John Stuart Mill’s Eclecticism

John Stuart Mill's Eclecticism

Mill's great strength, which was also the strength of the two most important post-Millian English economists, Marshall and Keynes, was his eclecticism, which was manifested in many ways: in his unwillingness to accept uncritically the economic theory of Ricardo and his followers; in his predominantly Smithian methodology; in his acceptance of Comte's view that economic activity must be studied in the broader context of all human social activity; in his acknowledged indebtedness to the French socialists and to Harriet Taylor; in his concern with social philosophy; and in his distinction between the laws of production and the laws of distribution.

Unaccountably, he sometimes tried to disavow this eclecticism by maintain­ing that in economic theory he was merely modifying Ricardian economics by incorporating into it the developments of the second quarter of the century. But in the area of economic policy, as he indicated in the preface to the first edition of his Principles, Mill admitted that he was breaking new ground. In his Autobiography and his Principles he expressly dissociated himself from the economists of the old school, declaring that "the design of the book is differ­ent from that of any treatise on Political Economy which has been produced in England since the work of Adam Smith."8 Actually, although Mill wanted to incorporate new theoretical developments into Ricardian theory, his pri­mary objective was to indicate clearly the applications of economic theory to policy. Adam Smith had done this, but much of Smithian theory was by Mill's time obsolete.