David Levy and I wrote this together to commemorate the birthday of J. S. Mill:
A great liberal thinker, the English political economist and philosopher, John Stuart Mill, was born on May 20, 1806. Mill is remembered as the author of A System of Logic, The Principles of Political Economy, Utilitarianism, On Liberty and The Subjection of Women (you can find these at the Online Library of Liberty, here.) He was educated as a staunch utilitarian within the circle of his father’s friends that included Jeremy Bentham and David Ricardo. Mill followed his father in working at the British East India Company. After a long relationship, he married Harriet Taylor in 1851. From 1865 to 1868, he served as a Member of Parliament representing the City and Westminster. In that capacity, he called for the extension of the franchise to women. Late in the century, the early neoclassical economist, William Stanley Jevons, struggled under the “weight of authority” accorded to Mill.
On the occasion of Mill’s 200th birthday, we celebrate his now largely-forgotten contribution to the coalition between the “dismal scientists” and “Exeter Hall”. Exeter Hall was the political wing of 19th century British evangelicalism and the center of the anti-slavery movement. The “dismal science,” of course, is economics (more on that story at our Econlib series, here).
The coalition between political economists and evangelicals for the “sacred cause of black emancipation” was the target of Thomas Carlyle’s 1849 “Occasional discourse on the negro question.” Here, Carlyle called for the re-enslavement of Jamaicans and a return to the regime of the “beneficent whip.” Mill’s immediate response to Carlyle defended the rights of all people to order their own lives. Mill was now in the forefront of the struggle against slavery. Later, in the so-called “Governor Eyre Controversy” of Jamaica, violence broke out as former slaves were denied the rule of law. Evangelicals then chose Mill as their spokesperson on the Jamaica Committee, to speak for their common cause of the rule of law for all people as they tried to bring the island’s governor to justice.
This common cause between economists and the religious community has been forgotten. Economists instead now present economic doctrines as a body of scientific knowledge sufficient to guide the policies of nations if only regular people would trust the economic experts. Mill’s defense of free speech in On Liberty hinged instead upon the claim that a free discussion of ordinary ideas would give such teaching greater motivational force.
Mill was not seen as a Christian by the evangelicals who elected him to speak for them. In Utilitarianism, he named the Sermon on the Mount and the Golden Rule as the perfect statements of utilitarianism. Mill’s utilitarianism focused on the happiness of the many through choices freely made in the context of discussion and experience. That focus separated him from Christians on the issue of contraception. His encounter with a strangled baby on a walk in the park persuaded him at a very early age that happiness within the institution of marriage could not be accomplished if people saw no alternative but to destroy their children. And, of course, he had much more to say about the institution of marriage. As married women were not entitled to own property, Mill urged legal reforms to that institution. Since women were people like men, he insisted that they possessed the capacity to vote.
Mill supported wider access to contraceptive information. In 1877, such access became British law as a result of the celebrated trial of Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh. Annie Besant, conducting her own defense, quoted Mill’s Principles at some length to support her case for wide access as a means to improve human happiness. Charles Darwin, by contrast, vigorously objected to wider access and wrote to tell Bradlaugh that he would not testify in their favor. Access to contraceptive information and the ability to control family size within marriage became the teaching of Protestant Christianity. In 1930, the Anglican communion also came to agree with Mill’s earlier teaching and authorized contraception for married people.
Mill’s role in the classical liberal tradition is less well known than it once was. His hopeful words regarding voluntary socialism have been well-understood. His doctrine that the “laws of distribution” differ significantly from the “laws of production,” has been misunderstood. For Mill never held that social arrangements – institutions – may be altered with no impact on production. But these are matters of economic theory that concern only a few. Mill’s concern was for the many.