Academic journal article Independent Review

John Stuart Mill, Political Economist: A Reassessment

Academic journal article Independent Review

John Stuart Mill, Political Economist: A Reassessment

Article excerpt

John Stuart Mill's reputation as an economic thinker rests almost entirely on Principles of Political Economy. First published in 1848, this weighty tome met with immediate success and was widely recognized as a towering achievement on a scale with Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. For more than a generation, its influence was unrivaled and established Mill as the dominant economist of the age. At the time of his death in 1873, the Principles was in its seventh edition and remained an authoritative text until eclipsed by Alfred Marshall's treatise of 1890.

Today Mill is best known not as a political economist but as a social philosopher whose works On Liberty, The Subjection of Women, and Utilitarianism are standard fare in college syllabi. Among scholars, however, Mill's economic thought remains very much alive, and not just for its historical significance. He was the paradigmatic nineteenth-century liberal, and his concerns, values, and analysis continue to resonate in contemporary liberal societies. And because Mill employed political economy on behalf of a broader program of social reform, he remains highly relevant to current debates on social justice, income inequality, the welfare state, and the future of capitalism.

Unfortunately, Mill's relevance has been consistently compromised by the failure of historians of economics (and other scholars) to squarely confront his actual teaching. All observers recognize that Mill "explored" or "flirted" with socialism and expressed a certain "sentimental" attachment to "cooperative" schemes for a future society. Yet nearly all deny that Mill was a "socialist" in any accepted sense of the term, even though he openly identified himself as one in his Autobiography. On the contrary, Mill is consistently hailed as a classical economist, a defender of the free market, and a reformer of capitalism whose professed "socialism" was hypothetical and went no further than the welfare state.

Mill and Historians of Economics

The efforts of historians of economics to "save Mill from himself" can be traced to the ideological currents that accompanied the Cold War. Before the rise of bolshevism and fascism in Europe, Mill had been widely viewed as an evolutionary socialist, a proto-Fabian, and had even been placed among the "theoretical adherents" of revolutionary socialism. Beginning in the late 1940s, economic scholars such as Jacob Viner, Lionel Robbins, and Robert Heilbroner would attempt to rebrand Mill as an idealistic thinker who ultimately adhered to the fundamental tenets of classical theory and the market system. For Viner, Mill's flirtation with socialism was "in large degree platonic," a harmless dalliance safely relegated to the "vague future" (1949, 381). In the interim, Mill counseled economic orthodoxy, which, along with his "utopian aspirations," struck just the right tone for mid-Victorians. This tone gave Mill's economic teaching a broad, if eclectic, appeal: he became "a major source of inspiration for the Fabian socialists as well as for the laissez-faire liberals" (363).

The future Lord Robbins noted the ambiguity in Mill's eclecticism. Was Mill an "arch-individualist" or a "good socialist"? Robbins attributed much of the confusion to Mill himself, a divided thinker who "would have dearly liked to believe in socialism in some form or another" (1952, 142). His preferred form of socialism was "syndicalist rather than . . . collectivist" (159, italics in original), but this did not make Mill a "socialist" in the strict sense of the term. In the end, "Mill's utopia" was mere smoke and his socialist noodling little more than "a plea for an open mind." Through all the "mysterious vicissitudes" of his thoughts on socialism (164 n.), Mill "remained a great Utilitarian and a great exponent of Classical Political Economy" (145).

In The Worldly Philosophers, Robert Heilbroner popularized this paradoxical picture of Mill, a "utopian" whose "leanings" were only "mildly Socialist" ([1953] 1999, 133). …

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