John Stuart Mill; His Life and Works

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The doctrine of the science with which Mill's name has been most prominently associated within the last few years is that which relates to the economic nature of land, and the consequences to which this should lead in practical legislation. It is very commonly believed, that on this point Mill has started aside from the beaten highway of economic thought, and propounded views wholly at variance with those generally entertained by orthodox economists. No economist need be told that this is an entire mistake. In truth, there is no portion of the economic field in which Mill's originality is less conspicuous than in that which deals with the land. His assertion of the peculiar nature of landed property, and again his doctrine as to the "unearned increment" of value arising from land with the growth of society, are simply direct deductions from Ricardo's theory of rent, and cannot be consistently denied by any one who accepts that theory. All that Mill has done here has been to point the application of principles all but universally accepted to the practical affairs of life. This is not the place to consider how far the plan proposed by him for this purpose is susceptible of practical realization; but it may at least be confidently stated, that the scientific basis on which his proposal rests is no strange novelty invented by him, but simply a principle as fundamental and widely recognized as any within the range of the science of which it forms a part.

I have just remarked that Mill's originality is less conspicuous in relation to the economic theory of land than in other problems of political economy, but the reader must not understand me from this to say, that he has not very largely contributed to the elucidation of this topic. He has indeed done so, though not, as is commonly supposed, by setting aside principles established by his predecessors, but, as his manner was, while accepting those principles, by introducing a new premise into the argument. The new premise introduced in this case was the influence of custom as modifying the action of competition. The existence of an active competition, on the one hand between farmers seeking farms, on the other between farming and other modes of industry as offering inducements to the investment of capital, is a constant assumption in the reasoning by which Ricardo arrived at his theory of rent. Granting this assumption, it followed that farmers as a rule would pay neither higher nor lower rents than would leave them in possession of the average profits on their capital current in the country. Mill fully acknowledged the force of this reasoning, and accepted the conclusion as true wherever the conditions assumed were realized; but he proceeded to point out, that, in point of fact, the conditions are not realized over the greater portion of the world, and, as a consequence, that the rent actually paid by the cultivators to the owners of the soil by no means, as a general rule, corresponds with that portion of the produce which Ricardo considered as properly "rent." The real regulator of actual rent over the greater part of the habitable globe was, he showed, not competition, but custom; and he further pointed out that there are countries in which the actual rent paid by the cultivators is governed neither by the causes set forth by Ricardo, nor yet by custom, but by a third cause different from either,—the absolute will of the owners of the soil, controlled only by the physical exigencies of the cultivator, or by the fear of his vengeance if disturbed in his holding. The recognition of this state of things threw an entirely new light over the whole problem of land-tenure, and plainly furnished grounds for legislative interference in the contracts between landlords and tenants. Its application to Ireland was obvious; and Mill himself, as the world knows, did not hesitate to urge the application with all the energy and enthusiasm which he invariably threw into every cause that he espoused.

In the above remarks, I have attempted to indicate briefly some few of the salient features in Mill's contributions to the science of political economy. There is still one more which ought not to be omitted from even the most meagre summary. Mill was not the first to treat political economy as a science; but he was the first, if not to perceive, at least to enforce the lesson, that, just because it is a science, its conclusions carried with them no obligatory force with reference to human conduct. As a science, it tells us that certain modes of action lead to certain results; but it remains for each man to judge of the value of the results thus brought about, and to decide whether or not it is worth while to adopt the means necessary for their attainment. In the writings of the economists who preceded Mill, it is very generally assumed, that to prove that a certain course of conduct tends to the most rapid increase of wealth suffices to entail upon all who accept the argument the obligation of adopting the course which leads to this result. Mill absolutely repudiated this inference, and, while accepting the theoretic conclusion, held himself perfectly free to adopt in practice whatever course he preferred. It was not for political economy or for any science to say what are the ends most worthy of being pursued by human beings; the task of science is complete when it shows us the means by which the ends may be attained; but it is for each individual man to decide how far the end is desirable at the cost which its attainment involves. In a word, the sciences should be our servants, and not our masters. This was a lesson which Mill was the first to enforce, and by enforcing which he may be said to have emancipated economists from the thraldom of their own teaching. It is in no slight degree through the constant recognition of its truth, that he has been enabled to divest of repulsiveness even the most abstract speculations, and to impart a glow of human interest to all that he has touched.




Some time ago, when there was no reason to suppose that we should so soon have to mourn the loss of the great thinker and of the kind friend who has just passed away, I had occasion to remark upon the influence which Mr. Mill had exercised at the universities. I will quote my words as they stand, because it is difficult to write with impartiality about one whose recent death we are deploring; and Mr. Mill would, I am sure, have been the first to say, that it is certainly not honoring the memory of one who is dead to lavish upon him praise which would not be bestowed upon him if he were living. I will therefore repeat my words exactly as they were written two years since: 'Any one who has resided during the last twenty years at either of our universities must have noticed that Mr. Mill is the author who has most powerfully influenced nearly all the young men of the greatest promise.' In thus referring to the powerful influence exercised by Mr. Mill's works, I do not wish it to be supposed that this influence is to be measured by the extent to which his books form a part of the university curriculum. His "Logic" has no doubt become a standard examination-book at Oxford. At Cambridge the mathematical and classical triposes still retain their former prestige. The moral science tripos, though increasing in importance, still attracts a comparatively small number of students, and there is probably no other examination for which it is necessary to read Mr. Mill's "Logic" and "Political Economy." This fact affords the most satisfactory evidence that the influence he has exerted is spontaneous, and is therefore likely to be lasting in its effects. If students had been driven to read his books by the necessity which examinations impose, it is quite possible, that, after the examination, the books might never be looked at again. A resident, however, at the university can scarcely fail to be struck with the fact, that many who perfectly well know that they will never in any examination be asked to answer a question in logic or political economy are among the most diligent students of Mr. Mill's books. When I was an undergraduate, I well remember that most of my friends who were likely to take high mathematical honors were already so ultimately acquainted with Mr. Mill's writings, and were so much imbued with their spirit, that they might have been regarded as his disciples. Many looked up to him as their teacher; many have since felt that he then instilled into them principles, which, to a great extent, have guided their conduct in after life. Any one who is intimately acquainted with Mr. Mill's writings will readily understand how it is that they possess such peculiar attractiveness for the class of readers to whom I am now referring. There is nothing more characteristic in his writings than generosity and courage. He always states his opponent's case with the most judicial impartiality. He never shrinks from the expression of opinion because he thinks it unpopular; and there is nothing so abhorrent to him as that bigotry which prevents a man from appreciating what is just and true in the views of those who differ from him. This toleration, which is so predominant a feature of his writings, is probably one of the rarest of all qualities in a controversialist. Those who do not possess it always produce an impression that they are unfair; and this impression, once produced, exercises a repelling influence upon the young. Another cause of the attractiveness of Mr. Mill's writings is the precision with which his views are expressed, and the systematic form which is given to his opinions. Confidence is reposed in him as a guide, because it is found that there is some definite goal to which he is leading his readers: he does not conduct them they know not whither, as a traveller who has lost his way in a mist, or a navigator who is steering his ship without a compass. The influence exercised by Mr. Mill does not chiefly depend upon the originality of his writings. He did not make any great discovery which will form an epoch in the history of human thought; he did not create a new science, or become the founder of a new system of philosophy. There is perhaps not so much originality in his "Political Economy" as in Ricardo's; but there are thousands who never thought of reading Ricardo who were so much attracted by Mr. Mill's book, that its influence might be traced throughout the rest of their lives. No doubt one reason of his attractiveness as a writer, in addition to other circumstances to which allusion has already been made, is the unusual power he possessed in applying philosophical principles to the facts of ordinary life. To those who believe that the influence Mr. Mill has exercised at the universities has been in the highest degree beneficial,—to those who think that his books not only afford the most admirable intellectual training, but also are calculated to produce a most healthy moral influence,—it may be some consolation, now that we are deploring his death, to know, that, although he has passed away, he may still continue to be a teacher and a guide. I believe he never visited the English universities: it was consequently entirely through his books that he was known. Not one of those who were his greatest admirers at Cambridge, when I was an undergraduate, ever saw him till many years after they had left the University. I remember that we often used to say, that there was nothing we should esteem so great a privilege as to spend an hour in Mr. Mill's society. There is probably no bond of attachment stronger than that which unites a pupil to one who has attracted him to new intellectual pursuits, and has awakened in him new interests in life. Some four or five years after taking my degree, I met Mr. Mill for the first time; and from that hour an intimate friendship commenced, which I shall always regard as a peculiarly high privilege to have enjoyed. Intimacy with Mr. Mill convinced me, that, if he had happened to live at either of the universities, his personal influence would have been no less striking than his intellectual influence. Nothing, perhaps, was so remarkable in his character as his tenderness to the feelings of others, and the deference with which he listened to those in every respect inferior to himself. There never was a man who was more entirely free from that intellectual conceit which breeds disdain. Nothing is so discouraging and heart-breaking to young people as the sneer of an intellectual cynic. A sarcasm about an act of youthful mental enthusiasm not only often casts a fatal chill over the character, but is resented as an injury never to be forgiven. The most humble youth would have found in Mr. Mill the warmest and most kindly sympathy.

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