John Stuart Mill at Econ Lib

This is the EconLib (The Economics of Liberty} online biography of John Stuart Mill. The greatest defender of freedom and liberty in history, this is what they come up with. They really have no idea about the economics of Mill or about the economics of freedom for that matter, but it is sadly par for the course in our day and age.

The eldest son of economist James Mill, John Stuart Mill was educated according to the rigorous expectations of his Benthamite father. He was taught Greek at age three and Latin at age eight. By the time he reached young adulthood John Stuart Mill was a formidable intellectual, albeit an emotionally depressed one. After recovering from a nervous breakdown, he departed from his Benthamite teachings to shape his own view of political economy. In Principlesof Political Economy, which became the leading economics textbook for forty years after it was written, Mill elaborated on the ideas of David Ricardo and Adam Smith. He helped develop the ideas of economies of scale, opportunity cost, and comparative advantage in trade.

Mill was a strong believer in freedom, especially of speech and of thought. He defended freedom on two grounds. First, he argued, society’s utility would be maximized if each person was free to make his or her own choices. Second, Mill believed that freedom was required for each person’s development as a whole person. In his famous essay On Liberty, Mill enunciated the principle that “the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection.” He wrote that we should be “without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong.”

Surprisingly, though, Mill was not a consistent advocate of laissez-faire. His biographer, Alan Ryan, conjectures that Mill did not think of contract and property rights as being part of freedom. Mill favored inheritance taxation, trade protectionism, and regulation of employees’ hours of work. Interestingly, although Mill favored mandatory education, he did not advocate mandatory schooling. Instead, he advocated a voucher system for schools and a state system of exams to ensure that people had reached a minimum level of learning.
Although Mill advocated universal suffrage, he suggested that the better-educated voters be given more votes. He emphatically defended this proposal from the charge that it was intended to let the middle class dominate. He argued that it would protect against class legislation and that anyone who was educated, including poor people, would have more votes.

Mill spent most of his working life with the East India Company. He joined it at age sixteen and worked there for thirty-eight years. He had little effect on policy, but his experience did affect his views on self-government.

 
Let us in particular look at this: “Surprisingly, though, Mill was not a consistent advocate of laissez-faire.” Not only was he not a consistent advocate, he was no advocate of laissez-faire at all. No economist has ever been an advocate of laissez-faire, not Adam Smith, not David Ricardo, not anyone else. If you mean in all cases, leave it to the market, no one has ever advocated such a hands-off approach. Going further, Mill was an advocate of using government agency and regulation in a wide variety of instances. Yet his economics was the most hands-off approach to economic policy of any economist since the middle of the nineteenth century. This was from my own discussion of Mill that appeared on the EconLib website back in 2015: John Stuart Mill explaining what is wrong with Keynesian theory. My book on the economics of Mill will be published this year: Classical Economics and the Modern Economy.

This is overview of the book found on the Elgar website:

Economic theory reached its highest level of analytical power and depth in the middle of the nineteenth century among John Stuart Mill and his contemporaries. This book explains classical economics when it was at its height, followed by an analysis of what took place as a result of the ensuing Marginal and Keynesian Revolutions that have left economists less able to understand how economies operate.

Chapters explore the false mythology that has obscured the arguments of classical economists, clouding to the point of near invisibility the theories they had developed. Steven Kates offers a thorough understanding of the operation of an economy within a classical framework, providing a new perspective for viewing modern economic theory from the outside. This provocative book not only explains the meaning of Say’s Law in an accessible way, but also the origins of the Keynesian revolution and Keynes’s pathway in writing The General Theory. It provides a new look at the classical theory of value at its height that was not based, as so many now wrongly believe, on the labour theory of value.

A crucial read for economic policy-makers seeking to understand the operation of a market economy, this book should also be of keen interest to economists generally as well as scholars in the history of economic thought.

I never worry that anyone will be able to contradict me about Mill since the most certain statement I can make is that no one, but no one, has read Mill in the past fifty year to find out how an economy works, and virtually no one has read him sympathetically – other than myself and a handful of others – in over a century. But you do have to wonder about those who tell you about freedom and liberty who don’t read the author of On Liberty for some insights into how an economy works and his views on the role of government in making an economy work.