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Sunday, August 4, 2013

Mill's importance

The Mills, father and son, had a fateful impact upon the history of economic thought. If James Mill played a crucial and neglected role in developing Ricardian economics and its philosophical ally, Benthamite utilitarianism, and in foisting them upon the British intellectual world, his son John was by far the most important force in reimposing Ricardian dominance two decades after it had fallen into decline. It is ironic that the fate of British intellectual life in the nineteenth century should depend so closely on the psychological interplay between famous father and son, ironic since both purported to be austere ‘scientists’ above all. The two men could not have been more different in character and quality of intellect. James Mill, as we have seen, was a hard-nosed, hard-hitting, self-confident hard-core ‘cadre’ type, in intellect and action, original in carving out an architectonic system of economics, philosophy and political theory, and then supremely energetic in organizing people and institutions around him to try to put them into effect. James tried to educate John Stuart (1806–73) to follow him in leadership of this philosophic radical cadre, but the education didn't take. After John's famous nervous breakdown at the age of 20, the younger Mill emerged as almost the opposite to his father in temperament and quality of intellect. Instead of possessing a hard-nosed cadre intellect, John Stuart was the quintessence of soft rather than hardcore, a woolly minded man of mush in striking contrast to his steel-edged father. John Stuart Mill was the sort of man who, hearing or reading some view seemingly at utter variance with his own, would say, ‘Yes, there is something in that’, and proceed to incorporate this new inconsistent strand into his capacious and muddled world-view. Hence Mill's ever-expanding intellectual ‘synthesis’ was rather a vast kitchen midden of diverse and contradictory positions. As a result, Mill has ever since provided a field day for young Ph.D's caught in the game of publish or perish. Dispute over ‘what Mill really believed’ has become an unending cottage industry. Was Mill a laissez-faire liberal? A socialist? A romantic? A classicist? A civil libertarian? A believer in state-coerced morality? The answer is yes, every time. There is endless fodder for dispute because, in his long and prolific life, Mill was all of these and none, an ever-changing kaleidoscope of alteration, transformation and contradiction.
John Mill's enormous popularity and stature in the British intellectual world was partially due to his very mush-headedness. Here was this person of undoubted intellectual parts, an erudite man growing up in a circle of distinguished scholars and political activists, and yet here is this eminent man who sees good in all conceivable positions, even the reader's, whoever he may be. Add to this another unusual note: Mill's felicitous style. For in the history of thought, the style very much reflects the quality of mind; clearheaded thinkers are usually lucid writers, and confused and inchoate thinkers  usually write in the same way. Ricardo's crabbed and tortured style reflected the muddled complexities of his doctrine. But Mill was unusual in possessing a graceful and lucid style that served to mask the vast muddle of his intellectual furniture. Ricardo won at least brief popularity for his very obscurity, though he had the invaluable aid in spreading his doctrine of such clear writers as James Mill and John McCulloch. But John Mill won fame and influence partly through the grace of his writing.
If he had known the full extent of his son's defection of character and intellect, the elder Mill would surely have despaired. But he never really found out, for John learned early to dissemble, playing a double game throughout his 20s while his father was still alive. Thus he was perfectly capable of publishing an article praising his father's philosophical favourite, Jeremy Bentham, while at the same time writing an anonymous article elsewhere highly critical of Bentham. Mill's intellectual duplicity proved a sharp contrast to his father's candour.
Oddly enough, however, and weighing the totality of John's career, James might in a sense have been truly pleased. For through all the mush, through all the flabby and soggy ‘moderation’ that marked the adult John Mill and still attracts moderate liberals of every generation, in the last analysis filio-pietism triumphed. When push at long last came to shove in the mind of John Stuart Mill, he came down, albeit of course ‘moderately’, on the side of his father's two idols, Bentham and Ricardo. In philosophy, he abandoned hardcore cadre Benthamism, for soft-core ‘moderate’ Benthamite utilitarianism. And in economics, he not only was basically and proclaifnedly a Ricardian; he also gladdened his father's ghost by re-establishing Ricardianism on the throne of British economics, a feat he accomplished through the enormous popularity and dominance of his Principles of Political Economy (1848). So even though John Stuart substituted moderate for full-fledged democracy, and, still more disturbingly, moderate statism and socialism for his father's laissez-faire, James Mill might have been gladdened by his son's ability to reimpose Ricardianism upon the world of economics. Indeed, the great advances of the anti-Ricardians of the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s were truly forgotten in Mill's re-establishment of the cost, and indeed the labour, theory of value, the Ricardian rent theory, Malthusian wage and population theory and the remainder of the Ricardian apparatus. For not the first or last time in the history of economic and social thought, error displaced truth from the post of dominance in the intellectual world. In placing Ricardo back upon the throne of economics, John Stuart was fulfilling perhaps the most cherished, although one of the most fallacious, of his father's goals and principles.
It should be realized that John Stuart's life in the shadow of his father was not only psychological or organizational. At the age of 16, John entered his father's office in the East India Company, and assisted him for many years,  succeeding to his father's high position on James's death in 1836. Mill, indeed, worked full-time at the East India Company until the liquidation of that company in 1858 bestowed upon Mill a handsome pension for the remaining 15 years of his life.
Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought (2 volume set)

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