Classical Economic Analysis; John Stuart Mill

Wunderkind As Classical Economist

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was the remarkable son of a remarkable father. Born in London, he was the eldest son of James Mill, an economist, disciple of Jeremy Bentham, and author of the compendious History of British India. Not a man to be bound by social convention, James Mill undertook the education of his children when they were very young. In his Autobiography, John Stuart Mill recounts the unusual and exacting education he received at the hands of his father.

At the age of three he began to learn Greek, and by the age of eight he had read the works of the great Greek writers (Herodotus, Xenophon, Plato, and Diogenes) in that language. During the same period he was taught arithmetic by his father, while his self-education included a reading of the histories, among others, of Hume, Gibbon, and Plutarch, most of which were borrowed from Bentham's library by his father. At age eight he began to learn Latin and was responsible for teaching what he learned to his younger brothers and sis­ters.

When he was twelve, Mill embarked upon studies in logic, in both English and Latin prose. The following year he read Ricardo's Principles and submit­ted to his father's grilling questions on political economy. Of these latter stud­ies, Mill later remarked: "I do not believe that any scientific teaching ever was more thorough, or better fitted for training the faculties, than the mode in which logic and political economy were taught to me by my father" (Autobi­ography, p. 20). At the tender age of fourteen, Mill's formal education was complete!

Perhaps humility cannot be taught, but Mill revealed a generous measure of it when he reflected on his unusual upbringing: What I could do, could assuredly be done by any poor boy or girl of average capac­ity and healthy physical constitution: and if I have accomplished anything, I owe it, among other fortunate circumstances, to the fact that through the early training be­stowed on me by my father, I started, I may fairly say, with an advantage of a quar­ter of a century over my contemporaries (Autobiography, p. 21).

In 1823, Mill joined his father in the service of the East India Company, and he remained with the company until his retirement in 1858. His mind kept teeming with ideas, however, and he frequently wrote articles on various philosophical and literary topics. His first major work, A System of Logic, published in 1843, was favorably received and ran to several editions, as did his very successful Principles of Political Economy, which appeared in 1848. These two works assured Mill's reputation as one of the outstanding thinkers of his day. They were followed, in fairly rapid succession, by On Liberty (1859), Considerations of Representative Government (1861), Utilitarianism (1863), Auguste Comte and Positivism (1865), and The Subjection of Women (1869).

As a political and social thinker, Mill touched four main areas: (1) the prob­lem of method in the social sciences, (2) the clarification of the (Benthamite) principle of utility, (3) individual freedom, and (4) the theory of representative government. It is, however, to his economic contributions that we now turn.

Mill's Intellectual "Transition"

In view of the rigors of Mill's early education, it is not surprising that at the age of twenty he suffered a prolonged period of mental depression, during which it appeared to him that none of the goals in life for which he had been trained were capable of bringing true happiness. He became aware of certain inadequacies in his upbringing.

Exposure to the Romantics

In an attempt to develop his own "internal culture," Mill turned to the works of the romantic poets Coleridge and Wordsworth and to the ideas of the French philosophers of the Enlightenment. The writings of the poets, especially, not only gave Mill solace in his depres­sion but also, because of their antagonism to political economy, induced him to rethink certain ideas on the subject.

Coleridge and Wordsworth were later followed by the literary critics Carlyle, Dickens, and Ruskin in their reaction against the encroaching indus­trialism and materialism of Victorian England. In industrialism they saw a de­cline of the sensibilities and quality of life, and they held political economy— the science of industrialism—to blame for fostering the social erosion they observed. In claiming to be protectors of the old order, the romantics denied

the efficacy of scientific inquiry. Moreover, they failed to see that economists do not necessarily give their stamp of approval to the existing order when they seek to analyze and explain social events. Few economists of the day even sought to refute such bland criticism. Mill, however, was the exception.