Mill’s Principles reviewed by Bonar in 1911

In 1911, James Bonar wrote a review on the publication of the Ashley edition of Mill’s Principles of Political Economy which was published in The Journal of Political Economy, titled: The Economics of John Stuart Mill. It perfectly summarises the consensus view of Mill’s economics at the start of the twentieth century, which shows just how far from the centre Mill’s economics had already by then moved.

If John Stuart Mill’s eminence is not supreme, it is great enough to make almost every utterance of his worth considering. His was rarely a hasty judgment; and what he says of his fellow-enthusiasts of the year 1825 might be applied to himself on most occasions: he never left a subject he had taken up until he had (to the best of his ability) untied every knot in it.

Another century later, there is virtually no economist who reads Mill today for instruction. And it’s not just their loss, we all lose because of the inanity of modern theory. It is the residuals from the economics of Mill and his contemporaries that allow our economies to limp along and innovation to continue. It was also interesting to discover how Mill came to write The Principles:

The success of the Logic drew him back into political economy by making the publishers willing (perhaps anxious) to print what they had refused before, namely, the Essays on Some Unsettled Questions in Political Economy, Mill’s part of the work projected in 1831 [he had originally intended to co-author a series of papers on economics which is why it was “Mill’s part”].

As he was setting out to write his Political Economy, he wrote the following to Auguste Comte in 1844:

I know what you think of the present political economy. I have a better opinion of it than you; but, if I wrote something about these things, I should never forget the purely provisional character of all its concrete conclusions and I should devote myself more especially to separating the general laws of production, necessarily common to all industrial societies, from the principles of distribution and exchange, which assume a particular state of society. Such a treatise could have a great provisional utility, especially in England.”‘ It might appear to you essentially anti-scientific; and it would be so as a matter of fact, if I were not taking great pains to establish the purely provisional character of every doctrine (about industrial phenomena) which made abstraction from the general movement of humanity. I think that if this plan is at all adequately executed it would give a scientific education (education positive) to many who are now studying social questions more or less seriously; and in taking as my general model the great and brilliant work of Adam Smith I should find good opportunities for spreading directly one or two principles of the new [positive] philosophy, as Adam Smith found them for spreading most often those of negative metaphysics in his social applications, yet without awakening dark misgivings by waving any flag.

I find this especially enlightening since quite a number of Mill’s views that have been superseded according to Bonar are views that I believe are of premier importance.

There are many details of economic doctrine in respect of which Mill has probably few followers now. Occasionally his positions, instead of being solemnly refuted, are quietly dropped as purely Ricardian. Many of the pages devoted to wages and profits are so treated. His particular form of Malthusianism has gone out of doors into the hands of an energetic sect of reformers. Without adopting the sweepingly adverse verdict of Jevons, we may admit that there is at once too much and too little in Mill’s Political Economy for most of us now. We should not confine wealth to exchange value, or believe that nothing remained to be added to the theory of value. We should not say that without competition there is no economics. We should not say so broadly that industry is limited by capital. We should not make so much of the distinction between productive and unproductive labor or try to prove that a demand for goods can never in any sound sense be a demand for labor. We cannot be induced to rank land, labor, and capital as co-ordinate factors in production, or to adopt Senior’s view that abstinence is rewarded in interest. We should probe further into the cause of interest. We might ratify the general principle of Malthus without making all progress turn on the practical recognition of it. We should be more chary than Mill in the use of the word ” laws.” We should not, all of us, admit that the “laws” of production were purely physical and the “laws” of distribution “of human institution solely.” Mill was probably aware that the abandonment by him in I869 of the wages fund carried consequences reaching into the heart of his arguments on profits and wages reducing them largely to useless dialectic.

But once we have removed Malthusian pessimism on population from the list, the rest of Mill’s judgements stand, even if few [no] modern economists any longer understand or subscribe to Mill’s position.

Much more to read at the link if these things interest you. But there is this one error that should be a reminder that no one can write anyone else’s life without error. This was the dates of Mill’s life stated by Bonar: “(May 20, 18o8, to May 8, 1873)”. Mill was, in fact, born in 1806.

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