John Stuart Mill
The eldest son of economist James Mill, John Stuart Mill was educated according to the rigorous expectations of his Benthamite father. He was taught Greek at age three and Latin at age eight. By the time he reached young adulthood John Stuart Mill was a formidable intellectual, albeit an emotionally depressed one. After recovering from a nervous breakdown, he departed from his Benthamite teachings to shape his own view of political economy. In Principles of Political Economy, which became the leading economics textbook for forty years after it was written, Mill elaborated on the ideas of David Ricardo and Adam Smith. He helped develop the ideas of economies of scale, opportunity cost, and comparative advantage in trade.
Mill was a strong believer in freedom, especially of speech and of thought. He defended freedom on two grounds. First, he argued, society’s utility would be maximized if each person was free to make his or her own choices.1 Second, Mill believed that freedom was required for each person’s development as a whole person. In his famous essay On Liberty, Mill enunciated the principle that “the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection.” He wrote that we should be “without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong.”
Surprisingly, though, Mill was not a consistent advocate of laissez-faire. His biographer, Alan Ryan, conjectures that Mill did not think of contract and property rights as being part of freedom. Mill favored inheritance taxation, trade protectionism, and regulation of employees’ hours of work. Interestingly, although Mill favored mandatory education, he did not advocate mandatory schooling. Instead, he advocated a voucher system for schools and a state system of exams to ensure that people had reached a minimum level of learning.
Although Mill advocated universal suffrage, he suggested that the better-educated voters be given more votes. He emphatically defended this proposal from the charge that it was intended to let the middle class dominate. He argued that it would protect against class legislation and that anyone who was educated, including poor people, would have more votes.
Mill spent most of his working life with the East India Company. He joined it at age sixteen and worked there for thirty-eight years. He had little effect on policy, but his experience did affect his views on self-government.
About the Author
David R. Henderson is the editor of The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is also an emeritus professor of economics with the Naval Postgraduate School and a research fellow with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He earned his Ph.D. in economics at UCLA.
Pedro Schwartz, Let Me Make My Peace with Mill, at Econlib, January 1, 2018.
Keiran Setiya on Midlife, an EconTalk podcast, September 19, 2022.
Arnold Kling, The Pros and Cons of Liberty, at Econlib, May 1, 2017.
Douglas Irwin, A Brief History of International Trade Policy, at Econlib, November 26, 2001.
Learn more about James Mill at the Online Library of Liberty.
Read the Collected Works of John Stuart Mill at the Online Library of Liberty.
John Stuart Mill and Life Writing, a Liberty Matters forum at the Online Library of Liberty (with Ruth Scurr, Georgios Varouxakis, Jeremy Jennings, and David Conway.)