Mill on Political Economy: Collected Works vol. II

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Source: Editor's introduction to The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume II - The Principles of Political Economy with Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy (Books I-II), ed. John M. Robson, introduction by V.W. Bladen (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965).

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Introduction by V.W.BLADEN


the textual precision and inclusiveness of this edition of the Principles of Political Economy are due entirely to the intelligence and industry of the textual editor, Professor Robson, and it is only proper that he has written the second introduction, which is concerned with the successive changes in thought and exposition recorded in this edition, and which lays down the principles of textual criticism and procedure followed in preparing the text. It is my privilege to contribute an economist’s introduction to the Principles as a single complete work, rather than to deal with variations of text. I fully recognize the importance of the work of the textual editor and the value of this edition, but I must explain how different is my own approach. I welcomed an edition which would make the Principles in its final form readily available and easy to read because I believe that it is a living book which has present value and significance. The members of the editorial committee have emphasized always the importance of providing easy reading of the main text of the Works for those who want to ignore changes over successive editions, and I was glad to have this 7th edition of the Principles in such a form. I have always set a high value on the Ashley edition, and was anxious that its virtues should be retained in this edition. Ashley’s was not a fully collated edition: it did not meet the needs of the scholar trying to reconstruct the successive editions after 1848; but as a working edition for the modern economist it was superb. It indicated nearly all the textual changes of importance to the modern economist. I am proud that it was the work of the first professor of economics in this University and it is with some sentiment of filial piety that I, one of his successors in the Department of Political Economy, write this introduction.

I have said that this book has present value and significance, and this I must defend. I know that in many universities economists are trained without reading any economics written before World War I. I know that in most universities the history of economic thought, if included in the curriculum, is, nevertheless, considered of no real importance, though possibly of some antiquarian interest. Even where the classical literature is seriously studied the attitude is often that stated by Professor Frank Knight in his brilliant article on the “Ricardian Theory of Production and Distribution”:1 he there said that our “primary interest in the ‘ancients’ in such a field as economics is to learn from their mistakes,” and the primary theme of his article was “the contrast between the ‘classical’ system and ‘correct’ views.” By contrast, I am not interested in examining the inadequacies of the “founders” but rather in discovering what we can still learn from them. From my own experience, and from observation of the development of my students, I would argue that the study of the classical economists, and in particular of Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, is important in the development of the modern economist, in the development of insight if not in the development of analytical skill.

The advance of our science has not been even on all fronts: while we now answer with greater precision and certainty some of the questions the classical economists asked, there are many other questions that we have ceased to ask because we have seen no better way of answering and have been dissatisfied with the apparent lack of a sound basis for the answers given. Some of these questions are, I suggest, as important as, or more important than, the ones we now answer. One of the values of the classical literature is to remind us to ask these questions and to seek anew ways of answering them. The student of this book will not improve his technical analytical skill, but he may come to recognize more fully how much more he needs than technical equipment. There is, as Professor Redfield reminded us, an element of art in science.2 Alfred Marshall had this in mind when he said: “The economist needs the three great intellectual faculties, perception, imagination and reason: and most of all he needs imagination.”3 More recently, Professor Boulding has said: “Insight (judgment) and logic (mathematics) are strictly complementary goods.”4 We know a good deal about training in the techniques of science, we know incredibly little about the development of imagination or judgment. Indeed I am sometimes worried lest we kill off imagination in the process of such training. I cannot prove that a study of the great classics will develop those scarce qualities of imagination and judgment; but I assert that it will develop those qualities in some of us.

This is a lonely position, and I therefore take great comfort in the support of the late Professor Schumpeter and of Lord Robbins. Said Schumpeter in his History of Economic Analysis:5

Teachers or students who attempt to act upon the theory that the most recent treatise is all they need will soon discover that they are making things unnecessarily difficult for themselves. . . . Any treatise that attempts to render “the present state of science” really renders methods, problems, and results that are historically conditioned and are meaningful only with reference to the historical background from which they spring. . . . The state of any science at any given time implies its past history and cannot be satisfactorily conveyed without making this implicit history explicit.

And Schumpeter went on to a further justification of the study of the classical literature with which I am particularly sympathetic. “Our minds,” he said, “are apt to derive new inspiration from the study of the history of science. Some do so more than others, but there are probably few that do not derive from it any benefit at all. A man’s mind must be indeed sluggish if, standing back from the work of his time and beholding the wide mountain ranges of past thought, he does not experience a widening of his own horizon.” Lord Robbins, in his Theory of Economic Policy,6 gives similar support: “I suspect,” he there said, “that damage has been done, not merely to historical and speculative culture, but also to our practical insight, by this indifference to our intellectual past—this provincialism in time—which has been so characteristic of our particular branch of social studies.” Lord Robbins went on to a further comment of great importance: “It is no exaggeration to say that it is impossible to understand the evolution and meaning of Western liberal civilization without some understanding of Classical Political Economy.” The contribution of the classical political economists to this cultural heritage may well have been as important as their contribution to the development of the science of economics. Modern economists have some responsibility for conserving and interpreting this part of our cultural and intellectual heritage.

I have said that there is an element of “art” in the science of economics; I need hardly add that economic policy making is an “art”. It involves much more than prescribing on the basis of scientific analysis a particular action with a view to achieving a stated end. In this it is like medicine: in both political economy and medicine when practitioners diagnose and prescribe, judgment is involved. There must be a readiness to act in spite of incomplete knowledge which makes the result of the action uncertain. For economists the problem is frequently complicated by the desire of the public to promote two, or more, ends without recognition of their conflict; to make such conflict clear so that the public may be faced with the necessity of choice is an important function of the economist. But perhaps a more important function of the political economist is to make explicit the implicit but unrecognized values of the community of which he is a member, values which he is likely to share. This function John Stuart Mill performed more fully than most: study of his work may lead more of us to recognize the values implicit in our policy statements, and to attempt to develop similar recognition on the part of the public. Political Economy in the classical tradition comprehended more than economic analysis; some of its inadequacies in analysis may be forgiven when we consider the total contribution it made.

Some of its supposed inadequacies I shall later argue are the product of misinterpretation of the literature, the inadequacy being in the modern reader rather than in the classical writer. Most frequently the source of misinterpretation lies in the failure to identify the question which the writer was trying to answer. Too often we assume that the ancients asked the same questions that we ask; their answers seem stupid in relation to our questions, but may be very intelligent in relation to those they asked. This habit of ours is sometimes a barrier to understanding in current discussion between modern economists; it is a formidable one in understanding the classics. The habit of mind developed in the sympathetic study of the classics may well contribute to more effective communication between modern economists.

It is over fifty years since W. J. Ashley wrote his introduction to his edition of the Principles,7 but what he said of it then is not inappropriate at this later date:

. . . Mill’s Principles will long continue to be read and will deserve to be read. It represents an interesting phase in the intellectual history of the nineteenth century. But its merit is more than historical. It is still one of the most stimulating books that can be put into the hands of students, if they are cautioned at the outset against regarding it as necessarily final in all its parts. On some topics there is still, in my opinion, nothing better in the English language; on others Mill’s treatment is still the best point of departure for further enquiry. Whatever its faults, few or many, it is a great treatise, conceived and executed on a lofty plane, and breathing a noble spirit. Mill—especially when we penetrate beneath the magisterial flow of his final text, as we are now enabled to do by the record in this edition of his varying moods—is a very human personality. The reader of to-day is not likely to come to him in too receptive a spirit; and for a long time there will be much that even those who most differ from him will still be able to learn from his pages.



though mill had been raised in the Ricardian tradition, the Principles is in the tradition of Adam Smith (and Malthus) rather than of Ricardo. Its title suggests this: Principles of Political Economy with Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy. His Preface to the 1st edition elaborates the point made in the title. Of Adam Smith’s work Mill says:

The most characteristic quality . . . is that it invariably associates the principles with their applications. This of itself implies a much wider range of ideas and of topics, than are included in Political Economy, considered as a branch of abstract speculation. For practical purposes, Political Economy is inseparably intertwined with many other branches of social philosophy. Except on matters of mere detail, there are perhaps no practical questions, even among those which approach nearest to the character of purely economical questions, which admit of being decided on economical premises alone. And it is because Adam Smith never loses sight of this truth; because, in his applications of Political Economy, he perpetually appeals to other and often far larger considerations than pure Political Economy affords—that he gives that well-grounded feeling of command over the principles of the subject for purposes of practice. . . .


But Mill felt that advances in “Political Economy, properly so called,” and in “the philosophy of society” had rendered the Wealth of Nations “in many parts obsolete” (I.xcii. 11-3). So he decided to attempt to “combine his practical mode of treating his subject with the increased knowledge since acquired of its theory” and to “exhibit the economical phenomena of society in the relation in which they stand to the best social ideas of the present time” (I.xcii.17-20). But while he wanted to make his treatise “more than a mere exposition of the abstract doctrines of Political Economy” he intended that “such an exposition should be found in it” (I.xcii. 28-30). The Principles is, then, the product of a Ricardian economist who was also, in the judgment of F. Y. Edgeworth,9 “pre-eminent in general philosophy,” in which respect he, and he alone, was “comparable to Adam Smith.”

A full understanding of Mill’s view of the scope and method of Political Economy involves some semantic difficulty. The term “political economy” as distinguished from “economics” has come to refer to a study of the functioning of the economy in which historical, political, sociological, customary, and non-logical aspects are treated, and in which “values” are examined and policies are discussed not only with reference to the probability of the expected results being achieved, but with reference to the acceptability of the results in the light of values of the individual political economist or of the society of which he is a member. Since most policies have indirect as well as direct effects, it is the business of the political economist to determine as carefully and as fully as he can these indirect effects. The problem of values then becomes not simply that of the choice of the end directly sought, but of the net advantage of achieving the chosen direct end plus the advantages and minus the disadvantages of the indirect results of pursuing the given policy. A simple prescription of policy is only possible when there is certainty as to its direct and indirect effects, and when there is no doubt, or disagreement, as to the net advantages, that is, when there is complete agreement as to the “values” involved. The art of political economy requires, along with the best scientific estimate of probable effects of action (or inaction), a readiness to act (or to recommend action) even though the results are uncertain, and even though the results, if achieved, will not be universally recognized as good. How far the political economist should be honest in indicating the degree of probability of the result, and in identifying the value system which leads him to consider the net advantages of the policy to be positive (and greater than the net advantages of alternative policies which might have been adopted) may be disputed. My own use of the word “honest” indicates my bias. The science of political economy is related to the art of government in much the same way that the science of medicine is related to the art of medicine: there is the same necessity to decide what to do (if anything) in spite of the uncertainty as to the effect of that action (or of inaction): in relation to the art of medicine, the choice of values might seem to be absent, since health is an agreed end, but of course the conflict of values must still enter in since “health” is not simple and indivisible. Even Bentham’s formula, “minimize pain,” may prove an inadequate guide.

Now what has all this to do with John Stuart Mill? Political Economy meant to him something different from the modern conception, and the difference is not just a matter of words. Political Economy he seems to have used as the name for what we would now call Economic Theory; prescription of policy required, in his view, a consideration of many factors excluded from the abstract analysis of political economy, the effects of which factors could not be as adequately determined as could those of the factors which formed the basis of the analytic part of the study; but if the knowledge and understanding of the economy and of the society were adequate, then Mill would, I think, claim that a “scientific” decision on policy was possible. The problem of values and the conflict of values as something beyond science does not seem to have arisen. I have sometimes argued that the absence of the discussion of values in the classical literature of political economy is explicable in terms of the common acceptance of an implicit scheme of values which, being taken for granted, did not need to be made explicit. But this is hard to maintain in the face of the vigorous criticism in Mill’s Principles of many of the “bourgeois” ideals, some examples of which will be noted later in this introduction.

I must try to justify these general remarks by some specific examination of Mill’s writings, and this takes me back to his early essay on method. In his essay “On the Definition of Political Economy; and on the Method of Investigation Proper to It,”10 Mill restricted the term “political economy” to the narrow sphere that we would now call “economic theory.” He ruled out not only the “art” but even much of the science on which the art must depend:

What is now commonly understood by the term “Political Economy” is not the science of speculative politics, but a branch of that science. It does not treat of the whole of man’s nature as modified by the social state, nor of the whole conduct of man in society. It is concerned with him solely as a being who desires to possess wealth, and who is capable of judging of the comparative efficacy of means for obtaining that end. It predicts only such of the phenomena of the social state as take place in consequence of the pursuit of wealth. It makes entire abstraction of every other human passion or motive; except those which may be regarded as perpetually antagonizing principles to the desire of wealth, namely, aversion to labour, and desire of the present enjoyment of costly indulgences. . . . [The actions it studies], though many of them are really the result of a plurality of motives, are considered by Political Economy as flowing solely from the desire of wealth. The science then proceeds to investigate the laws which govern these several operations, under the supposition that man is a being who is determined, by the necessity of his nature, to prefer a greater portion of wealth to a smaller in all cases, without any other exception than that constituted by the two counter-motives already specified. Not that any political economist was ever so absurd as to suppose that mankind are really thus constituted, but because this is the mode in which science must necessarily proceed. . . . With respect to those parts of human conduct of which wealth is not even the principal object, to these Political Economy does not pretend that its conclusions are applicable. But there are also certain departments of human affairs, in which the acquisition of wealth is the main and acknowledged end. It is only of these that Political Economy takes notice. . . . [It treats] the main and acknowledged end as if it were the sole end. . . . The political economist inquires, what are the actions which would be produced by this desire, if . . . it were unimpeded by any other. In this way a nearer approximation is obtained than would otherwise be practicable. . . . This approximation is then to be corrected by making proper allowance for the effects of any impulses of a different description. . . .

Given this definition of the nature of the science as “abstract,” the “method of investigation proper to it” is obviously a priori. “It reasons, and, as we contend, must necessarily reason, from assumptions, not from facts. . . . Geometry presupposes an arbitrary definition of a line. . . . Just in the same manner does Political Economy presuppose an arbitrary definition of a man, as a being who invariably does that by which he may obtain the greatest amount of necessaries, conveniences, and luxuries, with the smallest quantity of labour and physical self-denial with which they can be obtained in the existing state of knowledge.” Mill regretted that this “definition of man is not formally prefixed to any work on Political Economy,” for if it were, “it would be less in danger of being forgotten.” He warned the economist to be “on his guard not to ascribe to conclusions which are grounded upon an hypothesis a different kind of certainty from that which really belongs to them. They would be true without qualification, only in a case which is purely imaginary.”11

All of this is very sound comment on the character and limitation of what we would now call “pure theory,” what Mill refers to in the preface to the Principles as “pure political economy.” But Mill asserted that the a priori method was not only a legitimate method but was the only legitimate method for the study of economics and social phenomena:12 “it is vain,” he said, “to hope that truth can be arrived at, either in Political Economy or in any other department of the social science, while we look at the facts in the concrete, clothed in all the complexity with which nature has surrounded them, and endeavour to elicit a general law by a process of induction. . . .”13 Yet he urged the political economist to study the facts. “Although . . . a philosopher be convinced that no general truths can be attained in the affairs of nations by the à posteriori road, it does not the less behove [sic] him . . . to sift and scrutinize the details of every specific experiment. Without this, he may be an excellent professor of abstract science,” but “he must rest contented to take no share in practical politics; to have no opinion, or to hold it with extreme modesty, on the applications which should be made of his doctrines to existing circumstances.”14

Before writing the Principles, Mill wrote his Logic; he again discussed the problem of method, but this time he was concerned with the social sciences in general rather than with political economy in particular. The approach remained substantially the same: “The conclusions of theory cannot be trusted, unless confirmed by observation; nor those of observation, unless they can be affiliated to theory. . . .”15 This indicates some further recognition of the value of “observation,” due probably to the influence of Comte. It was, however, for “ethology” and particularly for the “general science of society” that the “inverse deductive or historical method”16 was suggested. This general science of society was concerned with the laws of the development of social institutions. This, he saw, required historical study, not only for verification, but for suggestion of hypotheses:

while it is an imperative rule never to introduce any generalization from history into the social science unless sufficient grounds can be pointed out for it in human nature, I do think any one will contend that it would have been possible, setting out from the principles of human nature and from the general circumstances of the position of our species, to determine à priori the order in which human development must take place, and to predict, consequently, the general facts of history. . . .17

But for political economy the method remained deductive, “reasoning from . . . one law of human nature, and from the principal outward circumstances (whether universal or confined to particular states of society).”18

One should not take too seriously what people say about method; what they do is often very different. In the Principles Mill decided to follow the example of Adam Smith in associating “the principles with their applications” (I.xci.22). This, he recognized, “implies a much wider range of ideas and of topics, than are included in Political Economy, considered as a branch of abstract speculation,” for there are, perhaps, no practical questions “which admit of being decided on economical premises alone” (I.xci.23-9). That Mill was wise in choosing to go beyond the bounds of the abstract science can scarcely be doubted. He should, perhaps, have been readier to distinguish those propositions which were precise but limited in application by the nature of the assumptions from which they were deduced, from those propositions which were less precise but were relevant to the real society, not the unreal model. He should also have been more confident, and more venturesome, in his study of the actual. He recognized that in society “custom” was a determinant of income distribution along with “competition.” But he had not yet perceived the possibility of the “scientific” study of custom: “only through the principle of competition,” he said, “has political economy any pretension to the character of a science” (I.239.13-4). Recognition of the modifying influence of custom was essential: “To escape error, we ought, in applying the conclusions of political economy to the actual affairs of life, to consider not only what will happen supposing the maximum of competition, but how far the result will be affected if competition falls short of the maximum” (I.244.22-6). But he gave no estimate of how far short of the maximum competition did fall and no estimate of how much the result was affected. Nor did he see that pure political economy might be able to deal with problems of monopoly and of limited competition. But he did anticipate the results of such modern theory when he argued with reference to retail trade that “when competition does exist, it often, instead of lowering prices, merely divides the gains of the high price among a greater number of dealers” (I.243.7-9).

Curiously enough Mill said little about another source of divergence between “the laws of the science and the facts of life” arising from the unreality of the concept of the economic man. Professor Edgeworth questioned, in his article in Palgrave’s Dictionary of Political Economy, whether Mill could consistently retain his view of the deductive character of the science as he began to “doubt the universality of the principle of self-interest.” This doubt was reflected in the chapter on communism, where Mill said: “Mankind are capable of a far greater amount of public spirit than the present age is accustomed to suppose possible” (I.205.16-8). But his eulogy of peasant proprietorship, and for that matter of co-operative factories, was based on the expectation of increased productivity from more direct pecuniary incentive to produce, as it would become the interest of the workers “to do the utmost, instead of the least possible, in exchange for their remuneration” (II.792.4-5). The principle of self-interest might not be universal, but it was recognized to be very powerful. Like Alfred Marshall, Mill seems to have been ready to take advantage of the strongest rather than the highest motives in order to get things done.

In spite of the insistence on the a priori character of the science of economics, the complementary insistence on observation of concrete facts opened the way to a more general attack on problems of society through historical and statistical studies; and indeed Mill did not restrict himself to explanations that could be derived a priori. Though he was not prepared to consider his broader inquiries as “scientific,” he appears to have been quite confident in the reliability of his explanations, predictions, and judgments in the broader field. What I find missing is a recognition of the dependence of many of his prescriptions on the choice of ends. There is, in the last pages of the Logic, a brief discussion of the “Logic of Practice or Art; including Morality and Policy.” He here stated very properly: “A scientific observer or reasoner, merely as such, is not an adviser for practice. His part is only to show that certain consequences follow from certain causes, and that to obtain certain ends, certain means are the most effectual. Whether the ends themselves are such as ought to be pursued . . . it is no part of his business as a cultivator of science to decide, and science alone will never qualify him for the decision.”19 If we combine this statement on teleology with his statements on the nature of the science one might suppose that Mill would specify the end before prescribing policy. Much of the best writing in the Principles is relevant to the choice of ends, yet there appears to be no recognition of the dependence of his policy prescriptions on the choice of ends. Curiously enough this failure to discuss the choice of ends is explained by the definition of the “science,” and some of the inadequacy of the “abstract science” for purposes of explanation and prediction is related to the neglect of the problems of the choice of ends by the people who are being studied. I propose to elaborate this proposition because I believe it to have contemporary significance.

The definition of “political economy” quoted above specified the end: “the pursuit of wealth.” But two “perpetually antagonizing principles . . . namely aversion to labour and desire of the present enjoyment of costly indulgences” were noted. Here we have a problem of competing ends: more wealth or more leisure, more wealth or more current income. Some passages in the Principles are relevant. “In England, it is not the desire of wealth that needs to be taught, but the use of wealth, and appreciation of the objects of desire which wealth cannot purchase. . . . Every real improvement in the character of the English, whether it consist in giving them higher aspirations, or only a juster estimate of the value of their present objects of desire, must necessarily moderate the ardour of their devotion to the pursuit of wealth” (I.105.4-10). The first two editions had put this even more strongly, referring to “the all engrossing torment of their industrialism.” “The desirable medium,” he went on to argue, “is one which mankind have not often known how to hit: when they labour, to do it with all their might, and especially with all their mind; but to devote to labour, for mere pecuniary gain, fewer hours in the day, fewer days in the year, and fewer years of life” (I.105.14—106.3). This is good preaching of values; and is highly relevant to the “art” of political economy, but it also illustrates the need to determine what values are held in order to predict, that is, for the purpose of the science. To treat the problem as one of defining the supply function of labour does not change it from a problem of values.

What Mill thought of as the purely scientific part of economics had only predictive value as long as the specified end was in fact the choice of the people studied. If the chosen end is other than that specified not only is the prescription necessarily different, but this other end enters into the making of the prediction as to the effect of proposed action on which the prescription is based. This relation between the science and the art can be illustrated by a homely example: John Doe is in Toronto one morning and wants to be in Montreal by evening. He has chosen his end; knowledge of the timetables for air and railway travel, of the state of the weather and of the roads, enables him to select the means of getting to Montreal: such knowledge constitutes his science. But suppose the problem really to be that of the scientist in predicting where John Doe (or a thousand like him) will be on a particular night. Knowledge of the timetables (the science relevant to the simpler question) is not enough: the scientist must know what end John Doe has chosen, to stay in Toronto, to go to Montreal, or to go to Windsor.

Consider next the other “antagonizing” principle, “desire of the present enjoyment of costly indulgences.” My first comment is that this involves confusion between “wealth” and “income.” Surely the motive assumed for the abstract science is not the maximum accumulation of wealth with consumption limited to “productive consumption,” so that even the few luxuries of the poor come under scrutiny as doubtfully proper. “. . . [C]onsumption even of productive labourers is not all of it productive consumption. . . . What they consume in keeping up or improving their health, strength, and capacities of work, or in rearing other productive labourers to succeed them, is productive consumption. But consumption on pleasures or luxuries, whether by the idle or by the industrious . . . must be reckoned unproductive: with a reservation perhaps of a certain quantum of enjoyment which may be classed among necessaries, since anything short of it would not be consistent with the greatest efficiency of labour” (I.52.24-33). If consumption were assumed to be so limited the abstract science would be easier, but Mill does not pretend that it either is, or ought to be, so limited. “It would be a great error to regret the large proportion of the annual produce, which in an opulent country goes to supply unproductive consumption. It would be to lament that the community has so much to spare from its necessities, for its pleasures and for all higher uses. This portion of the produce is the fund from which all the wants of the community, other than that of mere living, are provided for. . . . That so great a surplus should be available for such purposes . . . can only be a subject of congratulation” (I.54.29-30).

What then of the antagonizing principle? Mill the preacher is offended by the “costly indulgences”: what is to be regretted is not the size of the surplus available for unproductive consumption but the “prodigious inequality with which this surplus is distributed, the little worth of the objects to which the greater part of it is devoted, and the large share which falls to the lot of persons who render no equivalent service in return” (I.54.32-5). For the abstract science the problem is to establish a supply function for savings which emerges from these values, the choices, of the people. For the art a conflict of ends has emerged: is the wealth pursued worth pursuing, would it be worth pursuing if that wealth were more equally divided? Mill returns to this theme in the chapter on the “Stationary State”:

those who do not accept the present very early stage of human improvement as its ultimate type, may be excused for being comparatively indifferent to the kind of economical progress which excites the congratulations of ordinary politicians; the mere increase of production and accumulation. . . . I know not why it should be a matter of congratulation that persons who are already richer than any one needs to be, should have doubled their means of consuming things which give little or no pleasure except as representative of wealth. . . . It is only in the backward countries of the world that increased production is still an important object. . . .


(This J. K. Galbraith has elaborated in his The Affluent Society.20 )

The unkind reference to the Americans in the 1st edition was a dramatic condemnation of the motive “assumed” for the science and of the Malthusian sin of the people. “They have the six points of Chartism, and they have no poverty: and all that these advantages do for them is that the life of the whole of one sex is devoted to dollar-hunting, and of the other to breeding dollar-hunters” (II.754a-a). This is preaching, but success in preaching a different set of values would change the data of the science. The scientific study of the values of the community is, therefore, I reiterate, a major part of political economy in the wide sense as distinct from political economy conceived as an abstract science; assessment of values is relevant to the determination of means, as well as to the choice of ends. The choice of means requires prediction of the effect of any proposed action (prediction that requires a knowledge of the values held by the community); the choice of ends requires an assessment of cost (what is foregone) of any proposed action. Knowledge of values is required for the science; skill in the science is required for realization of the values.

A very important element remains to be noticed: the means may become partially ends in themselves. Of modern writers, Professor Frank Knight has dealt most effectively with this problem:

When we consider that productive activity takes up the larger part of the waking lives of the great mass of mankind, it is surely not to be assumed without investigation or inquiry that production is a means only, a necessary evil, a sacrifice made for the sake of some good entirely outside the production process. We are impelled to look for ends in the economic process itself, other than the mere consumption of the produce, and to give thoughtful consideration to the possibilities of participation in economic activity as a sphere of self expression and creative achievement.21 . . . Economists and publicists are coming to realize how largely the efficiency of business and industry is the result of this appeal to intrinsic interest in action; how feeble, in spite of the old economics, is the motivation of mere appetite or cupidity; and how much the driving power of our economic life depends on making and keeping the game interesting. A rapidly growing literature on “incentive” is a witness to this awakening.22

That Mill was not unaware of this interplay of means and ends is shown in the chapter on the “Stationary State” where he argues that increased production is a matter of minor importance because it means consuming more things that give little or no pleasure, but also argues: “That the energies of mankind should be kept in employment by the struggle for riches, as they were formerly by the struggle of war, until the better minds succeed in educating the others into better things, is undoubtedly more desirable than that they should rust and stagnate” (II.754.24-7).

Some of the elements of this problem have been exposed (or possibly hidden) in modern discussion of the “net advantages” of particular occupations; but here it is only differential advantages of particular occupations that are considered, not the net advantages of the process of production as a whole. In the calculation of these “net advantages” one needs to consider what the process of production to satisfy the wants of the people does to the character of the people. The means most effective in the supply of their existing wants may mould people into more or less desirable patterns. To Ruskin it appeared that there was a premium on the less desirable characteristics, for success in the business world seemed to depend on these. “In a community regulated by the law of demand and supply but protected from open violence,” Ruskin said, “the persons who become rich are, generally speaking, industrious, resolute, proud, covetous, prompt, methodical, sensible, unimaginative, insensitive and ignorant. The persons who remain poor are the entirely foolish, the entirely wise, the idle, the reckless, the humble, the thoughtful, the dull, the imaginative, the sensitive, the well-informed, the improvident, the irregularly and impulsively wicked, the clumsy knave, the open thief, the entirely merciful, just, and godly person.”23 One may not accept this condemnation, but one must recognize that the effect of the process on the people is relevant to the choice of the kind of process.

Mill’s discussion of communism raises another aspect of this when he asks whether communism or competitive capitalism is “consistent with the greatest amount of human liberty and spontaneity” (I.208.34-5). The fluctuation in his assessment of the desirability of communism involves conflict of ends and uncertainty as to the efficacy of means. “After the means of subsistence are assured,” he said, “the next in strength of the personal wants of human beings is liberty . . .” (I.208.35-7). But the schemes which he discussed seemed to involve renouncing “liberty for the sake of equality” (I.209.3-4); and there was reason to fear that equality might weaken the motivation for production. He recognized that the “restraints of Communism would be freedom in comparison with the present condition of the majority of the human race” (I.209.14-5) and he urged his readers to “compare Communism at its best, with the régime of individual property, not as it is but as it might be made” (I.207.23-5). It was not enough for communism to promise “greater personal and mental freedom than is now enjoyed by those who have not enough of either to deserve the name” (I.209.24-6); nor was it acceptable to denounce the restriction on freedom under socialism while accepting the restrictions on freedom of the existing society. “The generality of labourers . . . ,” said Mill, “have as little choice of occupation or freedom of locomotion, are practically as dependent on fixed rules and on the will of others, as they could be on any system short of actual slavery . . .” (I.209.15-9). With this should be read those splendid pages at the beginning of his chapter on the “Probable Futurity of the Labouring Classes” (IV.vii), where he discussed “the two conflicting theories respecting the social position desirable for manual labourers,” the “theory of dependence and protection,” and the “theory of self dependence.” Liberty implies independence. There were those who were arguing for a paternal relationship between the rich and the poor, “affectionate tutelage on the one side, respectful and grateful deference on the other” (II.759.25-6) (“spaniel-like servility” was the phrase William Thomas Thornton used). To them Mill pointed out that “All privileged and powerful classes, as such, have used their power in the interest of their own selfishness, and have indulged their self-importance in despising, and not in lovingly caring for, those who were, in their estimation, degraded, by being under the necessity of working for their benefit” (II.760.8-12). He made it clear that even if the “superior classes could be sufficiently improved to govern in the tutelary manner supposed, the inferior classes would be too much improved to be so governed” (II.760.17-9). “Of the working men, at least in the more advanced countries of Europe, it may be pronounced certain, that the patriarchal or paternal system of government is one to which they will not again be subject” (II.761.28—762.2).

Liberty, spontaneity, equality, productivity, all must be considered and to them we now add the preservation of natural beauty. His plea in the chapter on the “Stationary State” is still worthy of consideration: “solitude in the presence of natural beauty and grandeur, is the cradle of thoughts and aspirations which are not only good for the individual, but which society could ill do without” (II.756.11-4). There is little satisfaction in contemplating a world “with nothing left to the spontaneous activity of nature; . . . [with] every flowery waste or natural pasture ploughed up, all quadrupeds or birds which are not domesticated for man’s use exterminated as his rivals for food . . . , and scarcely a place left where a wild shrub or flower could grow without being eradicated as a weed in the name of improved agriculture” (II.756.15-21). He feared that the earth might lose that “great portion of its pleasantness which it owes to things that the unlimited increase of wealth and population would extirpate from it” (II.756.22-4). This became the theme of George Gissing’s novel Demos.24 At the opening of the novel, Stanbury Hill, “remote but two hours’ walk from a region blasted with mine and factory and furnace, shelters with its western slope a fair green valley, a land of meadows and orchard, untouched by poisonous breath.”25 In Chapter vii, John Eldon looks out on a different scene: “building of various kinds was in progress in the heart of the vale; a great massive chimney was rising to completion, and about it stood a number of sheds. Beyond was to be seen the commencement of a street of small houses, promising infinite ugliness in a little space . . . in truth, the benighted valley was waking up and donning the true nineteenth-century livery.”26 But a turn of fortune puts Eldon back in the position of owner and all is changed. “It is springtime, and the valley of Wanley is bursting into green and flowery life, peacefully glad as if the foot of Demos had never come that way. Incredible that the fumes of furnaces ever desecrated that fleece-sown sky of tenderest blue, that hammers clanged and engines roared where now the thrush utters his song so joyously. Hubert Eldon has been as good as his word. In all the valley no trace is left of what was called New Wanley.”27 Whether we consider this a case of competing ends, wealth or beauty, or whether we consider beauty part of the wealth which is to be maximized, the problems raised are still relevant. Professor Joseph Spengler has, for instance, turned to this theme in his address as President of the Population Association of America, “The Aesthetics of Population.”28 “Every year 1.1 million acres reportedly are taken permanently out of crop use by urban and suburban development, together with the expansion of industry, airports, military establishments, and new highways; and another 700,000 acres are lost annually through soil erosion, tree planting, water-logging, salt deposits, and other contamination.”29 There is a “continuing replacement of Arcadian beauty by cardominated, bill-boarded, neon-signed shabbiness.”30 Or again: “these uses chew up and uglify the countryside.”31 All of which is not to say that all beauty must be preserved at any cost: but that growth in the gross national product is not the sole object of the community without reference to the consequent destruction of natural beauty.



while mill the preacher might doubt the importance of increasing production except in “the backward countries,” Mill the political economist was more realistic and put the problem of production, the causes of productivity and of increasing productivity, at the forefront of his study. Perhaps this was related to his expectation of continued population increase: increasing accumulation and increasing productivity would be necessary even if no further improvement in standards of living were desired; and whatever improvement in the condition of the poor might be achieved by redistribution with a stationary population, the existing standard could not be maintained with increasing population without such increase in productivity. The preacher was contemplating the Stationary State, the political economist was concerned with the practical problems of contemporary society. Increase in the productivity of labour, and accumulation of capital were recognized as urgent necessities. They remain urgently necessary, and modern economists in developing countries, backward or advanced, particularly in countries where population is once again increasing rapidly, do well to reconsider Mill’s treatment if only to stimulate them to develop a modern theory of production.


One important element in Mill’s treatment is his emphasis on investment in human beings. After a century of neglect this has come to the fore as a result of the immense investment in education required in backward and advanced countries alike. In discussing “Labour as an Agent of Production” (I, ii) he devotes one section (§7) to “labour of which the subject is human beings” (I.40.35). Much of this labour is “incurred from other motives than to obtain such ultimate return, and, for most purposes of political economy, need not be taken into account as expenses of production” (I.41.6-8). But “technical or industrial education” is generally “undergone for the sake of the greater or more valuable produce thereby attained” and should therefore be treated as “part of what the produce costs to society” (I.41.8-19). Similarly “the labour employed in keeping up productive powers; in preventing them from being destroyed or weakened by accident or disease,” though not generally employed by the individual patients from “economical motives,” must be considered “as part of the advance by which society effects its productive operations” (I.41.19-37). There follows a section on the labour of the inventor and the savant. Again there is the difference between the individual and the social aspect: “these material fruits, though the result, are seldom the direct purpose of the pursuits of savants . . . . But when (as in political economy one should always be prepared to do) we shift our point of view, and consider not individual acts, and the motives by which they are determined, but national and universal results, intellectual speculation must be looked upon as a most influential part of the productive labour of society . . .” (I.43.4-16).

Mill recurs to this theme in the chapter on “Unproductive Labour” (I, iii) where he discusses “utilities fixed and embodied in human beings.” He would have preferred, he says, to “regard all labour as productive which is employed in creating permanent utilities, whether embodied in human beings, or in any other animate or inanimate objects” (I.48.21-3). But he accepted the usage which limited the term to labour which produces “utilities embodied in material objects” (I.49.23). He then broke through this limitation to include as productive, “labour expended in the acquisition of manufacturing skill . . . not in virtue of the skill itself, but of the manufactured products created by the skill” (I.49.28-30). The emphasis is on the “investment” aspect of some part of education: if the labour of the teacher is classed as “unproductive” this is not “derogatory,” but in classing it as “productive” its contribution to increasing future productivity is established. That part of education expense is essentially part of the “accumulation” which is so urgently required. Finally one notes the chapter on the degrees of productiveness (I, vii). “Successful production . . . depends more on the qualities of the human agents, than on the circumstances in which they work . . .” (I.103.13-5). So he discussed as the second of the causes of superior productiveness “the greater energy of labour” (I.103.27). Here the preacher comes back into the picture (the sermon varying somewhat between the editions but remaining essentially the same). In the first edition the essential problem is stated: “An Englishman, of almost every class, is the most efficient of all labourers, because, to use a common phrase, his heart is in his work. But it is surely quite possible to put heart into his work without being incapable of putting it into anything else” (I.105r-r). Mill had, and continued to have, no doubt about the cause of the high productivity: he had serious doubts as to the ultimate “welfare” of people who were productive of material objects but incapable of enjoying them. But if he would “moderate the ardour of their devotion to the pursuit of wealth” (I.105.10), he would hope not to diminish “the strenuous and businesslike application to the matter in hand, which is found in the best English workmen” (I.105.11-3).

The third element determining the productiveness of labour is “the skill and knowledge therein existing” (I.106.6). The effects of increased knowledge in increasing wealth “have become familiar. . . . A thing not yet so well understood and recognised, is the economical value of the general diffusion of intelligence among the people” (I.107.25-8). The scarcity of “persons fitted to direct and superintend any industrial enterprise” (I.107.28-9) is only one aspect of the problem: another is the “connexion between mental cultivation and moral trustworthiness” (I.108.35). Mr. Escher of Zurich is quoted at some length: “The better educated workmen . . . are distinguished by superior moral habits . . . they are entirely sober; they are discreet in their enjoyments . . .; they have a taste for much better society, which they approach respectfully . . .; they cultivate music; they read; they enjoy the pleasures of scenery . . .; they are . . . honest and trustworthy” (I.108.36—109.9). Of the uneducated English Mr. Escher says they are “the most skilful,” but the most “debauched . . . and least respectable and trustworthy”: if treated with “urbanity and friendly feeling” they become “unmanageable and useless.” Mill comments, “As soon as any idea of equality enters the mind of an uneducated English working man, his head is turned by it. When he ceases to be servile, he becomes insolent” (I.109.11-28). Again we are going beyond the theory of productivity: for that theory it is important to recognize with Mill that the “moral qualities of the labourers are fully as important to the efficiency and worth of their labour, as the intellectual” (I.109.29-30). But the plea for moral improvement is not primarily a plea for improving productivity: the whole character of society and the future condition of man is involved. We shall return to the issue when commenting on Mills’ chapters on communism and on the probable futurity of the working class. Appropriately, in view of the emphasis on education and the development of knowledge in the beginning of the book, Mill devotes a section of his final chapter on the limits of the province of government to a plea for provision for scientific research and for the maintenance of a “learned class.” “The cultivation of speculative knowledge, though one of the most useful of all employments, is a service rendered to a community collectively, not individually, and one consequently for which it is, primâ facie, reasonable that the community collectively should pay . . .” (II.968.34-7).


In the neo-classical economics the theory of production was essentially a theory of allocation of resources, of the “right” proportions of factors in the production of the “right” things (“right” interpreted with reference to least cost and conformity to demand). In the Keynesian economics the concern was with full employment of resources. In the classical economics, as in the new economics of growth and development, the full employment and proper allocation of given resources took second place to a concern for the development of new resources. This is perhaps clearer in Adam Smith than in Mill, but I believe that the continued use of the distinction between productive and unproductive labour indicates a continued concern for the liquidation of the primitive sector of the economy in which menial servants were maintained in idleness on a more or less feudal basis, and for the development of “industry,” the advanced sector of the economy in which workers, well equipped, well managed, well disciplined, would probably be employed at wages considerably higher than those prevailing in the primitive sector. I cannot here examine in detail this interpretation of the concept of productive labour and the related theory of development,32 but I propose to quote from Adam Smith and from Malthus to give the necessary background. “We are more industrious than our forefathers,” said Adam Smith, “because in the present times the funds destined for the maintenance of industry are much greater in proportion to those which are likely to be employed in the maintenance of idleness than they were two or three centuries ago.”33 And Malthus: “Three or four hundred years ago, there was undoubtedly much less labour in England in proportion to the population, than at present; but there was much more dependence; and we probably should not now enjoy our present degree of civil liberty, if the poor, by the introduction of manufactures, had not been enabled to give something in exchange for the provisions of the great Lords, instead of being dependent upon their bounty.”34 The idle, be it noted, were not unemployed; the problem was to absorb them into “industry” where they would be more productive.

Much of the difficulty of interpreting, or accepting, the propositions about capital in Mill may be reduced if it is recognized that these chapters are concerned with “development.” As Professor Myint put it in his Theories of Economic Welfare we should not read “our latter-day pre-occupation with the ‘allocative’ problem into the classics through the distorting spectacles provided by the General Equilibrium economists of the Marginal Utility School. It is time we learned to cure ourselves of this theoretical anthropomorphism and to approach the classical economists in the context of their own intellectual climate.”35 In this context the chapters in Mill on capital must be read, not as discussion of the economies of roundabout production, nor even of the employment problems rising from an imbalance of saving and investment, but as discussion of the development of “industry” at the expense of the pre-industrial, quasi-feudal, sector of the economy, with the recruiting of the idle-employed into the ranks of the industrious, with the employment in productive labour of those “whom we shall suppose to have been previously, like the Irish peasantry, only half employed and half fed” (I.56.36-7).

While continuing the theme of development as being a process of expanding the number of productive labourers, Mill added a discussion of the distinction between productive and unproductive consumption. What productive labourers “consume in keeping up or improving their health, strength, and capacities of work, or in rearing other productive labourers to succeed them, is productive consumption. But consumption on pleasures or luxuries, whether by the idle or by the industrious, since production is neither its object nor is in any way advanced by it, must be reckoned unproductive: with a reservation perhaps of a certain quantum of enjoyment which may be classed among necessaries, since anything short of it would not be consistent with the greatest efficiency of labour” (I.52.26-33). From this discussion of unproductive consumption there develops the proposition that there is a more important distinction than that between productive and unproductive labour, “namely, between labour for the supply of productive, and for the supply of unproductive, consumption” (I.53.27-8). If the former were suspended, “the country at the end of the twelvemonth would have been entirely impoverished” (I.54.20-1); if the latter were suspended, “the sources of production would be unimpaired” (I.54.15-6). Mill went on to say that it would be a great error to regret the “large proportion of the annual produce, which in an opulent country goes to supply unproductive consumption” (I.54.22-4). It is rather a matter for congratulation. It is surprising that he does not here press home the point that this fund for unproductive consumption is the basis for that process of accumulation which provides for a spiral of economic development. He underestimated the effect on human productivity of better living and he underestimated the magnitude of the necessary increase in fixed capital. He was right in directing attention to the increase in that “labour which tends to the permanent enrichment of society.” He was right in directing attention to the “fund from which all the wants of the community, other than that of mere living, are provided for” (I.54.26-7); he was right to continue Ricardo’s concern for “net produce,” and to parallel Marx’s concern for surplus value; he was right because he was concerned with growth. Thrift is important, and a study of its causes is important: but we must not forget “that to increase capital there is another way besides consuming less, namely, to produce more” (I.70.15-6). . . . “[W]hatever increases the productive power of labour, creates an additional fund to make savings from, and enables capital to be enlarged not only without additional privation, but concurrently with an increase of personal consumption” (I.70.3-6). In these circumstances “abstinence” is a rather odd description of the basis for capital accumulation.

In this context of “development” the difficulties of interpretation of the chapters on capital, even of the fourth proposition, disappear. Capital must be interpreted as “real capital,” wage goods, materials and instruments to supply “productive labour” with the “pre-requisites of production.” “. . . [I]ndustry is limited by capital” (I.63.9): for there cannot be more persons employed in productive labour than can be supplied with wage goods, materials and instruments. Capital “is the result of saving” (I.68.27-8); for there can be no increase in capital if the “net produce” of productive labour is dissipated in unproductive consumption. Clearly more capital requires either less wage goods used to support unproductive labour and transferred to the use of productive labour, or less production of luxury goods permitting the production of more wage goods, material, and instruments. And since the “industrious” are likely to enjoy more wage goods than the “idle” some reduction in the purchase of luxury goods needs to go along with the reduction in the number of servants. Capital “although saved . . . is nevertheless consumed” (I.70.18-9): the food that the servants would have eaten the industrious eat, the food and materials produced in place of the plate and silks are eaten and worked up by the industrious. “Demand for commodities is not demand for labour” (I.78.26) is the fourth proposition and it has produced an extraordinary variety of comment, most of which, including my own comment in a “Centenary Estimate,”36 is misguided because of the failure to recognize the dynamic context. To Cairnes this proposition was simply “a different mode of stating the third fundamental theorem.” In his very interesting and valuable “Notes on the Principles of Political Economy” (see Appendix H below) Cairnes presented an alternative formulation: “In short to establish the doctrine that ‘demand for commodities is not demand for labour’—i.e. does not benefit the labouring classes—all that is needed is the two assumptions 1. that he who profits by (i.e. enjoys) wealth is he who consumes it, and 2. that productive labourers consume saved wealth, while wealth unproductively spent is consumed wholly by the unproductive consumers.”37 Cairnes then illustrated his argument by a reductio ad absurdum, “if it be equally for the benefit of the poorer classes whether I consume my wealth unproductively or set aside a portion in the form of wages or alms for their direct consumption, then on what ground can the policy be justified of taking my money from me to support paupers.” That Cairnes understood Mill’s intention is indicated by the adaptation of this passage from Cairnes in the 6th edition of the Principles (I.84.10-4). There remains the proposition in Chapter vi, “that all increase of fixed capital, when taking place at the expense of circulating, must be, at least temporarily, prejudicial to the interests of the labourers” (I.93.40-94.2). From this proposition he argues, first, that “All attempts to make out that the labouring classes as a collective body cannot suffer temporarily by the introduction of machinery, or by the sinking of capital in permanent improvements, are . . . necessarily fallacious” (I.96.22-5). He then argues that “as things are actually transacted” improvements are not “often, if ever, injurious, even temporarily, to the labouring classes in the aggregate” (I.97.8-9). This is because improvements are “seldom or never made by withdrawing circulating capital from actual production, but are made by the employment of the annual increase” (I.97.12-4). The ultimate benefit is not in doubt but “this does not discharge governments from the obligation of alleviating, and if possible preventing, the evils of which this source of ultimate benefit is or may be productive to an existing generation” (I.99.2-4). To return to the proposition: is not Mill’s problem that of many modern nations, how to increase fixed capital faster than voluntary savings permit: the modern solution is often by planned reduction in consumption or by inflation-induced reduction of consumption. There remains the old-fashioned solution, to save more: but the “extreme incapacity of the people for personal enjoyment, which is a characteristic of countries over which puritanism has passed” (I.171.27-9) can no longer be relied on, and “the silly desire for the appearance of a large expenditure” still “has the force of a passion” (I.171.33-4).


The problems of population crop up throughout the Principles. The study of production becomes a study of the race between production and population. In the chapter on the “Law of the Increase of Labour” (I, x), it is held that “It is a very low estimate of the capacity of increase, if we only assume, that in a good sanitary condition of the people, each generation may be double the number of the generation which preceded it” (I.155.11-3). That population does not increase at that pace is not “through a providential adaptation of the fecundity of the human species to the exigencies of society” (I.155.20-1) but through “prudent or conscientious self-restraint” (I.157.35-6). An “acceleration of the rate [of population increase] very speedily follows any diminution of the motives to restraint” (I.159.7-8). Thus the problem is posed: “Unless, either by their general improvement in intellectual and moral culture, or at least by raising their habitual standard of comfortable living, they can be taught to make a better use of favourable circumstances, nothing permanent can be done for them; the most promising schemes end only in having a more numerous, but not a happier people” (I.159.14-8). The problem is here posed as an individual one; in Chapter xiii it is posed as a social one. “The return to labour has probably increased as fast as the population; and would have outstripped it, if that very augmentation of return had not called forth an additional portion of the inherent power of multiplication in the human species. . . . [N]othing could have prevented a general deterioration in the condition of the human race, were it not that population has in fact been restrained. Had it been restrained still more, and the same improvements taken place, there would have been a larger dividend. . . . The new ground wrung from nature by the improvements would not have been all used up in the support of mere numbers.” (I.189.36—190.17.)

In Book II there is further discussion of the prospects for prudence. In his discussion of communism (Chapter i) he appears less afraid of the population effect than was Malthus: there would be provided “motives to restraint.” “. . . Communism is precisely the state of things in which opinion might be expected to declare itself with greatest intensity against this kind of selfish intemperance. . . . [O]pinion could not fail to reprobate, and if reprobation did not suffice, to repress by penalties of some description, this or any other culpable self-indulgence at the expense of the community” (I.206.9-19). This sounds more like Orwell’s bad dream of 1984 than the sentiments of the author of the essay On Liberty!

He recurs to the problem in his three chapters on wages (II, xi, xii, and xiii). Again the “motives for restraint” are the primary concern: “No remedies for low wages have the smallest chance of being efficacious, which do not operate on and through the minds and habits of the people” (I.366.6-7). Education might help. “If the opinion were once generally established among the labouring class that their welfare required a due regulation of the numbers of families, the respectable and well-conducted of the body would conform to the prescription . . .” (I.372.16-8). But a more important influence would follow the admission of women “to the same rights of citizenship with men” (I.372.28—373.1). In commenting on “hard-hearted Malthusianism” he said: “as if it were not a thousand times more hard-hearted to tell human beings that they may, than that they may not, call into existence swarms of creatures who are sure to be miserable . . . and forgetting that the conduct, which it is reckoned so cruel to disapprove, is a degrading slavery to a brute instinct in one of the persons concerned, and . . . in the other, helpless submission to a revolting abuse of power” (I.352.6-12). And later: “It is seldom by the choice of the wife that families are too numerous; on her devolves (along with all the physical suffering and at least a full share of the privations) the whole of the intolerable domestic drudgery resulting from the excess. . . . Among the barbarisms which law and morals have not yet ceased to sanction, the most disgusting surely is, that any human being should be permitted to consider himself as having a right to the person of another” (I.372.6-15). To education and a change in the status of women must be added, Mill argued, a dramatic improvement in the condition of the poor. The minor improvement resulting from the repeal of the Corn Laws he did not consider important. “Things which only affect them a very little, make no permanent impression upon their habits and requirements, and they soon slide back into their former state. To produce permanent advantage, the temporary cause operating upon them must be sufficient to make a great change in their condition. . . . Of cases in point, the most remarkable is France after the Revolution” (I.342.21-32). He recurs to this point in Chapter xiii. “For the purpose therefore of altering the habits of the labouring people, there is need of a twofold action, directed simultaneously upon their intelligence and their poverty. An effective national education of the children of the labouring class, is the first thing needful: and, coincidently with this, a system of measures which shall (as the Revolution did in France) extinguish extreme poverty for one whole generation” (I.374.34-9). “Unless comfort can be made as habitual to a whole generation as indigence is now, nothing is accomplished; and feeble half-measures do but fritter away resources . . .” (I.378.11-4). All of this is highly relevant to the problem of the modern world; I propose to underline only one point. With reference to the poorer countries with high fertility one may well ask whether external aid, like poor relief in nineteenth-century England, may simply postpone the necessary adjustment in the birth rate, may be “frittered away,” mere numbers rather than happiness resulting. One may also wonder whether Mill had the answer for his day and for ours. He saw that relief (or aid) must be on a massive scale to permit the dawn of hope. If this is correct, as I believe it to be, we should concentrate our “aid” on a few countries, and those countries must be chosen as most nearly ready for massive improvement. This “hard-hearted Malthusianism” would be hard to practise. The choice of those to be aided would be heart-breaking; and there is the danger that those not chosen will in exasperation and frustration do injury to themselves and us.38


In the “Preliminary Remarks,” Mill distinguished the laws of production from those of distribution. The “manner in which wealth is distributed in any given society, depends on the statutes or usages therein obtaining” (I.21.17-8). So, at the beginning of Book II, he says: “The laws and conditions of the production of wealth partake of the character of physical truths. . . . It is not so with the Distribution of Wealth. That is a matter of human institution solely” (I.199.4-29). In fact Mill has much to say about the effect on productivity of “human institutions” as I propose to demonstrate. The really important distinction that he made was between the inevitability of the consequences which flow from any given circumstances and the freedom to modify the circumstances. Thus in the “Preliminary Remarks” he says: “though governments or nations have the power of deciding what institutions shall exist, they cannot arbitrarily determine how those institutions shall work” (I.21.18-20). And in Book II: “We have here to consider, not the causes, but the consequences, of the rules according to which wealth may be distributed. Those, at least, are as little arbitrary, and have as much the character of physical laws, as the laws of production. Human beings can control their own acts, but not the consequences of their acts either to themselves or to others” (I.200.20-5). One of these “consequences” is reflected in productivity. It is of great importance to recognize the effect of “institutions” on productivity, and in particular to recognize the effect on productivity of institutions devised with a view to improving the distribution of wealth. The smaller the amount to be divided the more seriously must the effect of redistribution on the size of the dividend be examined. The problem becomes one of identifying “useful injustices” (as Sir Dennis Robertson has called them).39

In the chapter on the “Degrees of Productiveness” the importance of “Security” is emphasized. “This consists of protection by the government, and protection against the government” (I.112.4-5), and much of it seems to be “the effect of manners and opinion rather than of law” (I.114.11-2). The key sentence is this: “the efficiency of industry may be expected to be great, in proportion as the fruits of industry are insured to the person exerting it” (I.114.33-5). This is a recurrent theme. In Chapter ix, when discussing the conduct of large scale enterprise by joint stock, he states two qualifications of the manager: “fidelity and zeal.” The former he thinks it is easy to secure, the latter very difficult. The “directing mind should be incessantly occupied with the subject; should be continually laying schemes by which greater profit may be obtained. . . . This intensity of interest . . . it is seldom to be expected that any one should feel, who is conducting a business as the hired servant and for the profit of another. There are experiments in human affairs which are conclusive on the point. Look at the whole class of rulers, and ministers of state” (I.137.39—138.5). Again, in Chapter xii, the doctrine is applied to agriculture: “Improvements in government, and almost every kind of moral and social advancement, operate in the same manner. Suppose a country in the condition of France before the Revolution: taxation imposed . . . on such a principle as to be an actual penalty on production. . . . Was not the hurricane which swept away this system of things, even if we look no further than to its effect in augmenting the productiveness of labour, equivalent to many industrial inventions?” (I.183.6-14). From taxation we turn to tenure to note the effect in Ireland “of a bad system of tenancy, in rendering agricultural labour slack and ineffective. No improvements operate more directly upon the productiveness of labour, than those in the tenure of farms, and in the laws relating to landed property” (I.183.24-7). So, in Book I, on “Production,” discussion of the expediency of social institutions crept in, and in Book II, on “Distribution,” the problems of justice did not crowd out the problems of expediency through effects on production.

The chapter on “Property” (II, i) underwent very great changes. In the preface to the 2nd edition, Mill says that the objections stated in the 1st edition to “the specific schemes propounded by some Socialists, have been erroneously understood as a general condemnation of all that is commonly included under that name” (I.xcii.35-7). To meet the objection he enlarged the chapter. In the 3rd edition he rewrote it. “The only objection to which any great importance will be found to be attached in the present edition, is the unprepared state of mankind in general, and of the labouring classes in particular; their extreme unfitness at present for any order of things, which would make any considerable demand on either their intellect or their virtue” (I.xciii.12-6). These changes, and his later posthumous Chapters on Socialism, provide scope for long debates about how socialistic Mill was at various points in his career. What is really valuable is not his changing answers, but his continuing questions. The criteria for judging society as it existed, and society as it might be, emerge from the questions. One of the criteria is the degree of motivation to work:

The objection ordinarily made to a system of community of property and equal distribution of the produce, that each person would be incessantly occupied in evading his fair share of the work, points, undoubtedly, to a real difficulty. But those who urge this objection, forget to how great an extent the same difficulty exists under the system on which nine-tenths of the business of society is now conducted. . . . From the Irish reaper or hodman to the chief justice or the minister of state, nearly all the work of society is remunerated by day wages or fixed salaries. A factory operative has less personal interest in his work than a member of a Communist association. . . . Mankind are capable of a far greater amount of public spirit than the present age is accustomed to suppose possible. . . . To what extent, therefore, the energy of labour would be diminished by Communism, or whether in the long run it would be diminished at all, must be considered . . . an undecided question.


This is a more favourable judgment than that in the 1st edition, and is seemingly inconsistent with the general attitude of the Principles on motivation and incentive. The explanation of the change and the “inconsistency” lies in the addition of “two conditions . . . without which neither Communism nor any other laws or institutions could make the condition of the mass of mankind other than degraded and miserable. One of these conditions is universal education; the other, a due limitation of the numbers of the community” (I.208.21-5). He may dream of a utopia where pecuniary incentives are unnecessary; but he has a very realistic recognition of the importance of pecuniary incentives for some time to come: “we may, without attempting to limit the ultimate capabilities of human nature, affirm, that the political economist, for a considerable time to come, will be chiefly concerned with the conditions of existence and progress belonging to a society founded on private property and individual competition” (I.214.5-9).

If productivity is assured under “Communism” there remains the question of “human liberty and spontaneity.” Of liberty as an end in itself I have said something earlier. One sentence has peculiar relevance to the modern world: “No society in which eccentricity is a matter of reproach, can be in a wholesome state” (I.209.33-4). But here the concern is with productivity and I would argue that the atmosphere of liberty and spontaneity is especially conducive to productivity. Indeed I think Mill would so argue, and in support of this view I would cite his attitude to competition as developed in the chapter on the “Probable Futurity of the Labouring Classes” (IV, vii) in a section, be it noted, that was added in the 3rd edition. “To be protected against competition is to be protected in idleness, in mental dulness . . .” (II.795.37-8). Competition, innovation, enterprise, are the fruits of liberty, the complement of spontaneity. Mill’s dissent from the socialists’ declamation against competition comes at the end of his discussion of co-operative societies: communism was a matter of the distant future, co-operatives promised improvement in the immediate future. The co-operative movement promised, not only a new dignity to labour and “the healing of the standing feud between capital and labour” (II.792.7-8), but a great increase in the “productiveness of labour.” This increase would result from the “vast stimulus given to productive energies, by placing the labourers, as a mass, in a relation to their work which would make it their principle and their interest—at present it is neither—to do the utmost, instead of the least possible, in exchange for their remuneration” (II.792.1-5). Yet Mill believed that it would be desirable, “for a considerable length of time,” that individual capitalists should “coexist” with co-operative societies. “A private capitalist, exempt from the control of a body, if he is a person of capacity, is considerably more likely than almost any association to run judicious risks, and originate costly improvements” (II.793.3-5).

Along with his admiration for the co-operative association in industry, Mill had a curiously individualistic attitude to the organization of agriculture. His chapters on “Peasant Proprietors,” “Metayers,” and “Cottiers” all reflect his idealization of the small agriculturists of Wordsworth’s Lakes (I.253n). The theme is essentially motivation to hard work: “ ‘The magic of property turns sand to gold. . . . Give a man the secure possession of a bleak rock, and he will turn it into a garden. . . .’ ” (I.274.19-30.) But it is not just a matter of increased exertion: peasant proprietorship stimulates “mental activity” and is “propitious to the moral virtues of prudence, temperance, and self-control. Day-labourers . . . are usually improvident. . . . [P]easant proprietors . . . are oftener accused of penuriousness than of prodigality” (I.281.28—282.8). Mill indeed recognized the dangers of morcellement and the advantages of grande culture, but he concluded that compared with the English system of cultivation by hired labour peasant proprietorship was “eminently beneficial” and he did not feel “on the present occasion called upon to compare it with the joint ownership of the land by associations of labourers” (I.296.2-4).

Mill proceeded to examine two other systems of tenure: metayers and cottiers. He contrasts the happy stage of Lombardy and its metayers with the miserable condition of the Irish cottiers. “Under a metayer system there is an established mode in which the owner of land is sure of participating in the increased produce drawn from it” (I.316.5-7). Of the cottier he says: “If the landlord at any time exerted his full legal rights, the cottier would not be able even to live. If by extra exertion he doubled the produce of his bit of land, or if he prudently abstained from producing mouths to eat it up, his only gain would be to have more left to pay to his landlord . . . if he is lazy or intemperate, it is at his landlord’s expense” (I.318.30—319.3). Mill watched closely the revolution in Ireland, and Cairnes (as is clear from Appendix H) kept him posted. Repeal of the Corn Laws “would of itself have sufficed to bring about this revolution in tenure” (I.333.2-3), but it was “immensely facilitated and made more rapid by the vast emigration, as well as by that greatest boon ever conferred on Ireland by any Government, the Encumbered Estates Act” (I.332.6-9). The change, however, was toward the English system of capitalist farming; “The truly insular ignorance of her public men respecting a form of agricultural economy which predominates in nearly every other civilized country” made it doubtful whether action would be taken to promote peasant proprietorship; “Yet there are germs of a tendency . . .” (I.334.7-10).


“Happily,” said Mill, “there is nothing in the laws of value which remains for the present or any future writer to clear up; the theory of the subject is complete.” This was injudicious. Professor Schumpeter, commenting on the state of the economic science just before World War I in his Preface to Dr. Zeuthen’s Problems of Monopoly,40 gave one reason for thinking it injudicious:

There was a belief that the great work had been done—a belief very similar to that expressed by Mill in that famous passage. . . . In a sense, this attitude was both right and fruitful. Great work had undoubtedly been done, and it was certainly necessary to bend to the task of defending, expounding and applying it. Yet there was some danger of petrifaction ahead, and the almost immediate rise of anti-theoretic schools of thought . . . is the proof that Theory was about to pay the penalty for that air of finality which was beginning to get on the nerves of the rising generation in very much the same way as it did in the case of Mill.

It appeared injudicious, too, in the light of the new theory of the “neoclassics” which soon emerged as victor (albeit a relatively considerate and co-operative victor) in the “war of the methods.” Because there has been some misunderstanding as to the nature of the advance made from Mill to Jevons, and consequently some misunderstanding of Mill, I propose to state very briefly what I consider to have been the real improvements.

The new analysis of marginal utility seems to me to be the least important element: the solution of the paradox of water and diamonds was academically interesting but little was added, if anything, to the understanding of the role of demand in the process of exchange. The essential notion of elasticity of demand, present in Adam Smith, was clarified in Mill and only waited to be christened by Marshall. The notion of “consumers’ sovereignty,” again without the name, was basic to the economics of Mill, as of Adam Smith: and it might well be argued that this general notion of appropriate economic organization makes more sense than the precision of the demonstrations of the conditions for maximizing utility, having in mind the fact that the utility for any individual is unmeasurable and that interpersonal comparisons are strictly impossible. Edgeworth’s verdict on Mill’s performance, in his article in Palgrave’s Dictionary of Political Economy, is just: “The general theory of demand and supply seems to be stated by Mill as clearly as is possible without the aid of mathematical apparatus.”41 If utility analysis added little to the general theory of demand, the utility theorists did make very important advances. Perhaps the most important advances lay in the clear recognition of the simultaneous pricing of goods and factors of production, and of the generality of the notion of “variable proportions” leading to elucidation of the role of substitution. Closely related was the development of the concept of “alternative opportunity” as the basis of cost. Much of the confusion of the classics in dealing with capital appears to me to have been compounded by the capital theory of Jevons and Bohm Bawerk, but the way out was demonstrated by Walras when he treated the pricing of the services of people and of durable goods as essentially the same and went on to discuss the pricing of the durable goods as the sources of those services. Perhaps equally important with these specific advances lay the advance towards more precision in the specification of models with the promise of more rigorous theory and with the clearer obligation to recognize the difficulty of using such theory in understanding the real economic process, in diagnosing its ills and in prescribing remedies.

When the pricing of the factors of production is seen as part of a whole process of equilibrium, the organization of Mill’s Principles appears very odd. Distribution is the subject of Book II; pricing is left to Book III. It is true that he says that he has not “escaped the necessity of anticipating some small portion of the theory of Value, especially as to the value of labour and of land” (II.455.12-3), but, at the end of Book III, the chapter on “Distribution as Affected by Exchange” is devoted to the thesis that distribution is not affected by exchange. “Wages depend on the ratio between population and capital; and would do so if all the capital in the world were the property of one association, or if the capitalists among whom it is shared maintained each an establishment for the production of every article consumed in the community, exchange of commodities having no existence” (II.695.26—696.2). Similarly, rent: “Exchange, and money, therefore, make no difference in the law of rent” (II.698.9-10). And profits: “Wages and Rent being thus regulated by the same principles when paid in money, as they would be if apportioned in kind, it follows that Profits are so likewise. For the surplus, after replacing wages and paying rent, constitutes Profits” (II.698.18-21). The verdict of Alfred Marshall is found in his Appendix J:

By putting his main theory of wages before his account of supply and demand, he cut himself off from the chance of treating that theory in a satisfactory way. . . . The fact is that the theories of Distribution and Exchange are so intimately connected as to be little more than two sides of the same problem. . . . If Mill had recognized this great truth he would not have been drawn on to appear to substitute, as he did in his second Book, the statement of the problem of wages for its solution: but he would have combined the description and analysis in his second Book, with the short but profound study of the causes that govern the distribution of the national dividend, given in his fourth Book.42

Noting Marshall’s assessment of the profundity of Book IV, perhaps one should remember the limitation, as well as the value, of the new pricing theory: Mill ignored the importance of the pricing process in the theory of distribution but his successors were too readily content with a static solution. Mill may have been unsatisfactory in his explanation of why factor prices were what they were, but he had brilliant insights into the probable trend of change. And his successors were too ready to accept a theory of the pricing of factors as a theory (not just a part of a theory) of distribution ignoring the really exciting problems of why particular people had particular factors for sale at these prices.

To the thesis that distribution is not affected by exchange is added the further thesis that the process of exchange is unaffected by money:

There cannot, in short, be intrinsically a more insignificant thing, in the economy of society, than money; except in the character of a contrivance for sparing time and labour. It is a machine for doing quickly and commodiously, what would be done, though less quickly and commodiously, without it: and like many other kinds of machinery, it only exerts a distinct and independent influence of its own when it gets out of order.

The introduction of money does not interfere with the operation of any of the Laws of Value laid down in the preceding chapters.


What follows is a sequence of chapters on money, monetary theory, and monetary policy, which indicate that he knew that the “machinery” very easily got out of order, so that money was in fact far from “insignificant.” I do not propose to examine these chapters in detail but I assert that they wear well. They need to be read, however, with patience; an initial dogmatic statement is later qualified. His assertion of the “quantity theory,” for instance, is followed by qualifications which “under a complex system of credit like that existing in England, render the proposition an extremely incorrect expression of the fact” (II.516.32-4). Professor Schumpeter has said of these chapters that “they contain some of Mill’s best work. [They display] indeed some contradictions, hesitations, and unassimilated compromises . . . but even these were not unmixed evils since they brought out, in strange contrast to Mill’s own belief in the finality of his teaching, the unfinished state of the analysis of that time, and thus indicated lines for further research to follow.”43 Of the chapters on international trade the judgment is more universally favourable, the development of the relationship between reciprocal demand and the commodity terms of trade being considered by Professor Viner to constitute “his chief claim to originality in the field of economics.”44 This favourable judgment is related to his performance in the static sphere; it is only in recent years that the dynamic aspect of his trade theory has been revived. When Mill denounced the fallacy of Adam Smith’s “vent for surplus” approach to the benefit of foreign trade, “that it afforded an outlet for the surplus produce of a country” (II.592.12-3), he turned his back on the development aspects of the problem of unproductive labour, and argued on the level of the static theorists. The new concern for the economics of growth has brought new appreciation of the Adam Smith approach. Professor Allyn Young45 and J. H. Williams46 were among the first in this generation to recognize the value of that part of international trade theory that had been considered “crude” and fallacious by the orthodox. Professor Myint47 has shown that “in general, the ‘vent-for-surplus’ theory produces a more effective approach than the comparative costs theory to the international trade of the underdeveloped countries.” He recognized that this theory “does not provide an exact fit to all the particular patterns of development,” but that it is more relevant than a theory which “assumes that the resources of a country are given and fully employed before it enters into international trade.” Professor Myint was concerned with the relatively backward countries: but no countries are “fully developed” and in all it is necessary to consider more than effective allocation of given resources, in all there are some unused productive capacities, some additional resources to develop. We should pay attention therefore to what Mill has to say about the “indirect effects” of international trade “which must be counted as benefits of a high order” (II.593.24-5). One of these indirect effects is “the tendency of every extension of the market to improve the processes of production” (II.593.25-6); another is that the opening of a new market “sometimes works a sort of industrial revolution in a country whose resources were previously undeveloped for want of energy and ambition in the people” (II.593.39—594.2).


The “agenda” of government change with changes in the nature of the economy, with changes in the character (particularly the honesty and efficiency) of the government. We do not look at the English prescription for 1848 as likely to be satisfactory for the England of 1965, nor do we look for one prescription appropriate for all countries in 1965. But examination of Mill’s writing on the “influence of government,” on the “economical effects” of the manner in which governments carry on their “necessary” functions and on the proper extension of their optional functions, is not just a matter for the economic historian. As in other parts of the inquiry, questions are raised that still demand answers, and insight may be stimulated to the point where answers relevant to our time may be found. But the answers depend on much more than “economical” effects; liberty and democracy are at issue:

impatient reformers, thinking it easier and shorter to get possession of the government than of the intellects and dispositions of the public, are under a constant temptation to stretch the province of government. . . [and] many rash proposals are made by sincere lovers of improvement, for attempting, by compulsory regulation, the attainment of objects which can only be effectually or only usefully compassed by opinion and discussion . . . .


The itch to interfere, to impose one’s will on others, might seem to need restraining, but Mill had no narrow concept of the function of government: “the admitted functions of government embrace a much wider field than can easily be included within the ring-fence of any restrictive definition, and . . . it is hardly possible to find any ground of justification common to them all, except the comprehensive one of general expediency; nor to limit the interference of government by any universal rule, save the simple and vague one, that it should never be admitted but when the case of expediency is strong” (II.803.42—804.6).

In Book I Mill had emphasized the economic importance of security of person and property, and in Book II he had argued that the rights of property were not absolute. He returns to these matters in Book V. “Insecurity of person and property . . . means, not only that labour and frugality are not the road to acquisition, but that violence is” (II.880.11-7). But there is also the very suggestive qualification: “a certain degree of insecurity, in some combinations of circumstances, has good as well as bad effects, by making energy and practical ability the conditions of safety. Insecurity paralyzes, only when it is such in nature and in degree, that no energy of which mankind in general are capable, affords any tolerable means of self-protection.” (II.881.19-24.) After some discussion of the imperfection of the laws of property, he reverts to the problem of inheritance which he had discussed in Book II. He argues that “no one person should be permitted to acquire, by inheritance, more than the amount of a moderate independence” (II.887.19-21). In Book II he had noted, with scorn, the view that “the best thing which can be done for objects of affection is to heap on them to satiety those intrinsically worthless things on which large fortunes are mostly expended” (I.225.22-4). If restriction of the right to inherit could be made effectual, “wealth which could no longer be employed in over-enriching a few, would either be devoted to objects of public usefulness, or if bestowed on individuals, would be distributed among a larger number” (I.226.4-6). He noted with great approval the endowment of charitable foundations in the United States “where the ideas and practice in the matter of inheritance seem to be unusually rational and beneficial” (I.226.18-9), and he comments that to make similar bequests in England would be to run “the risk of being declared insane by a jury after . . . death, or at the least, of having the property wasted in a Chancery suit to set aside the will” (I.226.n18-21).

The “optional” functions of government are treated in two chapters: one deals with those “grounded on erroneous theories” (V, x), the other discusses in general the “grounds and limits of the laisser-faire or non-interference principle” (V, xi). In the former I would note his discussion of Protectionism, “the most notable” of the false theories. But the “infant industry” plea is recognized:

The superiority of one country over another in a branch of production, often arises only from having begun it sooner. There may be no inherent advantage on one part, or disadvantage on the other, but only a present superiority of acquired skill and experience. A country which has this skill and experience yet to acquire, may in other respects be better adapted to the production than those which were earlier in the field: and besides, it is a just remark of Mr. Rae, that nothing has a greater tendency to promote improvements in any branch of production, than its trial under a new set of conditions. But it cannot be expected that individuals should, at their own risk, or rather to their certain loss, introduce a new manufacture, and bear the burthen of carrying it on until the producers have been educated up to the level of those with whom the processes are traditional.


But if infants are to be protected, they must grow up to compete freely with the world. I would also note his treatment of the Combination Laws. Mill recognized “a limited power of obtaining, by combination, an increase of general wages at the expense of profits” (II.930.2-3). But he argued that the “limits of this power are narrow” (II.930.3-4). He denounced those “aristocratic” unions which were “hedging themselves in against competition, and protecting their own wages by shutting out others from access to their employment” (II.931.27-8). He insisted that it is “an indispensable condition of tolerating combinations, that they should be voluntary” (II.933.16-7). He considered mischievous the opposition to piece work and the insistence on equal pay for all workers of a given grade: mischievous because “they place the energetic and the idle, the skilful and the incompetent, on a level” (II.934.4-5). But he argued the right to free association: “though combinations to keep up wages are seldom effectual . . . the right of making the attempt is one which cannot be refused to any portion of the working population without great injustice, or without the probability of fatally misleading them respecting the circumstances which determine their condition. So long as combinations to raise wages were prohibited by law, the law appeared to the operatives to be the real cause of the low wages. . . .” (II.931.37—932.7.) What Mill did not perceive was the change in the status of the worker which strong unions might achieve: conditions of employment other than wages became a matter of contract, and the development of a “grievance procedure” gave protection against management, especially against the petty tyranny of the lower levels. Perception of this change would have led to a very different chapter on the “Probable Futurity of the Working Class” from that actually written.

The limits of the province of government are discussed in the last chapter of the book. First there is the plea for “privacy”: “there is a part of the life of every person who has come to years of discretion, within which the individuality of that person ought to reign uncontrolled. . . . [T]here is, or ought to be, some space in human existence thus entrenched around, and sacred from authoritative intrusion. . . .” (II.938.4-8.) The second “general objection” is that every increase of the functions “devolving on the government is an increase of its power, both in the form of authority, and still more, in the indirect form of influence” (II.939.14-6). The danger of such power, no less in a democracy than in any other form of government, makes it necessary to develop “powerful defences, in order to maintain that originality of mind and individuality of character, which are the only source of any real progress” (II.940.3-5). A third “general objection” lies in the danger of overloading: “Every additional function undertaken by the government, is a fresh occupation imposed upon a body already overcharged with duties” (II.940.17-9). The final objection is that which Alfred Marshall later stressed in relation to “small business”: “The business of life is an essential part of the practical education of a people . . .” (II.943.1-2). Finally Mill proceeded to discuss some cases of appropriate interference. Public provision of elementary education is defended, but a monopoly of that provision is denounced: “A government which can mould the opinions and sentiments of the people from their youth upwards, can do with them whatever it pleases” (II.950.19-21). Support of research I have already noted as one of his important items of government policy:

The fellowships of the Universities are an institution excellently adapted for such a purpose; but are hardly ever applied to it, being bestowed, at the best, as a reward for past proficiency, in committing to memory what has been done by others, and not as the salary of future labours in the advancement of knowledge. . . . The most effectual plan . . . seems to be that of conferring Professorships, with duties of instruction attached to them. The occupation of teaching a branch of knowledge, at least in its higher departments, is a help rather than an impediment to the systematic cultivation of the subject itself. The duties of a professorship almost always leave much time for original researches; and the greatest advances which have been made in the various sciences, both moral and physical, have originated with those who were public teachers of them. . . .


A generous statement this from a servant of the East India Company who was developing further the economics of the stockbroker Ricardo—but Adam Smith and T. R. Malthus were professors.



i have written about the Principles as an individual book with little reference to the context of the whole thought of Mill or of the thought of the mid-nineteenth century. To have done otherwise would have involved embarking on a book, not an introductory essay. But reference must be made to Mill’s own account of the context in his Autobiography.48 The beginning of his study of economics at the age of thirteen was strictly Ricardian:

Though Ricardo’s great work was already in print, no didactic treatise embodying its doctrines, in a manner fit for learners, had yet appeared. My father, therefore, commenced instructing me in the science by a sort of lectures, which he delivered to me in our walks. He expounded each day a portion of the subject, and I gave him next day a written account of it, which he made me rewrite over and over again until it was clear, precise, and tolerably complete. In this manner I went through the whole extent of the science; and the written outline of it which resulted from my daily compte rendu, served him afterwards as notes from which to write his Elements of Political Economy. After this I read Ricardo, giving an account daily of what I read, and discussing, in the best manner I could, the collateral points which offered themselves in our progress.

On Money, as the most intricate part of the subject, he made me read in the same manner Ricardo’s admirable pamphlets, written during what was called the Bullion controversy; to these succeeded Adam Smith; and in this reading it was one of my father’s main objects to make me apply to Smith’s more superficial view of political economy, the superior lights of Ricardo, and detect what was fallacious in Smith’s arguments, or erroneous in any of his conclusions.49

Two years later he went over the same ground again:

my father was just finishing for the press his “Elements of Political Economy,” and he made me perform an exercise on the manuscript, which Mr. Bentham practised on all of his writings, making what he called, “marginal contents”; a short abstract of every paragraph, to enable the writer more easily to judge of, and improve, the order of the ideas, and the general character of the exposition.50

Four years later he reviewed the same material in company with a group of young men who met in Mr. Grote’s house in Threadneedle Street:

Our first subject was Political Economy. We chose some systematic treatise as our text-book; my father’s “Elements” being our first choice. One of us read aloud a chapter, or some smaller portion of the book. The discussion was then opened, and any one who had an objection, or other remark to make, made it. Our rule was to discuss thoroughly every point raised, whether great or small, prolonging the discussion until all who took part were satisfied with the conclusion they had individually arrived at; and to follow up every topic of collateral speculation which the chapter or the conversation suggested, never leaving it until we had untied every knot which we found. We repeatedly kept up the discussion of some one point for several weeks, thinking intently on it during the intervals of our meetings, and contriving solutions of the new difficulties which had risen up in the last morning’s discussion. When we had finished in this way my father’s Elements, we went in the same manner through Ricardo’s Principles of Political Economy, and Bailey’s Dissertation on Value. These close and vigorous discussions were not only improving in a high degree to those who took part in them, but brought out new views of some topics of abstract Political Economy. The theory of International Values which I afterwards published, emanated from these conversations, as did also the modified form of Ricardo’s theory of Profits, laid down in my Essay on Profits and Interest.51

The account in the Autobiography of the impact on the Ricardian, Benthamite Mill, of Coleridge, Maurice, Sterling, St. Simon, and Comte, of Carlyle, and finally of Harriet Taylor, cannot here be quoted, but if not familiar should be read by every reader of the Principles. Here I confine myself to the direct references to the Principles. The point of view is evident in his explanation of the change of his views from the days of his “extreme Benthamism” to the time when he wrote this treatise:

In those days I had seen little further than the old school of political economists into the possibilities of fundamental improvement in social arrangements. Private property, as now understood, and inheritance, appeared to me, as to them, the dernier mot of legislation: and I looked no further than to mitigating the inequalities consequent on these institutions, by getting rid of primogeniture and entails. The notion that it was possible to go further than this in removing the injustice—for injustice it is, whether admitting of a complete remedy or not—involved in the fact that some are born to riches and the vast majority to poverty, I then reckoned chimerical, and only hoped that by universal education, leading to voluntary restraint on population, the portion of the poor might be made more tolerable. In short, I was a democrat, but not the least of a Socialist. We were now much less democrats than I had been, because so long as education continues to be so wretchedly imperfect, we dreaded the ignorance and especially the selfishness and brutality of the mass: but our ideal of ultimate improvement went far beyond Democracy, and would class us decidedly under the general designation of Socialists. While we repudiated with the greatest energy that tyranny of society over the individual which most Socialistic systems are supposed to involve, we yet looked forward to a time when society will no longer be divided into the idle and the industrious; when the rule that they who do not work shall not eat, will be applied not to paupers only, but impartially to all; when the division of the produce of labour, instead of depending, as in so great a degree it now does, on the accident of birth, will be made by concert on an acknowledged principle of justice; and when it will no longer either be, or be thought to be, impossible for human beings to exert themselves strenuously in procuring benefits which are not to be exclusively their own, but to be shared with the society they belong to. The social problem of the future we considered to be, how to unite the greatest individual liberty of action, with a common ownership in the raw material of the globe, and an equal participation of all in the benefits of combined labour.52

He then described the production of the book:

In the “Principles of Political Economy,” these opinions were promulgated, less clearly and fully in the first edition, rather more so in the second, and quite unequivocally in the third. The difference arose partly from the change of times, the first edition having been written and sent to press before the French Revolution of 1848, after which the public mind became more open to the reception of novelties in opinion, and doctrines appeared moderate which would have been thought very startling a short time before. In the first edition the difficulties of Socialism were stated so strongly, that the tone was on the whole that of opposition to it. In the year or two which followed, much time was given to the study of the best Socialistic writers on the Continent, and to meditation and discussion on the whole range of topics involved in the controversy: and the result was that most of what had been written on the subject in the first edition was cancelled, and replaced by arguments and reflections which represent a more advanced opinion.

The Political Economy was far more rapidly executed than the Logic, or indeed than anything of importance which I had previously written. It was commenced in the autumn of 1845, and was ready for the press before the end of 1847.53

Finally, there is Mill’s generous, perhaps over-generous, account of the part played by Harriet Taylor:

The first of my books in which her share was conspicuous was the “Principles of Political Economy.” The “System of Logic” owed little to her except in the minuter matters of composition, in which respect my writings, both great and small, have largely benefited by her accurate and clear-sighted criticism. The chapter of the Political Economy which has had a greater influence on opinion than all the rest, that on “the Probable Future of the Labouring Classes,” is entirely due to her: in the first draft of the book, that chapter did not exist. She pointed out the need of such a chapter, and the extreme imperfection of the book without it: she was the cause of my writing it; and the more general part of the chapter, the statement and discussion of the two opposite theories respecting the proper condition of the labouring classes, was wholly an exposition of her thoughts, often in words taken from her own lips. The purely scientific part of the Political Economy I did not learn from her; but it was chiefly her influence that gave to the book that general tone by which it is distinguished from all previous expositions of Political Economy that had any pretension to being scientific, and which has made it so useful in conciliating minds which those previous expositions had repelled. This tone consisted chiefly in making the proper distinction between the laws of the Production of Wealth, which are real laws of nature, dependent on the properties of objects, and the modes of its Distribution, which, subject to certain conditions, depend on human will. The common run of political economists confuse these together, under the designation of economic laws, which they deem incapable of being defeated or modified by human effort; ascribing the same necessity to things dependent on the unchangeable conditions of our earthly existence, and to those which, being but the necessary consequences of particular social arrangements, are merely co-extensive with these: given certain institutions and customs, wages, profits, and rent will be determined by certain causes; but this class of political economists drop the indispensable presupposition, and argue that these causes must, by an inherent necessity, against which no human means can avail, determine the shares which fall, in the division of the produce, to labourers, capitalists, and landlords. The “Principles of Political Economy” yielded to none of its predecessors in aiming at the scientific appreciation of the action of these causes, under the conditions which they presuppose; but it set the example of not treating those conditions as final. The economic generalization which depend, not on necessities of nature but on those combined with the existing arrangements of society, it deals with only as provisional, and as liable to be much altered by the progress of social improvement.54

I conclude with a quotation from Professor Harold Laski’s introduction to the World’s Classics edition of the Autobiography:

The modern economist may use a technique more refined than that of Mill; he rarely conveys the same sense of generous insight into his material. The modern logician has an apparatus incomparably more delicate and subtle; but those very qualities make his work less accessible, and therefore, less educative than Mill’s. The tradition is different because he wrote; and that, after all, is the final answer to critical analysis.55

In this judgment I concur.

[1 ]Frank Knight, “The Ricardian Theory of Production and Distribution,” Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, I (1935), 3.

[2 ]R. Redfield, “The Art of Social Science,” American Journal of Sociology, LIV (1948), 181-90.

[3 ]Alfred Marshall, Principles of Economics, Variorum Edition, ed. C. W. Guillebaud (London, 1961), 43.

[4 ]K. E. Boulding, “Samuelson’s Foundations of Economic Analysis: The Role of Mathematics in Economics,” Journal of Political Economy, LVI (1948), 190.

[5 ]J. A. Schumpeter, History of Economic Analysis (New York, 1954), 4-5.

[6 ]Lord Robbins, Theory of Economic Policy (London, 1952), 1 and 4.

[7 ]John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy, ed. W. J. Ashley (London, 1909), xxiv.

[8 ]Page references to the present edition are given in parentheses in the text.

[9 ]F. Y. Edgeworth, “John Stuart Mill,” Dictionary of Political Economy, ed. R. H. I. Palgrave (London, 1910), II, 763.

[10 ]J. S. Mill, “On the Definition of Political Economy; and on the Method of Investigation Proper to It,” Essay V in Essays on Some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy (London, 1844). Reprinted as number 7 in the Series of Scarce Works on Political Economy, by the London School of Economics and Political Science (London, 1948), 137-40. My italics.

[11 ]Mill, “On the Definition of Political Economy,” 144-5.

[12 ]Ibid., 146.

[13 ]Ibid., 148-9.

[14 ]Ibid., 155.

[15 ]J. S. Mill, A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive, 8th ed. (London, 1872), II, 463.

[16 ]Ibid., II, 508ff.

[17 ]Ibid., II, 513.

[18 ]Ibid., II, 495.

[19 ]A System of Logic, II, 553-4.

[20 ]J. K. Galbraith, The Affluent Society (Boston, 1958).

[21 ]F. H. Knight, The Ethics of Competition (London, 1935), 59.

[22 ]Ibid., 60-1.

[23 ]Quoted in ibid., 66.

[24 ]Published 1886. Quotations are from the edition in the Wayfarers Library (London, n.d.).

[25 ]Ibid., 1.

[26 ]Ibid., 62.

[27 ]Ibid., 428.

[28 ]Joseph Spengler, “The Aesthetics of Population,” Population Bulletin, XIII (1957), 61-75.

[29 ]Ibid., 70.

[30 ]Ibid., 71.

[31 ]Ibid., 72.

[32 ]See my two articles, “Adam Smith on Productive and Unproductive Labour: A Theory of Full Development,” Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, XXVI (1960), 625-30; and “L’industrie de l’automobile canadienne et son intégration dans l‘économie mondiale,” Cahiers de l’Institut de Science Economique Appliquée, H.S., CXXVIII (1962), 121-35.

[33 ]Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, ed. Cannan (London, 1904), I, 318.

[34 ]Thomas Malthus, First Essay on Population (London, 1798). Reprinted for the Royal Economic Society(London, 1926), 293.

[35 ]F. Myint, Theories of Economic Welfare (London, 1948), 13.

[36 ]V. W. Bladen, “John Stuart Mill’s Principles: A Centenary Estimate,” American Economic Review, XXXIX.2 (1949), 1-12. See also the article on this “proposition” by H. G. Johnson, “Demand for Commodities is Not Demand for Labour,” Economic Journal, LIX (1949), 531-6.

[37 ]See Appendix H, II.1043.4-9.

[38 ]See my Preface to Canadian Population and Northern Colonization, ed. V. W. Bladen. Royal Society of Canada, “Studia Varia” series, no. 7 (Toronto, 1962).

[39 ]Sir D. H. Robertson, Utility and All That (London, 1952), 63. “Surely one of the economist’s most obvious duties is to attempt to disentangle useful injustices from useless or harmless ones. . . . If, in the face of his findings, the Sovereign People then deliberately decides that Justice is at all costs to be preferred to Welfare, or even that Soaking the Rich is at all costs to be preferred to both—well, that is that.”

[40 ]J. A. Schumpeter, Preface to F. Zeuthen, Problems of Monopoly (London, 1930), vii-viii.

[41 ]Edgeworth, Dictionary, 760.

[42 ]Marshall, Principles, Appendix J.

[43 ]Schumpeter, History, 689.

[44 ]J. Viner, Studies in the Theory of International Trade (New York, 1957), 535.

[45 ]A. A. Young, “Increasing Returns and Economic Progress,” Economic Journal, XXXVIII (1928), 527-42.

[46 ]J. H. Williams, “The Theory of International Trade Reconsidered,” Economic Journal, XXXIX (1929), 195-209.

[47 ]H. Myint, “The ‘Classical Theory’ of International Trade and the Underdeveloped Countries,” Economic Journal, LXVIII (1958), 317-37.

[48 ]Page references are to the Columbia edition (New York, 1924). Along with this part of the Introduction should be read Appendix G, in which some letters relating to the writing of the Principles are collected.

[49 ]Autobiography, 19-20.

[50 ]Ibid., 44.

[51 ]Ibid., 84.

[52 ]Ibid., 161-2.

[53 ]Autobiography, 164.

[54 ]Ibid., 173-5.

[55 ]Autobiography, ed. Laski (London, 1924), xix and xx.