John Stuart Mill (1806-1878)

You will have a hard time classifying Mill in political or economic dimension, but surely not in brilliance: he was a genius. But that’s not that special, almost all of the greatest economist were extremely brilliant, but few started to learn greek at the age of three. At seven he read most of Plato dialogues. At thirteen he made a complete survey of all there was to be known in political economy. So, undoubtedly, such a nerd! A nerd that went deep enough to discuss the philosophical conflicts underlying classical economics. The ethical foundations of economics and capitalism were discussed.

Usually considered as a genius, probably owns that to his father, James Mill, close friend of Ricardo and Jeremy Bentham (father of utilitarianism). James was the one that pushed John to a seven days a week study plan (so yes, no friends for the little Mill). The miracle was not that John Stuart Mill wrote masterpieces; the miracle was that he survived childhood!

Utopian socialists are usually dismissed by considering them dreamers, but the thoroughness of Mill thoughts are not questioned.

«A person choose to do x, just if he believes that doing it, he will gain profit «. That was I learned in my first class of economy. That is the base of utilitarianism immortalized by Jeremy Bentham. You could see Bentham as the Newton of the moral universe, a moral scientist. Bentham’s model is based on seeing the «mankind under the governance of two masters, pain and pleasure….Since all human beings like pleasure and hate pain (masochists notwithstanding, although they prefer pain only because it gives them pleasure), they choose to do that which gives them pleasure». So profit in this case, is pleasure minus pain. So when is time to choose, choose the alternative that maximizes profit (given the restrictions).

 «Greatest happiness for the greatest number» is the cry of the utilitarian movement. Under that, relies the assumption that all people count equally when determining happiness, which sounds fair enough. Bentham even devised a method of quantifying pleasure and pain; it’s called felicific calculus (that really sounds like a lot of free time). Does anything from here gives us something useful? Of course!

  • In politics, Bentam’s Radicals (Bentham groupies) argued for democracy and free speech. From free speech comes truth, they declared.
  • They fought for reducing taxes on periodicals and assembly restrictions.
  • They attacked the Corn Laws (entrance barrier to foreign seeds to U.K).
  • They argued against punishment in prisons. After all, «a criminal is a person who believes that crime pays». The only problem with criminals is that they missed the long term pain (costs).

 To utilitarians, utility was god. The invisible hand wasn’t, even if their god usually worked through the invisible hand.

Mill was a Jeremy’s fan. He found the scientific precision that he was looking for, and gave him a sight of society. Not for too long. Around twenty, Mill realized that rational thoughts were just not enough. He missed the ultimate goal; happiness. He arrived at a critical point in his life. In his words:

«Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you? And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, No! At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for»

 Hopeless, he found something that kept him alive: poetry. But flesh could not live just reading poetry. After a while he found what he was looking for: love. The nerd fell in love. Harriet Taylor was the girl. As usual, things were not that easy. There was a Mr. Taylor too, but as Disney taught us, love prevails. After twenty years of «non-sex relationship» (he was such a nerd so, it was very plausible), they got married. Mill always noted the influence of his wife and daughter in his masterpieces. In the age of reason, Mill longed for passion (Amazingly, that is not that crazy. Hume insisted that reason always be the «slave of the passions». Even Bentham introduced reason only as a method of comparing passions, not replace them).

«Whoever, either now or hereafter, may think of me and of the work I have done, must never forget that is the product not of one intellect and conscience, but of three»

After that spring break of feelings Mill would return to Benthamism, not to destroy it, but to improve it. Mill insisted that the greatest happiness depends more than mere pleasure. For example, art is more than pleasure; it lifts the spirit. Mill enhances utilitarianism by invoking Platonic virtues of honor, dignity and self-development. By the way, that’s the reason that Mill became an advocate of public education; to allow people to enjoy more than worldly pleasures, but spirit lifters.

 His first masterpiece were two long volumes titled «Principles of Political Economy». Beside of being a survey of the field, he gave a new perspective that Mill believed of monumental importance:  economy was all about production, not distribution. For distribution, something else was needed (morals?). Scarcity and toughness of nature are real things, and the economic rules of behavior which tell us how to maximize the fruits of our labor are as impersonal and absolute as hard sciences. So economics have nothing to do with distribution.

«Once we have produced wealth as the best we can, we can do with it as we like… The distributions of wealth depends on the laws and customs of society. The rules by which it is determined are what the opinions and feelings of the ruling portion of the community make them, and are very different in different ages and countries, and might be still more different, if mankind so chose…  «.

So as Robert Owen, Mill thinks that society has the power of make itself in different forms. There is not only one natural solution then.

  If society did not like the so-called «natural» results of its activities, it had only to change them. Society could tax and subsidize, it could expropriate and redistribute. It could give all its wealth to a king, or it could run gigantic charity ward; it could give due heed to incentives, or it could, at its own risk, ignore them. But whatever it did, there was no «correct» distribution, at least none that economics had any to reclaim. There was no «laws» to justify how society shared its fruits: there were only men sharing their wealth as they saw fit.

But the thing is that societies arrange their modes of payment as integral parts of their modes of production: for example, feudal societies do not have «wages», anymore than capitalists societies have feudal dues. So production and distribution cannot be neatly separated.

Maybe, what John was trying to say is that societies would try to remedy its «natural» workings by imposing its moral values. Fixing economy with morals. Indeed, the New Deal (hand of John Maynard Keynes), or Germany welfare are kind of Mill’s vision of a society. So the moral nerd really extended his thoughts.

As a great person which we remember (and not a military), Mill didn’t feel good by his surroundings, and thought about that. In his words:

«I am not charmed with an ideal of life held out by those who think that the normal state of human beings is that of struggling to get on; that the trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other’s heels, which form the existing type of social life, are the most desirable lot of human kind, or anything but the disagreeable symptoms of one of the phases of industrial progress»

 So, based on his bad feelings regard surroundings, seeing it as a problem, he proposed a solution (a moral one):

«That the energies of mankind should be kept in employment by the struggle for riches as they were formerly by the struggle for war, until the better minds succeed in educating the others into better things, in undoubtedly better than they should rust and stagnate. While minds are coarse they require stimuli and let them have them»

Note, that as Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill saw capitalism as just a phase of human development, not a steady state nor a final solution.

If you are fast, and want to draw Mill as a communist, Mill tell you about communism (Not Karl Marx communism. Mill wasn’t aware of his existence then):

The question is wether would be any asylum left for individuality of character; wether public opinion would not be a tyrannical yoke; whether the absolute dependence of each on all, and the surveillance of each by all, would not grind all down into a tame uniformity of thoughts, feelings, and actions… No society in which eccentricity is a matter of reproach can be in a wholesome state.»

Rather than «equality of results», Mill urged for «equal opportunity». If some children inherit huge sums from their parents, they possess an unfair advantage over others. This with silver spoons may rely on their parent’s wealth rather than create more; an inefficiency.

Mill also wondered how society could give relief to the poor without dissuading them from getting jobs. He proposed recipients exchange labors for welfare payments (for the physically fit, handicapped should always receive aid from society). Ignored for decades, in 1988 federal governments in the U.S adopted «workfare» programs in which healthy welfare recipients must accept employment or job training. Mill feared that if welfare was too easily doled out, generations of poor people would be born into families weaned of a work’s ethic. He rejected socialist and romantic proposals for raising relief benefits or wages per se.

Where was Mill in a line ended by laissez-faire and government intervention?. In a good place around the middle. The goal of government supporters is to show that greater society happiness requieres intervention: «every departure from [laissez-faire], unless required by some great good, is a certain evil».

Different from Malthus, a hopeful Mill thought that the working classes could be educated to understand their Malthusian peril, and that they would regulate their number voluntarily. With that pressure removed, Mill’s model took a different turn from Malthus and Ricardo: as before, the tendencies of the accumulation would bid up wages, but as now people is aware of the poverty of having too much children, they wouldn’t have too much. Profits would rise and the accumulation of capital would come to an end, reaching a steady state. Now, rather than seeing the study state as the end for capitalism and economic progress, Mill sees it as the first stage of a benign socialism (that what Smith said too), where mankind would turn its energies to serious matters as justice and liberty, and not economic growth per se.

Within this impending steady state, great changes could me made:

  • The state would prevent landlord from reaping unearned benefits.
  • The state would tax away inheritances.
  • Associations of workmen would displace the organization of enterprises in which men were subordinate to masters.
  • By their sheer competitive advantages, the workers cooperatives would win the day.

Capitalism would gradually disappear as former masters sold out to their workingmen and retired on annuities. More than a hundred years have passed, and the steady state is no in the horizon (not here at least). Patience then.

More than being at english at the core (gradualist, optimistic, realistic, and devoid of radical overtones), he was a moralist. When Herbert Spencer, his great rival in the area of philosophy run out of money to complete his project, Mill offered to finance it: «I beg that you will not consider this proposal in the light of a personal favor…But it is nothing of the kind, it is a simple proposal of cooperation for an important public purpose, for which you give your labor and (I) have given your health».

That was John Stuart Mill, the last «political economist» and «utopian socialist». For me, a super nerd that fell in love and happily apply his geniuses to think in how to enhance the human condition. For that he proposed greater wealth, equality, women rights and education. Only good things can come out of that. Thanks Harriet Taylor and daughter for encourage Mill’s geniuses.

Dedicated to Sebastian P., a nerd that is discovering something else beside reason.


Un pensamiento en “John Stuart Mill (1806-1878)

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