Mill: Liberty/Socialism in Principles of Political Economy

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

Since I worked out that John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy contains ideas in contrast with those of On Liberty I have obtained two copies of the book. Getting a definitive edition of the Principles is more difficult than I realised. I bought the OUP Oxford World’s Classics edition before realising that it had left out the first two books, though it did add Chapters on Socialism which were written at the time of the 7th edition of the Principles. The OUP edition is based on the 7th edition, and I suppose the original 7th edition left out the first two books, but I’m not sure. If that is not the case then OUP’s behaviour is very poor. The only way, I am aware of, for getting a definition version with all variations from all editions is the to get the Liberty Fund edition in two volumes. Liberty Fund editions are very cheap but not widely distributed. Their edition is also freely available online at the Online Library of Liberty.

I am looking now at a rather interesting edition a friend lent to me. It is edited by J. Laurence Laughlin and published by D. Appleton and Company of New York in 1901, though as Laughlin’s preface is dated 1884, I presume this is a reprint. The notable thing about Laughlin is that he was the founding chair of the Department of Economics at Chicago University. That means he founded one of he world’s great economics departments, associated most famously with Milton Friedman. Other major economists associated with the department include Hayek, Robert Lucas (the biggest figure in Rational Expectations), Gary Becker (the biggest figure in Behavioural Economics) and many other significant figures.

Laughlin provides a bridge between Mill and those figures, and seems to have been a major figure in market orientated thinking in his own time. Laughlin edits Mill’s Principles as part of the cycle in which the book was a major economics text book. Laughlin’s appropriation is somewhat crude, he adds an essay on the history of economic thought. interpolates his own comments, maps and charts, mostly referring to the United States. On some occasions he says he has deleted comments by Mill and replaced them with his own. It wouldn’t happen now, fascinating to see how it happened then.

The main points I have picked up from my reading so far, and checking through the online version is that Mill is less of what we would now call a free market libertarian in his economics than in On Liberty. This is surprising, at least by present standards, because on the whole economists are much more inclined towards free market thinking than other social scientists. Surveys show most academic economists to be left of centre, but nevertheless favour market mechanisms over collective and state solutions in ways which would startle most of the left inclined.

What I’ve noticed so far is that Mill does explore socialism, or even communism, favourably as a hypothesis, and became more influenced by this hypothesis over time. He never abandoned a belief in markets but thought distribution of income could be detached from the market mechanisms of prices. What I also notice is the élitism and anti-liberalism compared with On Liberty. In the Principles, Mill suggests that labourers cannot regulate their own lives and expenditure competently and that there should be laws to prevent the poor from marrying early and producing too many children. Mill’s socialist side is very patronising, arrogant and tends to deprive workers of freedom. It fits into the criticisms that classical liberals/libertarians make of socialists. It’s quite close to what Hayek accuses socialism of leading towards in The Road to Serfdom, The even greater irony is that Hayek was a real Mill fan in his earlier years, following Mill’s journeys and editing some of his letters.

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