WHETHER POLITICAL ECONOMY IS USEFUL
London Review, Jan. 1836, vol. II, pp. 553–572.
[After a preliminary exchange of definitions, A and B agree to debate the proposition that political economy ‘has not yet been allowed the benefit of science; that the propositions hitherto framed about it, are either untrue, or insignificant’.]
B.—We need not, I imagine, go far into the question whether any of the propositions in political economy are true; because it is easy to form true propositions, if the value be neglected, on any subject. Thus we may say, that labour produces commodities; that labour is painful, and only exerted with a view to some reward-that a man will execute more work with tools than without them: so also, we can say it is warmer in summer than in winter; an ox is commonly heavier than a sheep, and so on. The question you really propose is, whether there be in political economy, any proposition of great utility… It appears to me, here again, to be necessary to inquire, whether, when you employ the word utility, and I employ the word utility, we are both of us thinking of the same thing; not thinking, the one of us of one thing, the other of another… We shall proceed with much more satisfaction in our inquiry, if we first ascertain that point. And a few questions, I think, with your answers, will afford us the requisite information… I can anticipate your answer to the first question I shall put—whether you think all utility to be that which is represented by pounds, shillings, and pence? You will say you do not… You are, then, of opinion that there are more species of utility than one?
B.—Shall we endeavour to ascertain its more general species—in this way, I mean; by asking ourselves if the nature of man does not consist of two parts, the body and the mind?
B.—May we not, corresponding with these parts, consider as one class of useful things, those which conduce to the welfare of the body; another, those which conduce to the welfare of the mind?
B.—By conducive to the welfare, I mean things serving to yield pleasure, or ward off pain, and that whether directly, or mediately, and indirectly… One class of useful things, therefore, are those which serve to produce bodily pleasure, or ward off bodily pain: another, those which produce mental pleasure, or ward off mental pain… The next step of our inquiry, is this:—As some things give pleasure to the body, without producing any other effect, and are useful on that account; are there not certain things which give pleasure to the mind, and are held useful, without regard to any ulterior effect? I may allude to astronomy as a sufficient illustration. That science, beyond some of its more familiar results, yields no guidance for the affairs of life. It is contemplative, and the pleasure which it yields is purely mental. But the pleasure which the mind receives, when it comprehends within its grasp a multitude of great objects, and traces distinctly their mutual operations and dependencies, is known to be very great. You do not hesitate, I suppose, to admit this?
B.—This pleasure, therefore, is a good; and that which procures it is useful… We need not inquire scrupulously into the comparative value of this pleasure. It is well-known how small is the value of all the merely corporeal pleasures, when taken nakedly by themselves, and without the addition of anything mental. The man who relishes most the pleasures of eating and drinking, flies from a solitary meal, and confesses that his enjoyment in it is reduced to little. Of the pleasures of love, we see that the bodily part is little valued when stripped of the mental, and that it is only the lowest of our species, who are found to be seriously under its influence.
A.—All that is true.
B.—You see to what this train of thought leads.
A.—You mean the conclusion, that the purely mental pleasures, those which begin and end in the existence of pleasurable thoughts, hold a high rank among the enjoyments of our nature, and the causes of them among the things which we denominate useful.
B.—You have traced the consequences clearly and well. We have now, therefore, agreed in certain points, which I think may be applied with advantage to the inquiry we are engaged in.
A.—I shall be happy to hear in what way.
B.—The matters which form the subject of political economy are matters in the highest degree interesting to mankind. They are, in fact, the multifarious operations concerned in producing, distributing, and exchanging; placing, in a word, in the hands of the consumers, all the things which constitute the wealth of individuals and of nations: the things for which, almost exclusively, the labour, the schemes, the cares, of human beings are expended. These operations are of many kinds, and are connected together in a system of great complexity,—following one another according to certain laws, checking one another according to certain laws,—aided by one set of arrangements, impeded by another. This complicated tissue of causes and effects, subordinate to ends the most interesting to human kind, it cannot but be an agreeable exercise to an ingenious mind to explore,—to trace the course of such things,—to mark their concatenations. And if it succeed, by its meditations on the order of events, in discovering how they follow one another in trains, so as to reduce them all to a moderate number of trains, by which they can, as a whole, be held all at once in the mind's eye, and the mode in which every thing comes out can be distinctly comprhended; as a man raising himself to an eminence, from which he can look down upon a scene of the highest possible interest, not only beholds the numerous objects of which it consists, and their visible motions, but the causes of them, and the ends to which they are directed, and thence derives the highest delight;—is it not certain, that a similar commanding view obtained by the mind over a most interesting and complicated mental scene, must yield it a gratification of the highest value, even if no further consequence were to be derived from it?
A.—Undoubtedly, such a commanding view of so great a part of the field of human action, in which operations so multifarious, and tending to such interesting results, are taking place, cannot but yield a high degree of pleasure: and he must be one of the lowest of his species, who will not acknowledge that such a gratification of the highest part of our nature-the intellectual part, must hold a foremost place among the pleasures we are capable of receiving.
B.—I applaud this liberal declaration, and expected it from you. And now we, perhaps, have light to show us something of a matter which you, I expect, will acknowledge to be of the highest importance, but which is not often well understood; and by people who do not understand, and nevertheless are precipitate enough to judge without understanding, treated as of no importance.
A.—What is that?
B.—The connexion between that commanding view which we have been considering, and the kind of utility which these men understand,—the things which they can taste, handle, smell, and see,—the things, in short, which they can sell and buy in a market, and to which the term practical utility is by them appropriated. If this intellectual operation should be found to have a commanding influence even on this same practical or market utility, may we not expect them to change their opinion with respect to the value even of the mental process?
A.—Certainly, that which increases the utility of other things, is itself useful.
[They proceed to discuss the value of taking a ‘comprehensive view’ in other fields.]
B.—But a commanding view of a whole subject, in all its parts, and the connexion of those parts, is it anything but another name for the theory, or science of the subject? Theory θεωρια is literally view and science is scientia,knowledge: meaning view, or knowledge, not solely of this and that part, but, like that of the general with his army, of the whole.
A.—I see the inference to which you are proceeding: you mean to say, that the theory or science of political economy is a commanding view of the vast combination of agents and operations engaged in producing for the use of man, the whole of the things which he enjoys and consumes: in other words, the things which he denominates the matter of wealth—the great object to which almost all the toils and cares of human beings are directed.
B.—You have anticipated me correctly.
A.—You would farther proceed to ask me, I have no doubt, whether the innumerable operations which take place in subservience to that end, may not take place in more ways than one; in short, in a worse way, or in a better way? Whether it is not of importance that they should take place in the best way? And whether the difference between the best way and the worst way, is not likely to be very great?—great, I mean, in respect to the particular end, the production of the matter of wealth. And to all these questions I should answer in the affirmative.
B.—I should become in love with controversy, if I always met with such controvertists as you… Admitting, as you have done, that on the proper ordering and conducting of the great and numerous trains of operations, subservient to the production and use of wealth, a great deal depends; that between good ordering, and bad ordering, the difference in respect to beneficial results is immense; you will, I doubt not, allow, as you have done in general, that in this particular case, every thing cannot be well arranged without taking account of every thing; that the man who sees all is he alone who can arrange all—he alone who can discover if all the parts are, or are not, in co-operation; and how any change can be made in one part without affecting injuriously some other; in short, that the general, commanding, and complete view of the subject, which is properly denominated the science, is that alone which can with reason be looked to for the greatest of all possible benefits in the great affair, making everything concerned in it contribute in the highest degree to the attainment of the end.
A.—The conclusion seems to me to be incontrovertibly made out.
B.—I may now, then, reckon you a convert to my opinion—that the science of political economy is an important science?
A.—If there be such a science, and if that which goes by the name, instead of being that all-comprehensive view which you have been speaking of, and the importance of which I fully admit, be not mere scraps of a view—mostly incorrect, and leading to no useful conclusion.
B.—I grant to you most readily that it is a fair inquiry, whether the doctrine taught under the title of political economy deserves the name of science or not. In order to determine the question, perhaps you will point out which you think the criteria, or tests of a science—the marks or characters by which any combination of doctrines may be known to be, or not to be science…
[Two distinctive marks of a science are then put forward by A: that ‘the propositions be not disputed’ and ‘that they explain the whole of the subject’.]
B.—Is it not possible for a proposition to be true and yet to be disputed?
A.—I cannot deny that; yet truth, it is said, prevails in the long run.
B.—You remember, I doubt not, the saying of Hobbes, so often quoted and approved, that if the truths of mathematics had been opposed to the interests of men having power, they would have been disputed against and denied; and the people persecuted who maintained them?
B.—When the men, whose power enables them to set the fashion in opinions, as in dress, deem a set of doctrines opposed to their interest, were it but the interest of their ease, calling upon them for a disagreeable exertion of thought to learn and understand them—do you not see the possibility of these propositions being disputed for a long time, however true they may be—of their being honestly rejected and deemed of no importance by the greater number of men?
A.—I see how often that occurs, and I cannot but admit that few men form their opinions upon the evidence of their truth; that the feeling of interest sways the minds of the greater number in what they believe or disbelieve, and to such a degree, that some men are under a sort of incapacity of thinking but as their interests direct; and I admit that the general supineness of men's minds makes them ready, even for the saving of trouble, and when the opinions do not concern any other interest, to take for granted the truth of those which are inculcated upon them, particularly by those who have an ascendancy, from their power, station, or reputation.
B.—I do not think, therefore, that you will insist upon it as a clear index against the scientific character of a set of opinions, that they are disputed, because we know that the Newtonian theory of astronomy was long disputed; that the utility of the Star Chamber was long maintained; that a government really representative of the people was long treated as a mischievous delusion.
A.—Let us change the term undisputed, to true; you will not object to truth as one of the tests?
B.—Certainly not, if I am enabled first of all to test the truth. Your two marks, according to the change you propose, will then be, 1st, That the propositions be truth; 2ndly, That they completely expound the subject. And nobody will deny that a set of true propositions, fully expounding a subject, are the science of that subject. But these marks avail us nothing till we have the means of determining what are true propositions, and whcther they do embrace the whole of the subject. Can you name any tests by which either of these points can be determined?
A.—I cannot; but are we then to rest in the opinion that it is impossible to determine whether there is any science or not?
B.—I should say not, if we can do anything better; and I think we should by all means inquire how far we can advance, in determining either that a proposition is true, or that a set of propositions contain the entire exposition of a subject. On the latter question it is easier to approach the point of assurance than on the former, which is a reason for considering that in the first place, if you see no objection… It appears to me, that a subject may be contained within a definition or description, in such a manner that it may appear little less than certain that no part of it is left out, though to attain that certainty the doubt may be incurred whether more is not included than enough… When the whole of a subject is thus before the inquirer, he may divide it into portions, and afterwards subdivide those portions into other portions, small enough and simple enough for easy and sure comprehension.… Propositions expounding those portions may therefore be made with tolerable ground of certainty; and when the propositions on all such portions are put together, they cannot but constitute a full exposition of the subject.… Let us apply to political economy the points we are thus agreed upon. Is it possible to make a defition or description of the subject of political economy, of which we may be sure, though it may include something which belongs not to the subject, that it leaves nothing out? As for example, if we say the subject of political economy is the system of operations concerned in the producing and using of the matter of wealth, may we not conclude, with some assurance, that our definition includes the whole of the subject? Let us consider thus:—In regard to any object of human pursuit, do not the end and the means comprehend all that we are interested in knowing about it? Thus, in regard to medicine, the end is the removal of diseases, the means the whole resources of the medical art. Well, then, the science of medicine is the knowledge of diseases, and of the means of cure… In what regards wealth, for which men watch and toil, and on the plentiful or scanty supply of which the happiness or misery, the power or weakness of nations so greatly depends, the use is the end, the production the means. The question is, whether the doctrines of political economy entirely embrace these objects. Let us first examine if they do so in regard to production. The two great instruments are human labour, and that with which, and upon which, labour is employed—the two last included under the term capital. If political economy, therefore, expounds the natural laws, according to which labour and capital are employed in production, they fully comprehend this part of the subject. Without going into details, I suppose we may assume, as this is not a controverted part of political economy, that the doctrines do embrace, without any omission, this part of the subject?… The first act of using, subsequent to production, is possessing, that is, reception of shares. The next act of using is, when that which is thus possessed by any one is not the article he wants, but may be, and is, exchanged for it. The next, and last act of using is consumption. Appropriation, exchange, and consumption are, therefore, the three divisions of this last portion of the subject of political economy. Though, with respect to the truth of all the expositions of these subjects, there is not a perfect agreement among inquirers, I believe there is no dispute as to the completeness with which they embrace them. There is no dispute, for example, that the whole of the annual produce falls into three shares—one to the labourers, one to the capitalists, and one to the owners of land. The great question is, what regulates these shares, and determines so much to one and so much to another. It is well known, that the attempts of philosophers to ascertain the principle of wages, the principle of profits of stock, and the principle of rent, are attempts towards the solution of that question, and that whether their conclusions are true or false, they embrace all the parts of it. Next, with regard to exchange—its two great divisions are, exchange of home commodities for one another, exchange of home for foreign commodities. And the questions are, what are the purposes to which these exchanges are respectively subservient; what are the laws which regulate them,—in other words, which determine the quantity of one commodity which shall be given in exchange for another, in the several cases of home and of foreign exchange; and what is the nature and principles of money, the great instrument of facilitating exchanges? Whatever difference of opinion there may be as to the conclusions which inquirers have come to upon these subjects, it is not doubted, I believe, that they comprehend the whole of what it is useful to know in regard to them. We come now to the last part of using, which is consumption. That is divided into two kinds. There is no doubt, that whatever part of the annual produce falls to the share of any man, he uses it in one or other two ways; either in the way of production, for the sake of what it may again yield, or for some purpose of necessity or pleasure to which it is sacrificed. And these two kinds of consumption, the productive, and the nonproductive, include everything; the wealth of every member of the state and by aggregation, of the state itself. The nature and consequences of these modes of consumption are embraced by the doctrines of political economy. And from this deduction it appears, that the science of the wealth of nations is entirely embraced by political economy… Political economy, therefore, possesses one of the qualities which you represented as essential to a science, that it should explain the whole of the subject to which it relates.
A.—It is so.
B.—The next of your essentials was, that the doctrines should be true. What, then, is the test to which we shall apply the doctrines of political economy, in order to know whether they are true?
A.—The disagreement about them, of political economists themselves, is a sufficient proof of the uncertainty, at least, of all their conclusions.
B.—Is it your opinion, that all doctrines which are disputed are untrue, or at least unproved?
A.—Not always, perhaps, but generally.
B.—Then, I claim the benefit of the exception for political economy; its doctrines are true, but not undisputed.
A.—How do you prove that it is an exception?
B.—How do you prove that it is not?
A.—I do not undertake to prove it; but I esteem disagreement a reason for disbelief.
B.—This, as a rule of conduct, would carry you far. There is disagreement on a question of right, in every case of litigated property. Do you conclude, in all such cases, that there is no right on either side? There was a time, when all the men and women in Europe believed the Pope to be infallible: was that proposition, then, true? A time came, when it was disputed: did it then cease to be true? When Galileo affirmed that the earth travelled round the sun, not the sun round the earth, his proposition was universally disputed: was it, then, untrue? It is now, in civilized countries, at least, universally believed: is it now, therefore, true?
A.—I do not say that, being disputed, makes a proposition false; it only shows that it is not proved to be true.
B.—Is it, then, your opinion, that truth is never disputed; never after it is proved? You would, in that case, reduce the number of established truths to a short catalogue. It is even denied that the establishment of property is useful, or the institution of government.
A.—I do not consider it a presumption against an opinion, that it is disputed by a few wrong-headed people.
B.—I will not suppose, also, that you hold it a presumption against an opinion, that it is opposed by a multitude of people, however great, if the subject be one which they cannot understand.
A.—No; the opinion of people who are capable of understanding the subject, and who have used the due means of understanding it, are the only people whose opinions afford a presumption either for or against any proposition or propositions regarding it.
B.—Then you think that the opinions of those who, with a due degree of intellect, have used the due means of understanding the doctrines of political economy, that is, of the political economists themselves, are the only opinions which afford any presumption either for or against the doctrines whicn go under that name?
A.—I think so.
B.—And, thinking so, I have no fear that you will run from the consequences… One is, that the doctrines of political economy are of great importance… You have said that the opinions, of sensible men, who have studied a subject, are the only opinions which form a presumption in favour of any proposition relating to it. Now all political economists, in whatever else they disagree, are all united in this opinion, that the science is one of great importance. There is, therefore, according to you, the strongest presumption of its importance.
A.—I do not dispute the importance it might be of, were a set of propositions embracing the whole subject actually established. But I am justified in holding it of no importance, so long as nothing important is established.
B.—Will you allow me to observe, that you have as yet offered no test of defective establishment, but a want of general concurrence. Do you not allow that a proposition is established, when it is proved?
A.—I allow that. But the proof may be supposed to be defective, when it is not generally admitted.
B.—You do not mean, when it is not admitted by the generality of those who know nothing about it?
A.—No; I mean of those who study it.
B.—But what proof have you that the generality of those who study and know political economy, are not agreed about its doctrines?
A.—See what contradiction there is, on almost all the leading points, among the writers on the subject.
B.—I believe you are here led into an error, by a superficial appearance.
A.—How do you mean?
B.—You take the proportion of the writers who oppose the standard doctrines, for the proportion of the well-instructed people who oppose them; but the fact is very different. The writers are some half-dozen individuals, or less. And who are the people who write in such a case? Why, any creature who takes it into his head that he sees something in a subject which nobody else has seen. On the other hand, they who, after studying the subject, see the truth of the doctrines generally taught, acquiesce in them, hold to them, act upon them, and do not write. Every creature who objects, writes: they who believe, do not write. You thus know all the objectors, you have the knowledge of them forced upon you; you are ignorant of the thousands who do not object. And what can be gathered unfavourable to any doctrine, from the circumstance that some half-dozen individuals are found, with vanity enough, to think that they are wiser on the subject than the sum of all the other men who have studied it? Are persons ever wanting of that description, to oppose any system of propositions, however well established?
A.—I acknowledge the weight of the observation thus far; that those who desire to make objections commonly print, those who receive the doctrines do not print; and that the believers, therefore, may be a much greater number than they appear. But we have very strong evidence, that the number of those who admit the objections is also great. Do not the members of the legislature, the greater part of them, not only disclaim all confidence in the doctrines of political economy, but treat its pretensions to science as imposture?
B.—Of those members who disclaim all confidence in political economy, how many do you suppose speak with knowledge. how many without it?
A.—If I am to speak my opinion honestly, I doubt whether any. The greater part of them disclaim the knowledge, as well as the confidence; and those who do not so, leave nobody in doubt of the fact.
B.—But of those who know, and those who do not know a subject, of which are the opinions of any value? Were a blind man to give you his opinion upon the colours of any assortment of things placed before him, would you not treat the man as foolish, and his opinion good for nothing?
A.—The opinion of a man without knowledge must be allowed to be worth nothing at all. I think it ought not to be called an opinion: it is only so much unmeaning sound. He who utters the propositions, neither puts together nor separates ideas: he only puts together positive or negative terms.
B.—If ever so many people were to utter these unmeaning sounds—some on one, some on the other side of any question—they could not be considered as adding anything whatsoever to the presumptions on either. The people, therefore, in the legislature, void of knowledge, who say they distrust and despise political economy, make no presumption against the doctrines against which they vent only a senseless noise.
A.—I cannot but agree with you.
B.—Even with regard to the supposition on which they mainly build, that there is such a diversity of opinion among political economists as raises a presumption against their doctrines, the fact is the reverse. Among those who have so much knowledge on the subject as to entitle their opinions to any weight, there is a wonderful agreement, greater than on almost any other moral or political subject. On the great points, with hardly any exception, there is general concord; and even on those points on which controversy is maintained, the dispute is about words, the ideas being in almost all cases the same. Take a summary view of the subject. In the great doctrines concerning production, distribution, exchange, and consumption, you find perfect concurrence; it is only as to some of the minor questions involved in these great doctrines that there is any dispute; and I might undertake to show that in few instances is even that dispute other than verbal… There is no branch of human knowledge more entitled to respect; and the men who affect to hold it in contempt afford indication only against themselves.
JAMES MILL AND INDIA
James Mill spent twelve labourious years writing the History of British India, and it was as its author that he was chiefly known to the contemporary reading public. It was largely as a result of his examination in this book, of Indian society and of the problems facing the British administration, that in 1819 he obtained the important position with the East India Company which he held for seventeen years. Mill was accused of having betrayed his principles by accepting an appointment with the Company, but at no stage did he ever question the value of the Company as an instrument of government. John Stuart Mill was simply upholding the family tradition when he fought (unsuccessfully) in 1858 to retain the body which he and his father had so faithfully served. As Professor Stokes's excellent study shows, utilitarianism exerted great influence on British rule in India during the nineteenth century. No volume devoted to James Mill would be complete which did not take some account of his involvement with Indian affairs.
For some reason the History of British India has been overlooked by historians of economic thought. As an attempt to remedy this state of affairs, it seemed worthwhile making a small selection from this massive work to illustrate Mill's attitude to Indian society in general, and his views on land tenure and revenue in particular. A selection has also been made from his evidence before the Select Committee on Indian Affairs in 1831–2, given when he was at the height of his powers and influence.
1. The History of British India
Mill's magnum opus was conceived and written according to the canons of ‘philosophical history’ popular towards the end of the eighteenth century. It shows clearly the influence exerted on Mill's intellectual outlook by his Scottish education: Hume, Robertson and Gibbon were Mill's models. He believed that the historian's task was to delineate the natural laws of man's progress in society and avoid ‘a dry statement of vulgar, historical facts’; that it was his duty to ‘inflame the public virtues’ and show ‘the natural rewards of virtue and the punishments of vice’. These aims were further justified in his letters, his reviews of the works of others, and above all, in the Preface to his History, which his son described as being ‘among the most characteristic of my father's writings’.
Mill claimed to be attracted to Indian history by the mass of disconnected evidence on the subject, and by the indiscriminate mixture of fact and opinion to be found in the works of previous commentators. To produce order out of this chaos it was necessary to write a ‘critical’ or ‘judging’ history, which would weigh evidence carefully and distinguish between real and false causes, between good and bad ends; the incidental ‘ratiocinations’ required to support these judgments were to be as important as the narrative. To write this type of history the historian had to understand the laws of human nature and the ways in which ‘general laws of motion’ are modified by particular circumstances. ‘In short, the whole field of human nature, the whole field of legislation, the whole field of judicature, the whole field of administration, down to war, commerce, and diplomacy, ought to be familiar to his mind’. That Mill considered this aspect of his work to be its most important contribution is confirmed by his claim to Ricardo that ‘it would make no bad introduction to the study of civil society in general’.
Mill's ‘critical disquisitions’ are spread throughout the work; but the heart of what Bain described as ‘a grand sociological display’ is to be found in Book II, ‘Of the Hindus’, from which the following extracts are taken. In this book he set out to establish the precise position occupied by the Hindus in the ‘scale of civilisation’ by means of a potent combination of Benthamite norms, classical political economy and the techniques of ‘conjectural history’ perfected by Scottish philosophers and historians. The whole of Book II is shot through with what has been described as ‘Europocentrism’; his object was to counter the view that the Hindus enjoyed or had ever enjoyed a high degree of civilisation by European standards. He was highly critical of the pro-Oriental school of writers, of whom Sir William Jones was the most distinguished, who, in his opinion, had become so enamoured of Hindu culture as to have abandoned all objectivity and common sense; virtues which he believed existed only among Europeans. The impartial European alone was capable of writing the history of India. What might have been an apology for never having been to India and for knowing no Indian languages was turned into a qualification by Mill. The close observer of the Indian scene was likely to be given to ‘partial impressions’, and to lack the detachment necessary for combining and ordering the diverse but limited observations of many commentators.
Book II opens with a summary dismissal of the legendary accounts of ancient Hindu civilisation. In the absence of accurate historical records, the historian who wishes to draw up an account of the state of society and culture achieved by the Hindus in the past and maintained to the present must resort to ‘philosophy’ or conjecture. This method of procedure was justified by Dugald Stewart as follows: ‘In examining the history of mankind…when we cannot trace the process by which an event has been produced, it is often of importance to be able to show how it may have been produced by natural causes.’ And he added that ‘it is of much more importance to ascertain the progress that is most simple, than the progress that is more agreeable to fact’. James Mill's opening section is fully in accord with the spirit of Stewart's remarks. The approach he adopts rests on the assumption that since human nature is much the same wherever it is to be found, universal laws of social development can be drawn up by the historian armed with philosophy, and shielded from the glare of apparent diversity.
Mill examines in turn all of the leading characteristics of Hindu society: the caste system, the form of government, the law, the method of taxation, the arts and sciences, religion and manners. The conclusion which he reaches after this extended exercise in social anthropology is that the Hindus are merely on a level with the antique civilisations of the past, and other Oriental civilisations of the present; and that this places them somewhat below the level achieved by Europe in its feudal period. This ‘scientific’ conclusion, he claimed, was of great practical importance to the British people.
If the mistake in regard to Hindu Society, committed by the British Nation, and the British government, be very great; if they have conceived the Hindus to be a people of high civilization, while they have in reality made but a few of the earliest steps in the progress of civilization, it is impossible that in many of the measures pursued for the government of that people, the mark aimed at should not have been wrong.
His low estimate of the state of civilisation attained by the Hindus provided a justification for continued British rule, and supported the view that India should be governed according to civilised European standards, rather than those of the native population. In the course of preparing his History Mill wrote a number of articles on the East India Company which make his position with respect to British rule quite clear. As would be expected, he was strongly opposed to the continuance of the Company's trading monopoly; he believed there to be a prima facie case against all monopolies; they belonged to ‘an unenlightened and semi-barbarous age’, whereas ‘freedom is the offspring of civilization and philosophy’. He exposed the Company's case for retaining the monopoly as special pleading; exclusive privileges which were justifiable when the Company was first established were no longer necessary; unfettered competition would expand trade and serve both British and Indian interests better. He went to great pains to show that India, like other colonies, did not contribute to British wealth in the form of tribute; the gains of a few nabobs could not compensate for the fact that since 1797 there had been no surplus revenue after meeting the enormous expenses of government. India would always be a drain on Britain because of the continued need for military preparedness ‘where a small number of strangers’ ruled ‘an immense and widely extended population’.
Despite these arguments, Mill considered that ‘the English government in India with all its vices, is a blessing of unspeakable magnitude to the population of Hindustan’. In their present state the Indians were unfit to govern themseves; ‘a simple form of arbitrary government, tempered by European honour and European intelligence’ was needed. After all, ‘even the utmost abuse of European power is better, we are persuaded, than the most temperate exercise of Oriental despotism… The wider the circumference of British dominion, the more extensive the reign of peace.’
Mill praised the East India Company for the way in which it had discharged its governmental functions, and was opposed to any suggestion that India should be ruled directly by the British government; this would merely lead to neglect and corruption. He was in favour of encouraging British emigration to India because a large British population would exert ‘moral pressure’ on the natives and act as a civilising influence. He even went so far as to suggest what the flamboyant imperialist Disraeli later partially carried out, namely that, ‘instead of sending out a Governor General, to be recalled in a few years, why should we not constitute one of our Royal Family, Emperor of Hindustan with hereditary succession’.
But Mill did not set out simply to provide a justification for British rule in India; this, after all, was not the main issue at stake. He was more anxious to demonstrate the virtues of the principle of utility as a guide to the conduct of affairs in India and, by implication, in Britain also. Mill's criticisms of Hindu law and government, and of a society based on caste, tradition and religious dogma, were derived from utilitarian norms. Furthermore, they are put in such generalised form as to make them applicable to supposedly advanced communities like Britain as well. As John Stuart Mill said of his father's History: ‘it was saturated…with the opinions and modes of judgment of a democratic radicalism then regarded as extreme’. James Mill himself was highly conscious of the radical content of his work and anticipated (one might almost say welcomed) hostile reactions from those whom he considered to be apologists for the status quo.
While it is true, as Halévy says, that Mill's History was ‘an instrument of Benthamite propaganda’, this view must not be allowed to obscure the context within which Mill applied utilitarian standards of judgment. The basic format of the book was determined by Mill's belief in the idea of progress as a philosophy of history; a philosophy which he inherited from his Scottish mentors, but one to which Bentham does not appear to have subscribed. Although Bentham obviously appreciated Mill's efforts to further the cause of legal and administrative reform in India, he thought the History was badly written and claimed that the account of the ‘superstitions’ of the Hindus made him ‘melancholy’. It was to Scotland that Mill looked for recognition of his achievements as a philosophical historian.
Mill's special contribution lay in combining the idea of progress with the principle of utility, thereby strengthening the normative or propagandist aspects of both traditions. In France, as Carl Becker has shown, the philosophes had made use of the idea of progress in their histoires raisonnées as a weapon to further the cause of a rationalist enlightenment. In Scotland too, such writers as Adam Smith, Hume, Robertson and Millar employed conjectural history for liberal and didactic purposes. But the Scottish writers laid far less emphasis than the French on reason as a determining force in history and human affairs; they depicted history as a blind social process in which order and gradual improvement occur without the conscious intervention of individual reason. The French writers in the same tradition saw the history of the race more as a clearsighted march towards perfection, in which man's reason inexorably overcame the forces of superstition, intolerance and tyranny.
Mill considered himself to be furthering the tradition of ‘that sagacious contemplator of the progress of society’, John Millar, in carrying out a ‘comprehensive induction’ of the characteristics of Hindu society:
The writings of Mr Miller [sic] remain almost the only source from which even the slightest information on the subject can be drawn: one of the ends which has at least been in view during the scrutiny conducted in these pages, has been to contribute something to the progress of so important an investigation.
But Mill's use of conjectural history was more explicitly radical than any of his Scottish forebears, including Millar, whose opinions had been considered dangerously liberal by many of his contemporaries. The contrast between Mill and Millar can be seen in their respective attitudes to social change. Millar has this to say on the subject in the Preface to his Origin of Ranks:
When these enquiries are properly conducted, they have likewise a tendency to restrain the wanton spirit of innovation which men are too apt to indulge in their political reasonings. To know the laws already established, to discern the causes from which they have arisen, and the means by which they were introduced; this preliminary step is essentially requisite, in order to determine upon what occasions they might be altered or abolished. The institutions of a country, how imperfect soever they may seem, are commonly suited to the state of the people by whom they have been embraced; and therefore, in most cases, they are susceptible to those gentle improvements, which proceed from a gradual reformation of the manners, and are accompanied with a correspondent change in the condition of society. In every system of law or government, the different parts have an intimate connection with each other. As it is dangerous to tamper with the machine, unless one is previously acquainted with the several wheels and springs of which it is composed; so there is reason to fear, that the violent alteration of any single part may destroy the regularity of its movements, and produce the utmost disorder and confusion.
This can be contrasted with Mill's characteristically confident statement in his correspondence with Ricardo that: ‘All great changes in society, are easily effected when the time is come’.
Mill wished to change society and so, like the philosophes, he stressed the importance of reason in human affairs. The principle of utility provided a guide for a rational order and was the mark of high civilisation.
Exactly in proportion as Utility is the object of every pursuit, may we regard a nation as civilized. Exactly in proportion as its ingenuity is wasted on contemptible and mischievous objects, though it may be, in itself, an ingenuity of no ordinary kind, the nation may safely be denominated barbarous.
Mill reinforced philosophical radicalism by philosophical history. Utilitarianism, in his hands, was more than a pragmatic test of the fitness of laws and institutions; it became a universal principle for judging all societies at all times.
Mill's History could not be described as a popular work, but it was undoubtedly a highly influential one. Soon after its publication we learn from Francis Place that it was being presented by the Directors of the East India Company ‘as a premium to all civil servants leaving the college [Haileybury] with éclat’ ; and subsequently it became the standard textbook at the college. Such was its influence that the pro-Orientalists, represented by Horace Wilson, considered it necessary to bring out a new edition of the book later, correcting some of Mill's opinions on the low state of Indian civilisation. Although Wilson thought it was ‘the most valuable work upon the subject which has yet been published’, he held that ‘a harsh and illiberal spirit has of late years prevailed in the conduct and councils of the rising service in India, which owes its origin to impressions imbibed in early life from the History of Mr Mill’. The work, he said, was ‘calculated to destroy all sympathy between the rulers and the ruled; to preoccupy the minds of those issuing annually from Great Britain…with an unfounded aversion towards those over whom they exercise…power’. According to Mill's view of the matter, it was not the object of India's rulers to be popular; their job was to be clear-sighted and efficient.
2. James Mill and the Indian Revenue System
Mill attached great importance to the ‘mode of providing for the pecuniary wants of the government’ in determining the character and condition of a society and its capacity for progress. As Professor Stokes has made clear, this view was especially justified in the case of the Indian land revenue system:
It was the heart of the British administrative system, and the one subject which brought British rule into intimate contact with the lives of the Indian peasantry… All the great issues, the union or separation of judiciary and executive, the law to be administered and the rights to be protected, hinged upon it. More than half of the revenue of the State was derived from the taxation of land; and the fact that the State demand absorbed almost the whole surplus produce of the soil, after allowing for the bare subsistence costs of the cultivator, made it the determining influence in shaping the structure of Indian society. Except in the cities, every class above the immediate cultivators lived upon allowances or alienations of land revenue. Consequently, the British as sovereigns held in their hands the most powerful agency affecting the composition of Indian society.
We have noted earlier, when discussing Mill's treatment of taxes on rent in the Elements, that he saw no objection in principle to a system whereby the bulk of the state's revenue was derived from the annual produce of land. One might even say that in so far as the exactions of the state could be confined strictly to rent or the net produce after payment of wages and profits, he regarded it as the ideal system of taxation. But he was bitterly opposed to the existing Indian system, particularly as reflected in the reforms introduced by Lord Cornwallis in Bengal in 1793.
The British administration in India had inherited an incredibly confused, uncertain and corrupt system of assessing and collecting the state's portion of the land revenue. Property and tenure rights were ill-defined; and the revenue demand on the ryots or peasant cultivators and paid by them to zemindars or tax-farmers, varied almost at will. To regularise this situation, Cornwallis decided to set a permanent limit on the demand made by the government on the zemindars, who in turn were to make fixed settlements with the villages or individual ryots in their districts. In this way private property rights were vested in the zemindars in the hope that this would provide them with an incentive to make improvements. At the same time an element of protection was given to the ryots against rack-renting by the zemindars.
The groundwork for Mill's attack on Cornwallis's permanent settlement is laid in his chapter on taxes in Book II of his History. After specifying the general qualities desirable in a tax system—that as little as possible should be taken in a way that does least harm to the people—he gives an histoire raisonnée of the establishment of property in a primitive society, in which he implies that the zemindar is an interloper with no property or tenure rights. His account of the Cornwallis system in operation is given later in Book VI. In Mill's opinion this scheme was based on ‘aristocratical prejudices’ in favour of private landlordism, a complete miscalculation of the character of the zemindars, and a failure to foresee the likely effect of the system upon the ryots. Mill's antagonism to the whole principle of aristocracy needs little further documentation here. Apart from any question of the legality of the zemindar's property rights, he believed that it was pointless to expect them to behave as paternalistic, improving landlords. Large land-owners relying on rent income were the same world over; their extensive possessions blunted the incentive to make profitable improvements; they relished power over their tenants rather than money; they were spenders and not accumulators. The real hope for improvements lay in the immediate cultivators, those who possessed little and relied on their own labour and capital. It was precisely this class, the ryots, that Cornwallis's settlement had sacrificed to the zemindar. In his account of the Cornwallis system in practice Mill dwelt consistently on its failures.
After twelve years' service with the Company Mill's views were unchanged. He was given a full opportunity to air his criticisms and to expound an alternative solution in his evidence before the Select Committee on the Affairs of the East India Company in 1831–2. The Committee was appointed as a preliminary to the renewal of the Company's Charter in 1834. Since the last renewal in 1813 a good many complaints against the Company's handling of India's internal affairs, and of the monopoly of the China tea trade in particular, had accumulated. As Chief Examiner in charge of the correspondence with India relating to political, judicial and revenue matters, Mill was the star witness for the defence. In August 1831, for example, he appeared before the Committee on no less than eight complete sittings. When the Committee was re-convened in 1832, he was questioned on four more occasions. The evidence, together with his memoranda, covers a wide field, but does not deal with the China tea monopoly, which was outside Mill's province. The extracts reprinted below have been selected chiefly with the intention of illustrating Mill's views on revenue questions. To get some idea of the extent of Mill's responsibilities and of his grasp of affairs, it would also be necessary to consider his evidence on the machinery of government, the judicial system and the political questions involving relations between various Indian states.
With respect to land revenue in India, the solution favoured by Mill was for the government to be reinstated as the universal landlord dealing directly with the ryots, and eliminating the middle-man. The ownership of land should never have been handed over to the zemindars in return for a fixed contribution to the state. By so doing the government had created private rent income out of what might legitimately and harmlessly have furnished the revenue of the state. In his evidence Mill explains in precise, dogmatic terms the desirability of obtaining government revenue from land; the means by which land nationalisation could be effected; and the importance of the rent doctrine in assessing the revenue demand. By relying on pure rent as a source of income ‘the wants of the government are supplied without any drain either upon the produce of any man's labour, or the produce of any man's capital’. To eliminate the abuses of a system which left the ryot at the mercy of the zemindar, the government should gradually purchase zemindary estates and confirm the ryots as hereditary occupants. A tax settlement based on a calculation of the net produce of every ryot holding, inclining to leniency in case of doubt, would serve the interests of the government without discouraging the immediate cultivator from undertaking improvements.
Apart from his antagonism to the zemindari as a class, Mill was opposed to the principle of permanency embodied in the original Cornwallis settlement. A standard tax assessment levied on all land regardless of fertility offended against the pure rent doctrine; it penalised land of low rent yield and created private rent income on land of higher fertility. This objection applied equally to a permanent ryotwari settlement as to a permanent zemindari settlement. Mill proposed that the ryots should become lease-holders with sufficient permanency of tenure to encourage improvements; but it would still be necessary to make periodic reassessments of the leases to keep the revenue demand in line with the rent-yielding capacity of land. This would allow the ryot to enjoy the ‘profits of stock’ and to accumulate capital, but would not permit him to succumb to the temptations inherent in the receipt of a rent income. Moreover, permanency of settlement entailed ‘an alienation of the great source of the revenue of government’.
Mill was fully aware of the practical difficulties involved in reaching a settlement with individual peasant cultivators in a country where the population had been demoralised by previous exactions. Nevertheless, he maintained that the fundamental principle was perfectly clear, and no effort should be spared to bring an end to the old system and move in the direction indicated. It should be noted in passing that John Stuart Mill, who considered his father to be the ‘originator of all sound statesmanship’ in India, followed him implicitly in this matter.
The two other major sources of revenue in India were the Company's monopoly of the manufacture of salt and of sales of opium; and Mill was called upon to answer criticisms of the desirability and of the mode of operating these monopolies. His answers to a questionaire on these and other tax matters have been included because they contain a good deal of basic economic reasoning, combined with comments on the practical difficulties of revenue collection in an underdeveloped country.
In conclusion, as evidence of the utilitarian mind at work in India, and to show how little Mill's attitude towards the native population had changed since he wrote his History, a short extract is included which gives his views, in a nutshell, on the question of employing Indians in the Company's service.
Exracts from the HISTORY OF BRITISH INDIA
Note on the Text
The following extracts from the History of British India are all taken from volume I, Book II, chapters I to V of the 3rd edition (1826), the last to appear in Mill's lifetime. In preparing the extracts the procedure adopted has been to omit most of the detailed evidence by which Mill supported his ‘ratiocinations’. In so doing, of course, the wealth of scholarship which went into the History is lost; but since the main strength of Book II lay in its deductive structure, it is hoped that much of the powerful flavour of Mill's work has been retained.