Making Peace With John Stuart Mill

by Pedro Schwartz

John Stuart Mill was my companion for more than three years, while I was writing my dissertation on what I called his New Political Economy (1965, 1972). Every generation, every school of economists, has the ambition to rewrite economics. The case of Mill was a special one. Analytically speaking he was the last of the great English classics, but as a political economist he was the first of the moderate socialists. His Principles of Political Economy (1848) made reformist socialism respectable in his country. In American terms, he was a ‘liberal’ economist of the best kind, theoretically precise and politically radical.

However, Mill cannot be understood merely as an economist. It is enough to pick some of his principal writings in the different fields of philosophy to see that an evaluation of his legacy must take a wider perspective. Thus, his System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive (1843) was a polemic against the kind of metaphysical and intuitive philosophy that was being imported from Germany. His three great essays, On Liberty (1859), Utilitarianism (1861) and Representative Government (1865), dealt with individualism, ethics, and political theory. And The Subjection of Women (1869) dramatically linked the inequality of women in Victorian society with the great question of the emancipation of slaves, in which Mill was prominently engaged.

What I want to do in this limited space is to review Mill, the social-liberal thinker, from the point of view of a classical liberal, which is what I am today. I will do so without regard to chronology, as if I were discussing Millian philosophy with a young person who was asking advice on how to approach that great thinker.

Individual liberty

John Stuart Mill’s greatest contribution to political philosophy is without doubt what he had to say about the freedom of the individual in his 1859 essay On Liberty. This essay starts from two principles: the first one is that the free discussion of all doctrines and ideas is essential for the discovery of error or the reassertion of truth; the second is that adults should be able to act according to their wishes and convictions in all that concerns only themselves. These two principles are in a way equivalent: freedom of opinion and discussion is essential in the search for truth; and freedom to act in all self-regarding matters and bearing the consequences is essential for character building and the flourishing of personality.

As regards the liberty of thought and expression, Mill’s doctrine is the canonical liberal position. He defends it with three reasons: (1) an opinion forcibly silenced may be the truth, even if we cannot eo ipso know it; (2) even if a silenced opinion may be wrong, it may contain a parcel of truth and normally does; (3) even if a received opinion is wholly true, it may, unless seriously challenged, become mere prejudice and those who hold it may not be aware of the reasons that back it. What could be missing here is the argument from corruption: the spreading of false or wicked opinions may smother the truth, unless we think that truth will in the end always prevail. Mill himself accepted the fact that prison and the stake could repeatedly smother new truths but he used this argument a contrario by stressing the importance of allowing free discussion and rejecting the use of force to defend any doctrine. These three reasons are for me incontestable. In any case I think Mill’s arguments for freedom of opinion and expression in the end have the day.

Mill then widened the argument as he proceeded to defend more than freedom of opinion: full personal autonomy in “Individuality” and in “On the Limits of the Authority of Society over the Individual.” The tradition going back to the common law, Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, and the First Amendment of the American Constitution was the defence of individual freedom against unlawful interference. But Mill went further, by defending the freedom of “experiments in living.” He argued not only against legal and political interference with individual autonomy but against “the tyranny of public opinion”.

We classical liberals are usually more restrained in our defence of individual freedom. We dare not go further than defending “negative freedom”, as Isaiah Berlin called it and do not back our claims by alluding to the wondrous things individuals would do with their self-government. Mill and his beloved friend Harriet Taylor showed more ambition. Personal liberty was for them (and I say ‘them’ intentionally) a crucial factor in the formation of character and the flourishing of the individual. Personal flourishing was something he deeply prized after rebelling against his utilitarian education and cultivating his friendship with Harriet Taylor.

Frederic Rosen (2013) rightly stresses the odd expression used by Mill in the introduction of the essay: he says that the subject of On Liberty is “civil, or social Liberty”. This expression indicated his wish to criticise “the idea of society exercising power, presumably through social or public opinion.” All this indicates that Mill was not exaggerating when he presented the essay as a joint effort; and social oppression was heavily felt by both during their fifteen year friendship and three year marriage. Harriet Taylor died before the work was finished.

Of course today we think mainly of the unacceptable rejection of different forms of sexuality in Victorian times. Here it is enough to apply the rule that self-regarding actions are to be fully permissible, while focussing on the character and feelings of the people involved in marriage or personal relationships to value forms of life in each case.


One of Mill’s lifelong battles was the one he waged against metaphysics in the theory of knowledge and against intuitionism in ethics. In this battle he clearly followed in the tradition of Jeremy Bentham’s positivism and James Mill’s associationism and added a historicist bent taken from Auguste Comte. Bentham always insisted on reducing abstractions to their observable material parts—witness his rejection of natural rights as “nonsense on stilts”. James Mill was the author of a detailed book on association theory, the basis of his rejection of the influence of innate qualities compared with environment and education—the best instance of which was the relentless upbringing of his son John. Comte for his part thought he had discovered the sociological laws of evolution of society, so that he tried to convince his friend Mill of the uselessness of a merely static analysis of logic, psychology, and economics in favour of dynamic historicism.

The 1842 book published under the title A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductivemakes one marvel at the intellectual power of its author. It is on the same plane of achievement as his Principles of Political Economy, which appeared in 1848 and then many times was republished. Mill’s other productions are shorter or more specialised and given to the application of one central idea to a particular question. They are no small achievements. However, the sheer width of treatment and the integral connection of the Logic and the Principles makes one wonder at the power of his fine mind. It is no surprise that he suffered from repeated depressions along the years. I say this to put my critical reflections in context. It is very rare to see one person produce such major works and in such a limited span of years, and all this while he was occupied at India House. Mill continued to be a prodigy long after he had long left infancy.

I see from the marks in my copy of the Logic that I read and tried to digest the book in my younger years, though it would take me now long hours of study and much reference to other writers to make intelligent comments on so abstruse a topic. The first thing to be said is that it is a positivistic treatise, where abstract concepts are rooted in sense data, observable fact, and material verification. Even numbers were sublimations of material things, got from counting and operating with actual phenomena. It seems clear that this view of logic and scientific discovery was inductive to the core, starting from, and validated by, sense data. It was meant to present an empiricist view of knowledge, in the tradition of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke and in direct opposition to the intuitionist and metaphysical philosophy coming from Germany. During the composition of the Logic Mill was in constant correspondence with Auguste Comte. They both approved of the destruction of the mediaeval metaphysics wrought by the likes of Jeremy Bentham and James Mill in the 19th century. But they wanted to proceed to a positivistic philosophy to counteract the new Tory intuitionism of those who rejected analytic criticism of traditional institutions.

His epistolary friendship with Auguste Comte is a strange episode in Mill’s life. They never met but exchanged no less than 89 letters from November 1841 to May 1847, while Mill was fully occupied with writing and publishing his Logic and well advanced with the Principles. Comte, who was really deranged, submitted to himself systematically to “cerebral hygiene”, consisting in not reading any but his own works. He ended by foreseeing the necessary arrival of a ‘positive’ dictatorship imposing ‘Ordem e Progresso”, the Comptian motto on the Brazilian flag. Mill joined him in the battle for positivism against reactionary metaphysics. As can be seen in Book VI of the Logic, “The Logic of the Moral Sciences”, Mill was attracted by Comte’s highly questionable idea that societies necessarily evolve in three states: theological, metaphysical, and scientific or positive. One can also see the influence of Comte on the Principles in a number of points, such as the distinction between the unchanging laws of production and the modifiable laws of distribution, parallel to Comte’s concepts of ‘statics’ and ‘dynamics’. Yet he still wanted to write a treatise of economics, despite Comte’s rejection of this science. In the end, Mill strongly criticised Comte’s descent into un-freedom and clearly distanced himself in Auguste Comte and Positivism (1865).

Despite Mill firmly keeping himself on the side of the angels, I think the philosophical, methodological, and political programme of positivism is fundamentally wrong. There have been repeated attempts in the 19th and 20th centuries to oust metaphysics from meaningful discourse, the most radical being the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle. Of course metaphysical musings often vaporise into mystical cant, but much of what we try to formulate about the world and society is not ‘scientific’ in the sense of being empirical and testable. It was Karl Popper himself who crossed swords with the ultra-positivists, most famously in the incident of Wittgenstein’s Poker [book by David Edmonds]. Some of our most important framework beliefs are non-scientific and ‘metaphysical’ under Popper’s classification but full of meaning: the most important is the Theory of Evolution, which cannot be tested as a whole since we can only observe one instance of it (at least for the time being). True, unjustifiable vapours can rise from it, especially when one holds that Evolution has direction and a goal, despite the patchiness of fossil remains, and slips into Neo-Darwinism.


Mill sought to transform the political economy of his masters from what he thought was a narrow science into an instrument of social progress. He wanted to rescue economics from being seen as a dismal science to turn it into a humane and hopeful one. Of course he started from all he had learnt from his masters, his father James and especially David Ricardo. Two influences must be noted in his endeavour: one negative, one positive. One I have noted, that of Auguste Comte. The other powerful one is Harriet Taylor’s. She naturally would have no contribution to make to the scientific side of Mill’s economics but was material in the inclusion of a famous chapter on “The Futurity of the Working Classes” in Mill’s Principles. He very much sided with Harriet Taylor’s belief that the transformation of society would come with the elevation of the working classes through their elevation in knowledge and character, among other forces, by the effect of his ‘New Political Economy’.

Again, as with the Logic, one sees a powerful mind at work on a subject he was fully conversant with. From the analytic point of view he showed himself most inventive, though he did not blow his trumpet over those achievements, as George Stigler put it in his piece on “The Nature and Role of Originality in Scientific Progress” (1955). Without the mathematical garb that has become de rigeur in the 20th century, Mill made at least seven path-breaking theoretical contributions: non-competing groups, joint products, opportunity cost, the economy of the firm, the correct formulation of the law of demand and supply and of Say’s Law [see John-Baptiste Say], and his masterly discussion of international trade. Economists who read my column will be duly impressed. However, Mill saw these contributions as mere corrections of faults in the model of David Ricardo on which he had been brought up by his father. They were not as important as his endeavour to explain ‘Some of the applications of political economy to social philosophy’, as he put it in the title of his 1848 treatise. So let me go straight to the non-analytic side of the Principles.

Mill started Book II of the Principles with a momentous distinction between the laws of production and the laws of distribution. “The laws and conditions of the production of wealth partake of the character of physical truths”. On the other hand he affirms that “It is not so with the Distribution of Wealth. That is a matter of human institution solely. The things once there, mankind, individually or collectively can do with them as they like.”

The crucial phrase is “the things once there”, because it takes no account of the effect of redistribution in period 1 on the production in period 2. On this thought Mill based his proposals to reform property rights in Great Britain, to change the laws of inheritance, to make life easier for trade unions, and to examine socialist proposals. More interesting for our time, it is this distinction that is at the bottom of social-democracy, as we have known it all along the 20th century. Despite Mill’s solid defence of free trade and economic competition (even among socialist co-operatives), this is what makes him the inspirer and patron saint of the moderate left in the West and indeed the whole world.

Whether one accepts or resists redistribution to reduce inequality of income and wealth, one’s view of Mill’s economic and social legacy will be fundamentally different.

Socialism, liberty, and the subjection of women

Ah! But where is Mill’s discussion of the merits and demerits of socialism, for which he became famous? I want to break new ground by linking Mill’s (and Harriet’s) view of socialism with the essay On Liberty and the polemic on The Subjection of Women.

When I wrote my chapter on Mill and socialism in my 1972 book, I came to the conclusion that, as he says in his Autobiography, the influence of Harriet Taylor inclined him towards socialism while she lived but that in later years he drew back somewhat from this position. The phrase has been much quoted:

We were now much less democrats than I had been, because so long as education continues 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 designation general of Socialists. (Collected Works I, page 239)

I do not need to rehearse the analysis of different socialist experiments in the first and third edition of the Principles (1848, 1852). His examination of different socialist experiments and his defence of cooperation are interesting in themselves, in as far as they show Mill at his rational best even when he started from a parti pris position. And his cooling off in the Posthumous Chapters on Socialism again shows his level-headedness.

I rather want to underline what he says about the character of the masses. Mill and Harriet Taylor defended individual liberty as a force for change in the character of a people and a country by a diffusion of excellence and an elevation of custom by the example of the élites. He in fact, under the influence of Comte, repeatedly tried to start the systematic study of ‘Ethology’ or the character of a society. Though he never advanced much along this way the thought was always present that he wanted to propose reforms in mores and institutions to elevate individuals, classes, and countries away from their present brutality.

And this is where The Subjection of Women comes in. For John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor it was not only the injustice of the treatment of women in traditional and modern societies that they were fighting against. They hoped for more. They expected that more fairness in social habits and the vote for women in politics would make for better individuals and a more exalted society as a whole. Today we tend to be less hopeful on the refining effects of liberty and feminism and defend them for themselves rather than for idealistic reasons. But this shows us what kind of persons John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor were.

Pedro Schwartz is a Research Professor of Economics at Universidad Camilo José in Madrid and a former President of the Mont Pelerin Society.


The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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