It is difficult to think of anyone in the history of thought who has been more egregiously and systematically overestimated, as an economist, as a political philosopher, as an overall thinker, or as a man, than John Stuart Mill. Unfortunately, historians have tended to follow the example of opinion in Mill's own lifetime. Current historians have continued this tradition, even in economics, where his reputation has unfortunately been making a comeback. As a corollary, the over-investment of ‘scholarly resources’ in Mill, in trying to track, interpret and render coherent his every word and thought, is enormous. It is hardly possible, still less worthwhile, to ponder it all, and all the more difficult to find the proper assessment of him as a devious and muddled filio-pietist. I can only recommend what I have found the most useful in uncovering the essential Mill.
First, of course, for Mill himself: most important for our purposes is his Principles of Political Economy, either in the classic Ashley edition (1909, rprt., Penguin, 1970), or in the edition in his Collected Works (2 vols, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1965). Also important is Mill's Essays on Some Unsettled Questions on Political Economy (1844, rprt., London: London School of Economics, 1948).
The standard biography is Michael St John Packe, The Life of John Stuart Mill (London: Seeker & Warburg, 1954). Iris Wessel Mueller, John Stuart Mill and French Thought (Urbana, 111: University of Illinois Press, 1956) is interesting on the influence of French socialist theorists on Mill. The quarrel (cherchez lafemme\) over the extent to which Harriet Taylor influenced Mill in a socialist direction is reflected at length in F.A. von Hayek, John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951) (yes), and H.O. Pappe, John Stuart Mill and the Harriet Taylor Myth (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1960) (no). In any case, there is no doubt that Mill suffered, as Gertrude Himmelfarb amusingly put it, from ‘excessive uxoriousness’. The best portrayal of the young Mill as leader of the philosophical radicals is in Joseph Hamburger, Intellectuals in Politics: John Stuart Mill and the Philosophical Radicals (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965).
Probably the best of the breed of recent apologia for Mill's economic policy views is Pedro Schwartz, The New Political Economy of J.S., Mill (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1972). For a sardonic corrective, see Ellen Frankel Paul, ‘John Stuart Mill: 1806–1873’, in Moral Revolution and Economic Science (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979), pp. 146–99.
The most recent, and by far the most grandiose, of the current glorifications of Mill is Samuel Hollander, The Economics of John Stuart Mill (2 vols; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986). This work is Part III of Hollander's massive and bizarre project to transform all the classical economists into perfect little propounders of neoclassical, general equilibrium doctrine. A devastating and most welcome demolition of this entire enterprise is the review of the Mill volumes by Terence W. Hutchison, ‘Review of The Economics of John Stuart Mill, by Samuel Hollander’, Journal of Economic Literature, 25 (March 1987), pp. 120–22. Calling ‘the whole gigantic operation’ a ‘reunification wrapped in anachronism’, Hutchison asks:
why should 1,037 pages be written – or read – on the economics of J.S. Mill? Why not compile a 1,037-page anthology of Mill's own economic writings with some useful notes and an informative introduction? Mill is not a newly discovered writer, and in any case, Hollander has no new biographical information to offer. Nor did Mill write so obscurely and abstrusely that a lot of space might be required to make his meaning clear. In fact, to this reviewer, Mill seems a rather more lucid and orderly writer than Hollander.
Hutchison points out that, since father James Mill cannot be fitted into the proto-Walrasian mould, his influence on his son is seriously underrated. In fact, Hutchison concludes that Hollander's volumes ‘display an extraordinary capacity... for dismissing, disregarding, or devaluing evidence, however plain and unambiguous, that conflicts with the Hollander interpretations’. (Hutchison, pp. 120–21.) Alexander Gray, The Development of Economic Doctrine (London: Longmans, Green, 1931), has an incisive discussion of Mill and Cairnes, pp. 277–92. There is a keen technical critique of Mill amidst the other classical economists, in Edwin Cannan's A History of the Theories of Production & Distribution (3rd ed., London: Staples Press, 1917).
One of the most valuable, and also one of the most neglected economists and historians of thought, of our time, is William H. Hutt. Hutt's The Theory of Collective Bargaining 1930–1985 (San Francisco: Cato Institute, 1980), pp. 1–6, straightens out the century-old confusion about the wages fund theory and economists' attitude towards labour unions. And Hutt's A Rehabilitation of Say's Law (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1974), should be consulted for Mill's ambivalent role in the advancement of that law.
The neo-conservative historian Gertrude Himmelfarb is almost always worth reading, even if we must dissent from her depiction of two Mills, the conservative compulsory moralist (good) and the libertarian (bad). Gertrude Himmelfarb, On Liberty and Liberalism: The Case of J.S. Mill (New York: Knopf, 1974). Mill is scarcely that clear-cut; in a sense, there is only one Mill – multi-faceted, self-contradictory, kaleidic, devious, muddled and filio-pietistic.
By far the most useful essay on the strategy, reception, and importance of Mill's Principles is N.B. de Marchi, ‘The Success of Mill's Principles’, History of Political Economy, 6 (Summer 1974), pp. 119–57. Also on Mill as rehabilitating Ricardo, see Frank W. Fetter, ‘The Rise and Decline of Ricardian Economics’, History of Political Economy, 1 (Spring 1969), pp. 80–81. For the indirect impact of Mill's triumph, see J.G. Smith, ‘Some Nineteenth Century Irish Economists’, Economica, n.s. 2 (Feb. 1935), pp. 25–32; and R.D.C. Black, ‘Trinity College, Dublin, and the Theory of Value, 1832–1863’, Economica, n.s. 12 (August 1945), pp. 146–8.
For an excellent article on John Stuart Mill and the shift of classical liberals towards imperialism, see Eileen P. Sullivan, ‘Liberalism and Imperialism : J.S. Mill's Defense of the British Empire’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 44 (Oct. – Dec. 1983), pp. 599–617. On Wakefield, also see Leonard P. Liggio, ‘The Transportation of Criminals: A Brief Political-Economical History’, In R. Barnett and J. Hagel III (eds), Assessing the Criminal: Restitution, Retribution, and the Legal Process (Cambridge, Mass.: Ballinger Publication Co., 1977), pp. 285–91.