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Monday, August 5, 2013

Mill's strategy and the success of the Principles

The proximate reason for the enormous success and influence of the Principles was the remarkable best-selling triumph of Mill's first book, A System of Logic (1843), which caught on with intellectuals and general readers of the age in a way that no tome on logic and epistemology has done before or since.1 Mill's Principles was shrewdly designed as a comprehensive, massive two-volume treatise in the Wealth of Nations mould, accessible to economists and laymen alike. It went through no less than seven editions in Mill's lifetime, as well as a cheap ‘people's’ edition, and an abridged version for the American market. The Principles continued to serve as the standard British text in economics through the early twentieth century.
In a fascinating article, Professor de Marchi contends that much of the seeming confusion, muddle and moderation permeating Mill's Principles was a deliberate strategy designed to soften up and conciliate the numerous enemies of Ricardianism and thereby to win their support for a covert re-establishment of Ricardian dominance. To put it far more bluntly than does Professor de Marchi, Mill engaged in a strategy of duplicity to confuse the enemy and to win their support for at least the essentials of the true Ricardian doctrine. If de Marchi is correct, there is far more Machiavelli in Mill's dithering ‘openness’ to all points of view than has been supposed.2 De Marchi notes that Mill had consciously adopted, since 1829, what Mill called the strategy of ‘practical eclecticism’, which amounts to lulling and disarming the opposition and, by seeming conciliation, to manipulate them into believing that they had 'spontaneously’ arrived at what Mill held to be the truth – in short, a strategy of deception and duplicity.3
It is impossible to estimate how much of John Stuart Mill's inveterate and eternal contradictions, qualifications and alterations were due to honest muddle-headedness and how much to devious and evasive intellectual broken-field running. Did Mill himself always know? At any rate, the tactic seems to have worked, as enemies from all sides of economic theory in general and of Ricardianism in particular, were charmed by Mill's middle-of-the-road benevolence to all and sundry. They might not have been converted to hard- or even soft-core Ricardianism, but they were virtually all impressed by Mill's conceding one point after another to themselves or others. (All, of course, except Marx, who, as a pre-eminent cadre type, poured out a proper vial of scorn upon Mill's 'shallow syncretism’ and ‘attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable.’) One by one, Tories, romantics,  socialists and ‘practical men’ warmed up to Mill himself and to his alleged achievements.
Thus we have seen how Mill introduced into economics, and managed to make dominant, the unfortunate hypothetical methodology of positivism, as contrasted to the praxeological system of deduction from true and complete axioms advocated and employed by Say and Senior. (Ricardo had expressed no methodological views, although his method in practice was deduction from a few unreal and deeply flawed axioms.) In the course of pursuing this method, Mill introduced the disastrous and fallacious hypothesis of the ‘economic man’, which left economics deservedly open to ridicule as false to the nature of man. But Mill's substitution of hypothetical, of at least professedly tentative and humble, positivism, charmed the enemies of deductive praxeology.
For example, there had grown up at Cambridge University a group of militant Baconian inductivists, men who angrily rejected as ‘unscientific’ any sort of abstract theory in the social sciences. These belligerent anti-theorists, who held that proper theory can only be a patient enumeration and collection of countless empirical ‘facts’, were the ancestors of American institutionalism and of the German historical school. The Cambridge group of four, who were originally friends as undergraduates, was headed by William Whewell (1794–1866), who became a fellow and then master of Trinity College, an eminent mathematician, a professor of mineralogy and then of moral philosophy at Trinity, and twice vice-chancellor of the University. Another powerful figure in this group was Richard Jones (1790–1855), who succeeded Nassau Senior as professor of political economy at King's College, London, and then succeeded Malthus as professor of political economy and history at Haileybury.4 Author of a three-volume History of the Inductive Sciences (1837) and the Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1840), Whewell had gushed over Bacon as ‘the supreme Legislator of the modern Republic of Science’, and ‘the Hercules’ and ‘Hero of the revolution’ in scientific method.
In the end, however, Whewell was forced to admit that the inductivist method in economics did not seem able to go beyond destructive criticism to the constructing of any sort of body of economic law. Perhaps that is why Whewell, at least, ended by toying with mathematical Ricardian models, flirting with the kind of abstract economics he had long professed to despise.5
William Whewell was not converted from inductivism to positivism by Mill, but he was moved to express approval of Mill's Principles as a whole. Others whom Mill charmed were Tory writers long hostile to political economy and to its free trade conclusions. Thus Blackwood's Magazine gave the Principles a generally favourable review for its author's ‘perpetual, earnest, never-forgotten interest,... in the great questions at present mooted with respect to the social condition of man’. And G.F. Young, in the course of a virulent  protectionist attack on economics in the Tory Quarterly Review, hailed Mill as ‘one of the most philosophical and candid of the modern school of economists’ – specifically for Mill's positivist admission that political economy was grounded not on correct but only on partially true assumptions.
Mill's most conspicuous defection from classical political economy in general, and from Ricardianism in particular, was his numerous concessions to socialism and his apostasy from laissez-faire. In general, the British classical economists had not exactly been consistent laissez-faire stalwarts, in contrast to J.B. Say and his school in France, including such people as Charles Comte, Charles Dunoyer, Frederic Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, and their numerous followers. In Britain, consistent laissez-faire advocates were to be found rather among writers, intellectuals, and businessmen in Manchester, such as Richard Cobden, John Bright and the recently successful Anti-Corn Law League. They were also to be found in The Economist, edited by James Wilson, particularly in its editorial staff writers, Thomas Hodgskin (1787–1869) and young Herbert Spencer (1820–1903). But while the classical economists were not hard-core free market men, they at least tended strongly in that direction; if not a principle, laissez-faire was for them at least a guide or tendency to which they could at least partially orient their position. But Mill sharply broke with all that. Steeped in a high moral tone at all times, Mill originated the unfortunate intellectual tradition of conceding that socialism and indeed communism was the ‘ideal’ social system, and then drawing back by lamenting that it probably could not be attained in this cruel practical world. Pro-capitalists who begin by conceding the moral ground to their opponents are bound to lose the long-run war, if not the short-run battle, to socialism.
Small wonder, then, that various wings of socialists hailed Mill's Principles. The Owenite socialists, then the leading socialist group in Great Britain, were highly approving. In addition to words of commendation from Robert Owen (1771–1858) himself, the Owenite writer and lecturer George Jacob Holyoake (1817–1906) was particularly enchanted. The editor of The Reasoner, Holyoake hailed Mill's Principles with enthusiasm. ‘It had been held’, he proclaimed, ‘that the people were made for political economy’ but now, with Mill's Principles, ‘at length political economy [is] being made for the people’. Holyoake also praised Mill for having spoken of communism ‘with more geniality than any political economist had done before’, and he gave his working-class readers the benefit of much of that high-priced tome by printing lengthy extracts in the Reasoner. No doubt Holyoake was also happy with Mill's proclaimed ideal of a commonwealth of cooperatives, Holyoake being one of the founders and long-term agitators for the cooperative movement in Britain.
Also delighted with the Principles was the socialist Thornton Hunt (1810— 73), editor of the weekly Leader, the main socialist paper in England after  1850. Hunt, a believer in communal ownership and control, particularly welcomed Mill's claim that communism was the ideal state.
But even more important a boost to statism and socialism in Mill's Principles was his most un-Ricardian proclamation that while the processes of production were subject to the iron laws of political economy, distribution, on the other hand, was up for grabs, subject to human will and man-made arrangements. Ricardo, whose system rested on allegedly iron laws of distribution, must have turned over rapidly in his grave at that remark. This separation between ‘production’ and ‘distribution’ was wholly artificial and totally invalid, since people earn incomes on the market precisely for participating in production, and the two are intimately intertwined. But in making this distinction, Mill gave birth to the calamitous and still prevalent notion that distribution can be changed virtually at will through tax, subsidy or other statist schemes, while the market would still continue to function and produce undisturbed.
It is certainly not surprising that Mill's moral obeisances to cooperatives and communism met warm applause at the hands of the newly burgeoning Christian socialist movement. Of the troika of young Anglicans who led the Christian socialists, the Rev. Charles Kingsley (1819–1875) hailed the Principles, as did another of the leaders, the attorney John Malcolm Ludlow, in Fraser's Magazine.6 Fraser's had been purchased in 1847 by John William Parker, who became its de facto editor; Parker was a friend of Kingsley and a Christian socialist sympathizer. The fact that he also happened to be the publisher of Mill's Principles scarcely made the paean of Fraser's reviewer any less lavish.
Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought (2 volume set)

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