Liberty Matters

How James Might Have Been Improved Had John Stuart Mill Reviewed “On Government” before It Went to Press

I begin this second round with brief responses to Professors Ball and Taylor. I then take up in more detail the mistake noted by Professors Farrant and Ball, James Mill’s failure to argue for an extension of the franchise to women (and children?). Next I examine his views on education and mention one niggling worry: education as a potential instrument of remaking. Finally, I touch upon the issue of idealism and actuality mentioned by Professors Farrant and Taylor – how to get from here to there?
Professor Ball is of course correct that I excluded both Bentham and utilitarianism from the essay.  I focused instead on a neglected and, for political economists who work on institutional arrangements, important part of James Mill’s argument: groups, the formation of group loyalties (I thank Professor Farrant for the details on associationist psychology), and the resulting zero-sum -- or negative-sum -- outcomes of interactions within such contexts.[71] For the exploration of these issues the work of Smith is compelling and that of Bentham (or Smith’s teacher, Francis Hutcheson, who coined the utilitarian phrase) is much less so. This is not, however, to suggest their work wasn’t extremely important in other contexts.
Second, I think it fair to say that, like Smith, James Mill regarded people as a messy combination of public and private interests that were in part shaped by the institutional context in which we live. Seeking approval, seeking to be praiseworthy, people may be induced better to appreciate their commonalities and become more willing to put partial interests aside as they discuss the impartial. Professor Taylor correctly suggests this is idealistic, but it’s also true that James Mill surely knew what he was up against: he knew that partiality (and party, and faction) would remain with us for the foreseeable future.
James Mill excluded the large majority of humans from his call for an enlarged franchise. Professor Ball correctly reminds us that John Stuart Mill took issue with his father’s position, referring to it in the early draft of his Autobiography as the “worst [paragraph] he ever wrote.”[72] Indeed, John Stuart Mill worked tirelessly and at some cost to his reputation to alter marriage and property laws. In 1832, at her request, he wrote to the woman he later married, Harriet Taylor, to explain his views on women. He opined that the “indissolubility of marriage is the keystone of woman’s present lot, and the whole comes down and must be reconstructed if that is removed.” Autobiography and Literary Essays, Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, vol. 1, ed. John M. Robson and Jack Stillinger (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981). But though the emancipation of women required a change in marriage laws to end what Mill likened to a state of slavery, much more was required:
The question is not what marriage ought to be, but a far wider question, what woman ought to be. Settle that first, and the other will settle itself. Determine whether marriage is to be a relation between two equal beings, or between a superior and an inferior, between a protector and a dependent; and all other doubts will easily be resolved.But in this question there is surely no difficulty. There is no natural inequality between the sexes.[73]
John Stuart Mill was subsequently caricatured in the popular press as having lost his sexual identity (see the Judy cartoon below).  His professional reputation, too, was seriously affected as the question of “Harriet’s influence” (and hence his originality) became live.[74]
What of James Mill?  I cannot explain his lapse.  One might suggest that he simply reflected his time, but since his views were immediately challenged by William Thompson and Thomas Macaulay, this seems entirely inadequate.[75] One might try to think through the argument: might a household constitute a unit that always has common interests and so could receive one vote? I think it best simply to acknowledge that he was wrong on this issue and that his son – loyal as he was – recognized that fact. 
I would add that we all seem to be content to leave children out of the fray. Perhaps we presume that children’s interests do not count before they attain the age of majority or that, more reasonably, their interests are adequately represented by their parents and/or they are incapable of formulating and defending rational views on political and economic matters.  While I would hesitate to argue to extend the franchise to children, it seems worth remarking that such arguments were used to exclude women from the franchise.
Perhaps James Mill’s treatment holds up better to the test of time in the area of education. Relying on the associationist psychology that Professor Farrant has correctly emphasized, Mill placed faith in “technical education.” Such education constituted the means by which “dispositions of Temperance and Benevolence” as well as “Generosity” and “Justice” were to be cultivated amongst all ranks of people, who in his mind were equally educable:[76] “the difference which exists, or can ever be made to exist, between one class of men, and another, [being] wholly owing to education.” As education was to be offered to the lower ranks of society, this would produce economic growth and flourishing:
It is desirable that the great body of the people should not be wretchedly poor; that when the people are wretchedly poor, all classes are vicious, all are hateful, and all are unhappy. If so far raised above wretched poverty, as to be capable of being virtuous; though it be still necessary for them to earn their bread by the sweat of their brow, they are not bound down to such incessant toil as to have no time for the acquisition of knowledge, and the exercise of intellect.”[77]
All well and good. I do wish, however, to mention one misgiving about this case for moral education. Notwithstanding the depth of my loyalty to the academy and the life of the mind, I sometimes worry when education is conceived of as an instrument of moral or economic reform. Calls for education are sometimes calls for remaking people; and the allure of remaking people can be heady stuff. Late in the 19th century anthropologists and biologists engaged in a campaign to physically remake the less educated.  Education is by no means eugenics, but political economists have focused on education as the means of making people “rational,” i.e., making them behave as good neoclassical economics suggests they should behave, when in point of fact their decisions in the first place might have been spot on. In the Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith wrote about the hubris of the “man of system” this way:
The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it.… He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it.
John Stuart Mill also worried that education might be too fully controlled by the state.  In his Principles of Political Economy he argued that the government should provide education, but he was wary of ceding to it a monopoly control over education:
The government must claim no monopoly for its education, either in the lower or in the higher branches;… To possess such a control, and actually exert it, is to be despotic. A government which can mould the opinions and sentiments of the people from their youth upwards, can do with them whatever it pleases. Though a government, therefore, may, and in many cases ought to, establish schools and colleges, it must neither compel nor bribe any person to come to them; nor ought the power of individuals to set up rival establishments, to depend in any degree upon its authorization.”[78]
While I would not want to place too much emphasis on biographical details as explanations for the younger Mill’s conclusions, it is noteworthy that he wrote from personal experience about the power and influence of his own teacher, James Mill:  “[Bentham] is a much greater name in history. But my father exercised a far greater personal ascendancy. He was sought for the vigour and instructiveness of his conversation, and did use it largely as an instrument for the diffusion of his opinions.”[79]
Finally, I’ve long wondered about transitions and institutional transitions – how a society comes to recognize that an institutional failing exists and then rights it.  In the 19th century, as Professor Taylor rightly notes, hugely significant institutional reforms were effected in some measure due to the influence of the political economists: “Slavery was abolished, education extended, criminal law reformed, Catholics emancipated, prisons humanized, the franchise expanded, representation equalized, the press freed, trade liberalized, and the Lords, monarch, and Church reduced to ciphers.”  Professor Farrant asks us to think about how we move from here to there and, indeed, what “there” is; this is a problem that has puzzled political economists as different as James Buchanan and Amartya Sen. It’s a problem that is particularly vexing in the context of partiality (if we all were to gain it would be relatively straightforward to induce the change), when we have factions that stand to lose through institutional reform. The place of women in society was extremely difficult to reform, of course, because the countervailing faction – married men and those who expected to marry – was very large. So, too, was slavery: those who owned slaves stood to lose in the event of the end of slavery, and in the end former slave owners were compensated for the transition by British taxpayers.[80] No such compensatory deal was struck in the United States, with terrible results instead.
Do the measures proposed by James Mill help us with this deep problem of how to get from here to there? I by no means suggest that we will achieve Professor Taylor’s “social unity,” although I agree with him that there is “a utopian bent” to James Mill’s writing.  Mutual agreement to play by the rules alongside a willingness to put one’s views to the test of publicness is perhaps the best we can hope for. As Amartya Sen has noted, this view runs as a thread through much of political economy, from Smith to the Mills to Frank Knight, to his student James Buchanan, and to Sen himself: 
Public reasoning is not only crucial for democratic legitimacy, it is essential for a better public epistemology that would allow the consideration of divergent perspectives. It is also required for more effective practical reasoning. It can bring out what particular demands and protests can be restrained in interactive public reasoning, in line with scrutinized priorities between a cluster of quite distinct demands. This involves a process of “give and take” which many political analysts, from Adam Smith and the Marquis de Condorcet in the eighteenth century to Frank Knight and James Buchanan in our time, have made us appreciate better.[81]
[71.] In the first essay I used the words zero-sum.  But if we take into account the costs associated with (for instance) lobbying to obtain partial treatment, we may indeed be in a negative-sum institutional framework.
[72.]   J. S. Mill, The Early Draft of John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, Ed. Jack Stillinger (Champaign, Ill:  University of Illinois Press, 1961), p. 98.  In the published version of the Autobiography Mill wrote, “Although his Essay on Government was regarded probably by all of us as a masterpiece of political wisdom, our adhesion by no means extended to the paragraph of it, in which he maintains that women may consistently with good government, be excluded from the suffrage, because their interest is the same with that of men. From this doctrine, I, and all those who formed my chosen associates, most positively dissented. It is due to my father to say that he denied having intended to affirm that women should be excluded, any more than men under the age of forty, concerning whom he maintained, in the very next paragraph, an exactly similar thesis. He was, as he truly said, not discussing whether the suffrage had better be restricted, but only (assuming that it is to be restricted) what is the utmost limit of restriction, which does not necessarily involve a sacrifice of the securities for good government.”
[73.]The first and indispensable step, therefore, towards the enfranchisement of woman, is that she be so educated, as not to be dependent either on her father or her husband for subsistence.” Mill, “On Marriage,” 1832-1833(?). See Hayek on Mill: The Mill-Taylor Friendship and Related Writings, ed. Sandra Peart, Collected Works of F. A. Hayek,volume 16 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), p. 62.
[74.] On the issue of Mill’s originality or lack thereof, see my Editor’s Introduction in ibid. 
[75.] I’ve heard a similar claim, that “everyone was a racist” in the early 19th century – a “defense” of Thomas Carlyle’s views on slavery – and found it wanting since it was decidedly not the case that “everyone was a racist then.” See
[76.]The trains [of thought] which lead to Temperance and Benevolence may be equally cultivated in all classes.  The impression which persons are made to receive, and the trains of others which they are made to copy, may, with equal certainty, be guided to the generating of those two qualities in all the difference classes of society.” James Mill, Supplement to the Encyclopedia Britannica (London: J. Innes, 1825); /titles/1764#Mill_0890_120
[77.] James Mill, ibid.
[78.]   John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy with Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy, Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, vols. 2-3, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1965), p. 950. Teachers consequently had a special obligation to teach from different perspectives: “If teaching, even on matters of scientific certainty, should aim quite as much at showing how the results are arrived at, as at teaching the results themselves, far more, then, should this be the case on subjects where there is the widest diversity of opinion among men of equal ability, and who have taken equal pains to arrive at the truth. This diversity should of itself be a warning to a conscientious teacher that he has no right to impose his opinion authoritatively upon a youthful mind. His teaching should not be in the spirit of dogmatism, but in that of enquiry.” (Mill, 1867 [1984], “Inaugural Address Delivered to the University of St. Andrews,” in J. S. Mill, Essays on Equality, Law, and Education, in Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, vol. 21, J. M. Robson ed., (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984), p. 249.
[79.] As is well known, in his Autobiography J. S. Mill wrote that his education, with its heavy emphasis on theory and reasoning (hence molding him into a “reasoning machine,” p. 111) inadequately cultivated the imagination: “From this neglect both in theory and in practice of the cultivation of feeling, naturally resulted among other things an undervaluing of poetry, and of Imagination generally as an element of human nature,” p. 115.
[80.] On the role of compensation in institutional reform, see Peart and David M. Levy, The ‘Vanity of the Philosopher’: From Equality to Hierarchy in Post-Classical Economics (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005), pp. 182, 190-91. 
[81.] Amartya Sen, “What happened to Europe?” The New Republic, Aug. 2, 2012;,2.