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James Mill: Laissez-Faire's Lenin

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11/14/2020Murray N. Rothbard

[An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought (1995)]

James Mill (1771–1836) was surely one of the most fascinating figures in the history of economic thought. And yet he is among the most neglected. Mill was perhaps one of the first persons in modern times who might be considered a true "cadre man," someone who in the Leninist movement of the next century would have been hailed as a "real Bolshevik." Indeed, he was the Lenin of the radicals, creating and forging philosophical radical theory and the entire philosophical radical movement.

A brilliant and creative but an insistently Number 2 man, Mill began as a Lenin seeking his Marx. In fact, he simultaneously found two "Marxes," Jeremy Bentham and David Ricardo. He met both at about the same time, at the age of 35, Bentham in 1808 and Ricardo around the same date. Bentham became Mill's philosophic Marx, from whom Mill acquired his utilitarian philosophy and passed it on to Ricardo and to economics generally. But it has been largely overlooked that Mill functioned creatively in his relationship with Bentham, persuading the older man, formerly a Tory, that Benthamite utilitarianism implied a political system of radical democracy.

David Ricardo (1772–1823) was an unsophisticated, young, but retired wealthy stockbroker (actually bond dealer) with a keen interest in monetary matters; but Mill perceived and developed Ricardo as his "Marx" in economics.

Until he acquired his post at the East India Company in 1818, at the age of 45, Mill, an impoverished Scottish emigré and freelance writer in London, lived partially off Bentham and managed to keep on good enough formal terms with his patron despite their severe personality conflicts. An inveterate organizer of others as well as himself, Mill tried desperately to channel Bentham's prolific but random scribblings into a coherent pattern. Bentham meanwhile wrote privately to friends complaining of the impertinent interference of this young whippersnapper. Mill's publication of his massive History of India in 1818 won him immediate employment to an important post at the East India Company, where he rose to the head of the office in 1830 and continued there until his death.

As for David Ricardo, self-taught and diffident, he scarcely acted as a Great Man. To the contrary, his admiration for Mill, his intellectual mentor and partly his mentor in economic theory, allowed him to be molded and dominated by Mill. And so Mill happily hectored, cajoled, prodded, and bullied his good friend into becoming the "Marx," the great economist, that Mill felt for whatever reason he himself could or should not be. He pestered Ricardo into writing and finishing his masterpiece, The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817), and then into entering Parliament to take an active political role as leader of the radicals. Mill was then delighted to become the leading and highly devoted Ricardian in economics.

As a "Lenin" then, James Mill had a far more active intellectual role than the real Lenin would ever enjoy. Not only did he integrate the work of two "Marxes"; he contributed substantially to the system itself. Indeed, in endless conversations Mill instructed Ricardo on all manner of topics, and Mill looked over, edited, and undoubtedly added to many drafts of Ricardo's Principles. We have already seen, for example, that it was Mill who first absorbed and adopted Say's law and passed it on to his pupil Ricardo. Recent research indicates that James Mill may have played a far more leading role in developing Ricardo's magnum opus than has been believed—for example, in arriving at and adopting the law of comparative advantage.

Mill's stance is surely unique in the history of social thought. Very often theorists and writers are anxious to proclaim their alleged originality to the skies (Adam Smith being an aggravated though not untypical case). But what other instance is there of a man far more original or creative than he liked to claim; how many others have insisted on appearing to be a mere Number 2 man when in many ways they were Number 1?

It is possible, it should be noted, that the explanation for this curious fact is simple and materio-economic rather than depth-psychological. Mill, son of a Scottish shoemaker, was an impoverished Scot without steady employment trying to make his way and raise a family in London. Bentham was a wealthy aristocrat who functioned as Mill's patron; Ricardo was a wealthy retired stockbroker. It is certainly possible that Mill's posture as devoted disciple was a function of a poor man keeping his wealthy mentor-disciples happy as well as maximizing the public's reception for their common doctrines.

As a preeminent cadre man, Mill possessed all the strengths and weaknesses of that modern type. Humorless, eternally the didact, but charismatic and filled with prodigious energy and determination, Mill found enough time to carry on an important full-time job at the East India House while yet functioning as a committed scholar-activist on many levels.

As a scholar and writer, Mill was thorough and lucid, committed strongly to a few broad and overriding axioms: utilitarianism, democracy, laissez-faire. On a scholarly level, he wrote important tomes on the history of British India, on economics, on political science, and on empiricist psychology. He also wrote numerous scholarly reviews and articles. But strongly committed, as Marx would be, to changing the world as well as understanding it, Mill also wrote countless newspaper articles and strategic and tactical essays, as well as tirelessly organizing the philosophic radicals, and maneuvering in Parliament and in political life. With all that, he had the energy to preach and instruct everyone around him, including his famous and failed attempt to brainwash his young son John. But it must be noted that Mill's fierce and fervent education of John was not simply the crotchet of a Victorian father and intellectual; the education of John Stuart was designed to prepare him for the presumptively vital and world-historical role of James's successor as leader of the radical cadre, as the new Lenin. There was a method in the madness.

James Mill's evangelical Calvinist spirit was tailor-made for his lifelong cadre role. Mill was trained in Scotland to be a Presbyterian preacher. During his days as a literary man in London he lost his Christian faith and became an atheist, but, as in the case of so many later evangelically trained atheist and agnostic intellectuals, he retained the grim, puritanical, and crusading habit of mind of the prototypical Calvinist firebrand. As Professor Thomas perceptively writes,

This is why Mill, a sceptic in later life, always got on well with (Protestant) dissenters [from the Anglican Church].…He may have come to reject belief in God, but some form of evangelical zeal remained essential to him. Scepticism in the sense of non-commitment, indecision between one belief and another, horrified him. Perhaps this accounts for his long-standing dislike of Hume. Before he lost his faith, he condemned Hume for his infidelity; but even when he had come to share that infidelity, he continued to undervalue him. A placid scepticism which seemed to uphold the status quo was not an attitude of mind Mill understood.1

Or perhaps Mill understood Hume all too well, and therefore reviled him.

Mill's Calvinism was evident in his conviction that reason must keep stern control over the passions—a conviction which hardly fitted well with Benthamite hedonism. Cadre men are notorious puritans, and Mill puritanically disliked and distrusted drama or art. The actor, he charged, was "the slave of the most irregular appetites and passions of his species," and Mill was hardly the one to delight in sensuous beauty for its own sake. Painting and sculpture Mill scorned as the lowest of the arts, only there to gratify a frivolous love of ostentation. Since Mill, in a typically Benthamite utilitarian manner, believed that human action is only "rational" if done in a prudent, calculating manner, he demonstrated in his History of British India a complete inability to understand anyone motivated by mystical religious asceticism or by a drive for military glory or self-sacrifice.

If Emil Kauder is right, and Scottish Calvinism accounts for Smith's introduction of the labor theory of value into economics, then Scottish Calvinism even more accounts for James Mill's forceful and determined crusade for the labor theory of value and perhaps for its playing a central role in the Ricardian system. It also might explain the devoted adherence to the labor theory by Mill's fellow Scot and student of Dugald Stewart, John R. McCulloch.

A prime and particularly successful example of Mill the cadre man at work was his role in driving through Parliament the great Reform Bill of 1832. The centerpiece of Mill's political theory was his devotion to democracy and universal suffrage; but he was sensibly willing to settle, temporarily, for the Reform Bill, which decisively expanded British suffrage from an aristocratic and gerrymandered to a large middle-class base. Mill was the behind-the-scenes "Lenin" and master manipulator of the drive for the Reform Bill. His strategy was to play on the fear of the timorous and centrist Whig government that the masses would erupt in violent revolution if the bill were not passed. Mill and his radicals knew full well that no such revolution was in the offing; but Mill, through friends and allies placed strategically in the press, was able to orchestrate a deliberate campaign of press deception that fooled and panicked the Whigs into passing the bill. The campaign of lies was engaged in by important sectors of the press: by the Examiner, a leading weekly owned and edited by the Benthamite radical Albany Fonblanque; by the widely read Morning Chronicle, a Whig daily edited by Mill's old friend John Black, who made the paper a vehicle for the utilitarian radicals; and by the Spectator, edited by the Benthamite S. Rintoul. The Times was also friendly to the radicals at this point, and the leading Birmingham radical, Joseph Parkes, was owner and editor of the Birmingham Journal. Not only that—Parkes was able to have his mendacious stories on the allegedly revolutionary public opinion of Birmingham printed as factual reports in the Morning Chronicle and the Times. So well did Mill accomplish his task that most later historians have been taken in as well.

Ever the unifier of theory and praxis, James Mill paved the way for this organized campaign of deception by writing in justification of lying for a worthy end. While truth was important, Mill conceded, there are special circumstances "in which another man is not entitled to the truth." Men, he wrote, should not be told the truth "when they make bad use of it." Ever the utilitarian! Of course, as usual, it was the utilitarian who was to decide whether the other man's use was going to be "good" or "bad."

Mill then escalated his defense of lying in politics. In politics, he claimed, disseminating "wrong information" (or, as we would now say, "disinformation") is

not a breach of morality, but on the contrary a meritorious act…when it is conducive to the prevention of misrule. In no instance is any man less entitled to right information, than when he would employ it for the perpetuation of misrule.

A decade and a half later, John Arthur Roebuck, one of Mill's top aides in the campaign, and later a radical MP and historian of the drive for reform, admitted that

to attain our end, much was said that no one really believed; much was done that no one would like to own…often, when there was no danger, the cry of alarm was raised to keep the House of Lords and the aristocracy generally in what was termed a state of wholesome terror.

In contrast to the "noisy orators who appeared important" in the campaign, Roebuck recalled, were the "cool-headed, retiring, sagacious determined men…who pulled the strings in this strange puppet-show."

"One or two ruling minds, to the public unknown," manipulated and stage-managed the entire movement. They "use[d] the others as their instruments." And the most cool-headed, sagacious and determined was the master puppeteer of them all, James Mill.

Although he worked as a high official for the East India Company and could not run for Parliament himself, James Mill was the unquestioned cadre leader of the group of 10–20 philosophic radicals who enjoyed a brief day in the sun in Parliament during the 1830s. Mill continued to be their leader until he died in 1836, and then the others attempted to continue in his spirit.

While the philosophic radicals proclaimed themselves Benthamites, the aging Bentham had little to do personally with this Millian group. Most of the parliamentary philosophic radicals had been converted personally by Mill, beginning with Ricardo over a decade earlier, and also including his son John Stuart, who for a while succeeded his father as radical leader.

Mill, along with Ricardo, also converted the official leader of the radicals in Parliament, the banker and later classical historian George Grote (1794–1871). Grote, a self-educated and humorless man, soon became an abject tool of James Mill, whom he greatly admired as "a very profound thinking man." As Mill's most faithful disciple, Grote, in the words of Professor Joseph Hamburger, was "so inoculated, as it were" that for him all of Mill's dicta "assumed the force and sanction of duties."

The Millian circle also had a fiery cadre lady, Mrs. Harriet Lewin Grote (1792–1873), an imperious and assertive militant whose home became the salon and social center for the parliamentary radicals. She was widely known as "the Queen of the Radicals," of whom Cobden wrote that "had she been a man, she would have been the leader of a party."

Harriet testified to Mill's eloquence and charismatic effect on his young disciples, most of whom were brought into the Millian circle by his son, John Stuart. A typical testimony was that of William Ellis, a young friend of John, who wrote in later years of his experience of James Mill: "He worked a complete change in me. He taught me how to think and what to live for."

  • 1. William E.C. Thomas, The Philosophic Radicals: Nine Studies in Theory and Practice 1817–1841 (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1979), p. 100.

Murray N. Rothbard

Murray N. Rothbard made major contributions to economics, history, political philosophy, and legal theory. He combined Austrian economics with a fervent commitment to individual liberty.