John Stuart Mill on Laissez-faire

This is John Stuart Mill in his Principles of Political Economy, Book V, Chapter XI, Para 7 [Ashley edition p 950]:

Laissez-faire, in short, should be the general practice: every departure from it, unless required by some great good, is a certain evil.

This is William D. Grampp in his Economic Liberalism: , Volume II: The Classical View, Chapter 3, titled “Liberalism in the Great Century” [New York: Random House 1965]. The chapter begins:

The nineteenth century usually is thought to have been the greatest age of economic liberalism, greater than any other, from its origins in Stoicism down to the present time. Economists think of the century as the long afternoon of the ideology. They believe it then meant laissez-faire and that laissez-faire was the policy of Great Britain, the major economy of the world. In fact, the century was not like that, and historians have tried to tell us so. They have reported the many ways in which the British government intervened in the market. The historians also have said the intervention was inconsistent with liberalism. In this, they are in my opinion, mistaken. (Grampp 1965: 73)

From the introduction to the chapter he continues with his first section on “The Importance of the Nineteenth Century”. He lists six reasons, this is the fourth:

“(4) The first effort to make a comprehensive statement on its principles was in 1848.” (Grampp 1965: 74)

1848 was the date of publication of the first edition of Mill’s Principles. He makes what he means absolutely clear on the following page:

“John Stuart Mill was the first to do this – to enunciate a theory of policy – and he did it in his Principles, which was published in 1848.” (Grampp 1965: 75)

He makes clear its significance in the very first para in which he discusses the notion of laissez-faire.

“1. The idea of economic liberalism, which had been gathering force for centuries, came to their full power in the nineteenth century…. Liberalism had many different meanings to these people. But one generalization can be made. To almost all who believed in it and to some who did not, liberalism did not mean laissez faire – that is, it did not mean a policy of non-intervention by the government and of allowing the major economic decisions to be made on unregulated markets. The rejection of laissez faire was one of the few ideas on which there was nearly complete agreement among the economists and between them and the political leaders.” (Grampp 1965: 74)

In that quote from Mill, the most important word is “unless”, “unless required by some great good”. His Book V is “On the Role of Government”, and in the 185 pages that follow he makes clear just how extensive he believed that role is.

General gluts and laissez-faire

The European Society for the History of Economic Thought has proposed the following as an issue that might be investigated during its next meeting in May:

First, over the issue as to whether a market-based economy tends naturally to use its resources in the best possible way without any State intervention beyond that of providing basic infrastructure and protecting property rights: a matter of concern from the times of the General Glut controversy that saw Malthus opposed to Ricardo down to the debates that have marked the evolution of macroeconomics since the publication of Keynes’ General Theory.

I suppose with the words “from the times of” they are not with absolute certainty suggesting that there is any relationship between the general glut debate and laissez-faire, but let’s face it, they are. And I realise that just because I stated in my Say’s Law and the Keynesian Revolution that “the issue in regard to Say’s Law is not laissez-faire” (p 16) doesn’t mean (1) that anyone interested in this issue read the book or that (2) even if they read it, that they had accepted my argument even if they noticed it.

The conclusion reached at the end of the general glut debate was that demand did not affect the level of economic activity and therefore did not affect the level of unemployment. That may or not be true but was accepted almost without dissent from around 1808 through to 1936, during which time the role of the state became ever more large. In 1935, no one thought of economic policy as laissez-faire but there was even so an almost universal denial of overproduction as a cause of recession and mass unemployment. Indeed, just how far apart the two concepts are may be seen in this comment by John Stuart Mill, the most relentless defender of the impossibility of a general glut amongst classical economists, in his volume, On Socialism. How much farther from the notion of laissez-faire could this be:

The kind of policy described is sometimes possible where, as in the case of railways, the only competition possible is between two or three great companies, the operation being on too vast a scale to be within the reach of individual capitalists, and this is one of the reasons why businesses which require to be carried on by great joint-stock enterprises cannot be trusted to competition, but, when not reserved by the State to itself, ought to be carried on under conditions prescribed, and, from time to time, varied by the State, for the purpose of insuring to the public a cheaper supply of its wants than would be afforded by private interest in the absence of sufficient competition.

Thus roping the two together only demonstrates how little is understood about the nature of the general glut debate – which in our own time being about whether the GFC was due to demand deficiency and a stimulus is the proper response is the central economic question of our time. If I argue that the poor economic conditions of the present are not caused by an absence of demand that makes absolutely no claim about whether there are a chain of government policies and interventions that might help to improve the state of the economy. The possibility of general gluts and laissez-faire are independent concepts.

That governments may base their interventions on the belief that they have to increase aggregate demand is something else. But even if governments finally eventually do reduce their own level of expenditure and did somehow balance their budgets, the notion that we would then be living in a laissez-faire economy would remain unmistakeably wrong. They are not the same issue and should not be confused.

Classical economists – there are still a few of us around

A quite instructive article by Peter Boettke on The Great Disruption in Economic Thought. Addressed in particular towards Janet Yellen but more generally to anyone capable of listening, you are encouraged to read it all but let me provide the first para so that you can decide if you would like to continue after that:

Roughly speaking classical political economy, or economic orthodoxy, taught the following: private property, freedom of contract and trade, sound money, and fiscal responsibility. For our purposes we refer to this set of policies as the laissez-faire principle. Of course throughout the history of economic ideas there were always subtle differences of opinion within orthodoxy, and fine points of disagreement in method and methodology. But these paled in comparison with the broad consensus on matters concerning the nature and signficance of economics and political economy. Yes, John Stuart Mill had exceptions to the laissez-faire principle that one could drive an intellectual truck through, but re-read how he sents up that discussion and the importance he places on the laissez-faire presumption.

I will only add that anyone who thinks they can drive an intellectual truck through the ideas of John Stuart Mill has their work cut out for them. But since for most people, someone’s views on John Stuart Mill are not apt to be an obstacle, let me encourage you to read the rest.

And if you do, let me mention that I specifically classify myself as a classical economist a label which Peter is also willing to use. Indeed, I go further. I think of my own book on economic theory as a twenty-first century version of Mill’s 1848 Principles. We have learned a lot since then it is true, but we have forgotten even more.