ferment of the nineteenth century. His father, James Mill, a famous philosopher in his own right, was his son's only teacher until John Stuart reached fourteen. Young John Stuart had mastered Latin and classical Greek, philosophy, and the advanced mathematics of his time by the age of eight and had also worked through the English histories of Gibbon and Hume. At twelve, he turned to logic and at thirteen, young Mill was correcting proofs for his father's Elements of Political Economy. The complex economics of David Ricardo were delivered when Mill was fourteen, which meant that his father would lead him on walks through the woods, lecturing constantly while John Stuart frantically scribed notes. Mill later recounted that he saw nothing extraordinary in these accomplishments; having been denied the company of children his own age, he assumed that every child was subjected to the same training.
John Stuart loyally followed his father’s lead and embraced the ideas in Jeremy Bentham's Utilitarianism (1836). Utilitarianism pivots on the notion that pleasure is good, pain is bad, and that people should act accordingly. Ironically, John Stuart Mill missed the boat when it came to pursuing happiness; becoming a thoroughbred intellectual had a dark downside. The young man also became an emotionless depressant and, at twenty, he had a nervous breakdown. Meeting his future wife Harriet was pivotal, according to Mill’s Autobiography, in helping him recover from this breakdown. Being in love was the right medicine for Mill.
Mill thereafter spent most of his life as an examiner in the employ of the India House, where his father also worked. His official duties at work left him considerable time to reflect and write on philosophy, logic, and economics. Inspired in part by the logical positivism of Auguste Comte, Mill sought to bring all the social sciences into a grand synthesis—to be called ethology—but after a few years of trying to do so, he was forced to admit a lack of progress on his new science.
He turned instead to a treatise on political economy and, in 1848, published his Principles of Political Economy: With Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy. Although the book lacked pathbreaking originality, it elaborated and fused the powerful ideas of David Ricardo and Adam Smith, whose influence lived on long after they absented the scene. Principles enjoyed an unusually long life as an economics text, being widely read by both the serious-minded public and by several generations of economics students.
Mill thought that the economics of his day needed increased emphasis on practical questions of economic policy. Many of these practical questions concerned government intervention, to which he was usually, though not dogmatically, opposed. Mill identified several broad instances of market failure— cases where market solutions were not optimal because (a) buyers or sellers lacked adequate information, (b) pursuit of private gain injured innocent third parties, or (c) competitive behavior tended to short-circuit economies of large-scale production. Although every government intervention restricts the freedom of some individuals, Mill did not reject such interventions if the collective benefits exceeded the collective costs. On quite pragmatic and utilitarian grounds, then, Mill established the philosophical basis of the “mixed economy.”
Economics, as Mill perceived it, is not limited to the study of commerce. It also addresses freedom and fairness. Mill held that there was no simple rule appropriate for government interference or noninterference but that some broad guidelines for state intervention could be specified. Above all, he wished to preserve and enhance the concept of individual liberty, which could be done sometimes by removing government intrusion and at other times through government action designed to help individuals pursue their own interests more effectively. Indeed, one person’s rights can sometimes be had only by limiting the rights of another. Consider pollution, for one example. Your freedom to breathe clean air may be harmed by another’s freedom to smoke.
Mill was a fervent advocate of equality of opportunity, but feared that people’s willingness to work and invest would be severely hampered if government guaranteed equality of result. Consequently, he took a dim view of progressive income taxes, agreeing with Adam Smith that progressive taxes discourage effort. Instead, Mill proposed an almost confiscatory inheritance tax, a level playing field which would mean that only one’s own diligence and ability would limit your capacity to succeed. Absent an inheritance tax, Mill supported a proportionate or “flat” tax, which taxes everyone at a stable tax rate. Mill’s sole exception would be for the poor, who would be exempt from paying taxes.
Inspired by his wife Harriet, Mill published On Liberty (1859) which continues to be cited as among the most lucid and powerful defenses of personal freedom ever written. This was followed by The Subjection of Women (1869), which supported equal rights between the sexes. While serving in Parliament, Mill advocated public ownership of natural resources, women's suffrage, birth control and mandatory education. Many of Mill's views were based in egalitarianism, but others were not. For example, Mill believed that educated people should have more votes than uneducated people to facilitate governance by a ruling middle class or “educated” class. Gaining power not through bank doors, but through school doors was a part of Mill’s creed.
Mill's views on government, along with many of his other ideas, live on today despite his death in 1873. On Liberty reads like a blueprint of the First and Fourth Amendments of the Constitution. His economic work also remains, which helped bridge many gaps between his time and ours.
Author: Ralph Byrns
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