James Mill, 1773-1836

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Born a son of a cobbler in Montrose, Scotland, James Mill (née Milne) was destined for greater things. Encouraged by his mother, Mill attended to his studies and eventually, in 1790, enrolled at the University of Edinburgh with the help of a local gentleman, Sir John Stuart (after whom Mill later named his son). At Edinburgh, he came under the influence of the philosopher Dugald Stewart and imbibed the legacy of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Originally intending to become a minister of the Church of Scotland, Mill received his M.A. in 1794. Mill left Edinburgh in 1797, with a license to preach but gradually lost his faith. He worked for a while as an itinerant tutor in Scotland until 1802, when Stuart invited Mill to join him in London. He tried his hand at journalism, landing a steady job at the Literary Journal and feeling confident enough to marry Harriet Burrow in 1805. However, the journal folded in 1806, and soon enough Mill's only source of income was as a writer of hack articles, editorials and essays for a wide assortment of newspapers and journals.

In 1804, James Mill wrote his an essay which reviewed the history of the Corn Laws, calling for the removal of all export bounties and import duties on grains and criticizing Malthus for defending them. Soon after, he came across the tracts of Cobbett and Spence, who argued that land (rather than industry) was the source of wealth, that there were losses to foreign trade between nations, that the public debt was not a burden, that taxes were productive and that crises were caused by a general glut of goods. Mill's Commerce Defended (1808) attacked all of these arguments, dismantling them point by point. It was here that Mill articulated his version of Say's Law of Markets (after Say, of course). Mill argued that "annual purchases and sales" will "always balance" (1808: p.82) so the excess supply of any good was necessarily counterbalanced by excess demand for other goods. Or, more accurately, he argued that the overproduction of of one good had to be made from capital withdrawn from other goods, which were thus left, necessarily, underproduced:

"A nation may easily have more than enough of any one commodity, though she can never have more than enough of commodities in general. The quantity of any one commodity may easily be carried beyond its due proportion, but by that very circumstance is implied that some other commodity is not provided in sufficient proportion. What is indeed meant by a commodity's exceeding the market? Is it not that there is a portion of it for which there is nothing that can be had in exchange. But of those other things then the proportion is too small. A part of the means of production which had been applied to the preparation of this superabundant commodity, should have been applied to the preparation of those other commodities till the balance between them has been established. Whenever this balance is properly preserved, there can be no superfluity of commodities, none for which a market will not be ready." (Mill, 1808 p.84-5).

A partisan of the "Banking School", James Mill also participated in the Bullionist Controversies of the time.

In 1808, Mill forged long-lasting friendships with two very influential men: David Ricardo and Jeremy Bentham. Ricardo would provide him his economics; Bentham would guide his political and social philosophy. Interestingly, the two doctrines seemed to never have met each other in the mind of James Mill. With a few exceptions, it never occurred to him to bring the Benthamite concept of utility into his economics, nor to bring the utilitarian "greatest happiness" principle to bear on the analysis of fiscal policy.

In 1817, Mill produced his massive History of India, which he had been working on the side for many years. Its analysis was clearly inspired by the conjectural histories typical of the Scottish Enlightenment: India was deemed a nation just emerging out of its barbarian stage and saw the English role as a civilizing mission (although he would later famously claim that the British Empire was "a vast system of outdoor relief for the upper classes"). He defended the rule of the East India Company (rather than the English government). Mill recommended several reforms for India, perhaps the most interesting was his call for the elimination of taxes and the complete nationalization of land (EIC fiscal revenue would thus arise from rents -- which were easier to collect and less distortionary). The success of his History led him to be hired by the London office of the East India Company in 1823, which provided him with financial security for the remainder of his life.

In the meantime, Mill was busy forging the Classical Ricardian School in economics. An energetic man, it was Mill who encouraged David Ricardo to publish his 1817 treatise on value and distribution and then pushed him to run for Parliament. In 1821, Mill helped found the Political Economy Club in London, which became a stomping ground for Ricardian economists and Benthamite radicals. After Ricardo's death, James Mill, Ramsey McCulloch and Thomas de Quincey became the high priests of Ricardian economics.

James Mill's Elements of Political Economy, (1821) quickly became the leading textbook exposition of doctrinaire Ricardian economics. As this was compiled from the lectures on political economy he had given to his young son, John Stuart Mill, there were was little that was novel in it -- except for the ill-fated "Wages Fund" doctrine:

"Universally, then, we may affirm, other things remaining the same, that if the ratio which capital and population bear to one another remains the same, wages will remain the same; if the ratio which capital bears to population increases, wages will rise; if the ratio which population bears to capital increases, wages will fall." (J. Mill, 1821: p.44)

Simultaneously, on a separate front, Mill was advancing the utilitarian doctrines of Bentham and the "Philosophical Radicals". Mill's personal relationship with Bentham was more intimate than with Ricardo (e.g. Mill was Bentham's tenant and Bentham played a large role in the education of young John Stuart Mill), so it inevitably also had more complicated and heated moments. Nonetheless, Mill remained an uncritical admirer of Bentham's philosophy. He helped found the Westminster Review, the principal organ of the Philosophical Radicals. Mill was at his most radical in his 1820 article, where he defended widespread democracy and civil rights, not on the basis of any "natural law" considerations, but rather on the more pragmatic utilitarian grounds that it was the best way to ensure a good, stable and efficient government (it was famously torn apart by Thomas Macaulay).

It must also be noted that Mill, unlike Bentham, was a great advocate of government non-intervention in the economy, and thus very much a classical liberal. He came out against any other sort of redistribution schemes, arguing that fiscal policy should be designed so as to leave the status quo in place (e.g. proportional rather than progressive taxation). Mill was a strict "welfarist", excluding social justice and any other such considerations from all utilitarian "greatest happiness" calculations. It was Mill who was mostly responsible for forwarding the argument that since each individual acts in his own self-interest, then any collection of people necessarily acts in the interest of the whole.

Interestingly, Mill was also a great advocate of widespread education. He believed, like Bentham, that people need to be educated so as to best be able to figure out what is their own best interest. But he added that what is in their own self-interest is often quite complicated. This includes consideration of the impact of their actions on other people, choosing the right government and pushing for the right policies. Wage claims by trade unions or protection against foreign commerce, for instance, might seem to be in the self-interest of workers, but a truly educated workforce would realize that their long-run interests are best served otherwise. His belief that people were myopic, in the sense that they underestimated their future utility, was one of the earliest articulations of the "time preference" idea.

In psychology, Mill is widely regarded as the father of "monism" or "association of ideas" in mental states. Mill's 1829 Analysis originated as an attempt to decipher the psychological foundations of utilitarianism. However, he ended up closer to the "moral sentiments" theories of Adam Smith and the Scottish philosophers than to anything Bentham would have envisioned.

Mill's role in the history of both economics and philosophy is largely as a popularizer of existing theories, rather than as an original thinker. To posterity, James Mill's greatest claim to fame was undoubtedly his legendary role as the father of John Stuart Mill. As it turns out, this was perhaps his most influential contribution to the development of economics, politics and philosophy in the 19th Century.

Major Works of James Mill

Resources on James Mil

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