John Stuart Mill; His Life and Works

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The somewhat technical subject of jurisprudence was not too much for Mr. Mill's immense power of assimilation. One of his earliest efforts was as editor of Bentham's "Rationale of Judicial Evidence." He must, therefore, at an early period, have been master of the most original and enlightened theory of judicial evidence that the world has seen. He lived to see nearly all the important innovations proposed by Bentham become part and parcel of the law of the land; one of the last relics of bigotry—the exclusion of honest atheists (and only of such) from the witness-box—having been removed two or three years ago. Mr. Mill, in after years, attended Austin's famous lectures on jurisprudence, taking extensive notes; so that he was able to supply the matter wanting to complete two important lectures, as they were printed in the first edition of Austin's works. Among the "Dissertations and Discussions," is a criticism of Austin's work, which shows that he was far more than a scholar,—a most competent judge of his master. He pointed out in Austin's definition of "right" a real defect. One of the points that Austin elaborated most was a classification such as might serve for a scientific code of law. Mr. Mill fully acknowledged the merits of the scheme, but laid his finger unerringly on its weakest part. His remarks show, that, if he had followed up the subject with an adequate knowledge of any good system of law, he would have rivalled or surpassed his achievements in other departments of knowledge.




The task of fairly estimating the value of Mr. Mill's achievements in political economy—and indeed the same remark applies to what he has done in every department of philosophy—is rendered particularly difficult by a circumstance which constitutes their principal merit. The character of his intellectual, no less than of his moral nature, led him to strive to connect his thoughts, whatever was the branch of knowledge at which he labored, with the previously-existing body of speculation, to fit them into the same framework, and exhibit them as parts of the same scheme; so that it might be truly said of him, that he was at more pains to conceal the originality and independent value of his contributions to the stock of knowledge than most writers are to set forth those qualities in their compositions. As a consequence of this, hasty readers of his works, while recognizing the comprehensiveness of his mind, have sometimes denied its originality; and in political economy in particular he has been frequently represented as little more than an expositor and popularizer of Ricardo. It cannot be denied that there is a show of truth in this representation; about as much as there would be in asserting that Laplace and Herschel were the expositors and popularizers of Newton, or that Faraday performed a like office for Sir Humphry Davy. In truth, this is an incident of all progressive science. The cultivators in each age may, in a sense, be said to be the interpreters and popularizers of those who have preceded them; and it is in this sense, and in this sense only, that this part can be attributed to Mill. In this respect he is to be strongly contrasted with the great majority of writers on political economy, who, on the strength perhaps of a verbal correction or an unimportant qualification of a received doctrine, if not on the score of a pure fallacy, would fain persuade us that they have achieved a revolution in economic doctrine, and that the entire science must be rebuilt from its foundation in conformity with their scheme. This sort of thing has done infinite mischief to the progress of economic science; and one of Mill's great merits is, that both by example and by precept he steadily discountenanced it. His anxiety to affiliate his own speculations to those of his predecessors is a marked feature in all his philosophical works, and illustrates at once the modesty and comprehensiveness of his mind.

It is quite true that Mill, as an economist, was largely indebted to Ricardo; and he has so fully and frequently acknowledged the debt, that there is some danger of rating the obligation too highly. As he himself used to put it, Ricardo supplied the backbone of the science; but it is not less certain that the limbs, the joints, the muscular developments,—all that renders political economy a complete and organized body of knowledge,—have been the work of Mill. In Ricardo's great work, the fundamental doctrines of production, distribution, and exchange have been laid down, but for the most part in mere outline; so much so, that superficial students are in general wholly unable to connect his statement of principles with the facts, as we find them, of industrial life. Hence we have innumerable "refutations of Ricardo,"—almost invariably refutations of the writers' own misconceptions. In Mill's exposition, the connection between principles and facts becomes clear and intelligible. The conditions and modes of action are exhibited by which human wants and desires—the motive powers of industry—come to issue in the actual phenomena of wealth, and political economy becomes a system of doctrines susceptible of direct application to human affairs. As an example, I may refer to Mill's development of Ricardo's doctrine of foreign trade. In Ricardo's pages, the fundamental principles of that department of exchange are indeed laid down with a master's hand; but for the majority of readers they have little relation to the actual commerce of the world. Turn to Mill, and all becomes clear. Principles of the most abstract kind are translated into concrete language, and brought to explain familiar facts; and this result is achieved, not simply or chiefly by virtue of mere lucidity of exposition, but through the discovery and exhibition of modifying conditions and links in the chain of causes overlooked by Ricardo. It was in his "Essays on Unsettled Questions in Political Economy" that his views upon this subject were first given to the world,—a work of which M. Cherbuliez of Geneva speaks as "un travail le plus important et le plus original dont la science economique se soit enrichie depuis une vingtaine d'années."

On some points, however, and these points of supreme importance, the contributions of Mill to economic science are very much more than developments—even though we understand that term in its largest sense—of any previous writer. No one can have studied political economy in the works of its earlier cultivators without being struck with the dreariness of the outlook which, in the main, it discloses for the human race. It seems to have been Ricardo's deliberate opinion, that a substantial improvement in the condition of the mass of mankind was impossible. He considered it as the normal state of things that wages should be at the minimum requisite to support the laborer in physical health and strength, and to enable him to bring up a family large enough to supply the wants of the labor-market. A temporary improvement indeed, as the consequence of expanding commerce and growing capital, he saw that there might be; but he held that the force of the principle of population was always powerful enough so to augment the supply of labor as to bring wages ever again down to the minimum point. So completely had this belief become a fixed idea in Ricardo's mind, that he confidently drew from it the consequence, that in no case could taxation fall on the laborer, since—living, as a normal state of things, on the lowest possible stipend adequate to maintain him and his family—he would inevitably, he argued, transfer the burden to his employer; and a tax nominally on wages would in the result become invariably a tax upon profits. On this point Mill's doctrine leads to conclusions directly opposed to Ricardo's, and to those of most preceding economists. And it will illustrate his position as a thinker, in relation to them, if we note how this result was obtained. Mill neither denied the premises nor disputed the logic of Ricardo's argument: he accepted both; and in particular he recognized fully the force of the principle of population; but he took account of a further premise which Ricardo had overlooked, and which, duly weighed, led to a reversal of Ricardo's conclusion. The minimum of wages, even such as it exists in the case of the worst-paid laborer, is not the very least sum that human nature can subsist upon: it is something more than this; in the case of all above the worst-paid class it is decidedly more. The minimum is, in truth, not a physical but a moral minimum, and as such, is capable of being altered with the changes in the moral character of those whom it affects. In a word, each class has a certain standard of comfort below which it will not consent to live, or at least to multiply,—a standard, however, not fixed, but liable to modification with the changing circumstances of society, and which, in the case of a progressive community, is, in point of fact, constantly rising, as moral and intellectual influences are brought more and more effectually to bear on the masses of the people. This was the new premise brought by Mill to the elucidation of the wages question; and it sufficed to change the entire aspect of human life regarded from the point of view of political economy. The practical deductions made from it were set forth in the celebrated chapter on "The Future of the Industrial Classes,"—a chapter which it is no exaggeration to say places a gulf between Mill and all who preceded him, and opens an entirely new vista to economic speculation.

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