Front Page Titles (by Subject) Mill, Communism, and Human Nature - Literature of Liberty, Spring 1980, vol. 3, No. 1
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Mill, Communism, and Human Nature - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Spring 1980, vol. 3, No. 1 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Mill, Communism, and Human Nature
“Libertarian Communists, Malthusians, and J.S. Mill Who Is Both.” The Mill News Letter 15(Winter 1980):1–16.
Paradoxically for a Malthusian spokesman, John Stuart Mill’s social philosophy defends a form of “libertarian communism” on grounds that parallel William Godwin’s argument for abolishing private property in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. Both Mill and Godwin believed that communal property could be accompanied by man’s moral development. He would prefer public to private interest and thus be motivated to restrain sexual passion and population growth.
The theoretical issue is whether human nature should be viewed as fixed and unvarying on the basis of past observations, or as developmental and perfectible and thus capable of living up to a “higher” altruistic morality than it has in the past. Mill argued that “successful libertarian communism would inculcate an altruistic moral motivation replacing self-regarding motivation.” He defended libertarian communism by challenging the foundations of Malthusian “economic reductionism,” which claimed that human motivation and goals were fixed, and therefore, open to scientific analysis and prediction.
The background of Mill’s position involves the debate between William Godwin and T.R. Malthus over the desirability of private property and the related issue of parental responsibility in limiting population. John Locke’s Second Treatise had endorsed private property appropriation so long as it does not reduce the amount left in common for others to use (the famous “Lockean proviso” on appropriation). Hume had criticized Locke’s innuendo of economic abundance and noted that property exists only in conditions of scarcity. Entering this older debate Godwin countered that scarcity itself was an artificial creation of property. Abolishing property would remove scarcity and foster general benevolence. Egalitarian distribution of income would codetermine the new altruist morality.
Malthus next entered the debate and counterargued that scarcity is natural and cannot be altered by reforming social institutions (such as property) since human motivation is fixed: human wants and passions are always insatiable. Thus, if Godwin’s libertarian communism were to substitute communal for private responsibility in supporting one’s offspring, the “tragedy of the commons” would result. Potential parents would be more prone to indulge their passion and beget extra children since they could pass on the costs of support to society at large. Communism, in effect, creates “perverse incentives” that encourage excessive population growth. The natural check to population was rather to make every man provide for his own children.
Mill’s fellow Malthusian, Nassau Senior, had reasoned that the poor laws could be so devised that they would create no perverse incentives to higher birth rates. Similarly, Mill believed that under libertarian communism individuals would act out of social concern in their family-forming decisions. Against the economic reductionists he affirmed that past human motivation in sex and family matters need not be constant for the future but could be transformed by human moral development. In the new communist society of evolving moral development, we might expect social unity, the suppression of narrow self-interest, and an improvement over the contradictory morality of Christianity. In effect, Mill’s argument is a secularized version of theological utilitarianism or Pascal’s wager argument: any gamble to attain an infinite goal (not God, but social moral development) is worth the cost.