James Mill Research Paper

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James Mill was a British political philosopher, economist, and historian. Born in Scotland, he was educated at the University of Edinburgh through the patronage of Sir John Stuart, where he attended the lectures of the philosopher Dugald Stewart (1753–1828) and specialized in philosophy, according to Alexander Bain’s 1882 James Mill: A Biography. Mill moved to London in 1802 to pursue a career as a journalist, writing for several periodicals. He became closely associated with Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and was an ardent advocate of utilitarianism and of the Benthamite objective of achieving “the greatest happiness of the greater number” (Stephen [1900] 1968). The group of radicals around Bentham and Mill shared a set of policy objectives that included the abolition of Britain’s Poor and Corn Laws, the extension of the franchise, and religious tolerance.

Mill wrote a pamphlet in 1804 in which he reviewed the history of the Corn Laws, calling for the removal of all export bounties and import duties on grains and criticizing Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834), among others, for defending them. As noted in Thomas Sowell’s Say’s Law: An Historical Analysis (1972), Mill’s Commerce Defended (1808) reiterated his arguments against the Corn Laws and is credited with providing the first version in English of Jean-Baptiste Say’s (1767–1832) law of markets, which states that “supply creates its own demand.” In 1977 William Baumol pointed out that, for Mill, Say’s law was not fundamentally about the impossibility of overproduction, but rather about the notion that productive consumption (investment), rather than consumption of luxuries, was the effective means to promote growth. David Ricardo (1772–1823), who became Mill’s close friend, adopted Say’s law in part as a result of Mill’s influence.

Mill extended the utility principle to the science of politics in his essay titled “On Government” ([1820] 1967). For Mill, the aim of government was to increase human happiness, and only individuals could make the utilitarian calculation of pleasure and pain. Thus, Mill concluded that only representative democracy was compatible with the principle of utility, since it would prevent those in power from acting for their own advantage. According to Murray Milgate and Shannon Stimson, in a 1993 article in the American Political Science Review, the requirement for voting was the capacity to judge one’s own interest; that is, knowledge, rather than birth or property, was at the center of Mill’s political theory. In his History of British India (1817), which helped him secure a permanent position with the East India Company, Mill defended British rule in India, contradicting his own theory of political representation. In addition, his Eurocentric views on colonial rule reveal contempt for other cultures and societies.

Mill’s 1821 book, Elements of Political Economy—written as lessons for his son John Stuart Mill (1806–1873)—were central in popularizing a certain version of Ricardian economics that included elements like the “wage fund” theory, which were extraneous to Ricardo’s ideas, according to a 2004 article in European Journal of the History of Economic Thought by Sergio Cremaschi. Neil De Marchi (1983) contrasts the dogmatic Mill of the Elements, which simplifies and deduces everything from first principles, with the more open-minded thinker of previous works. Mill’s defense of Ricardian economics and his commitment to utilitarianism led to a confluence of both strands of his thought, which would eventually come together within the marginalist school.

Bibliography:

  1. Bain, Alexander. [1882] James Mill: A Biography. New York: Kelley.
  2. Baumol, W 1977. Say’s (at Least) Eight Laws, or What Say and James Mill May Really Have Meant. Economica 44: 145–162.
  3. Cremaschi, Sergio. Ricardo and the Utilitarians. European Journal of the History of Economic Thought 11 (3): 377–403.
  4. De Marchi, N 1983. The Case for James Mill. In Methodological Controversy in Economics: Historical Essays inHonor of T. W. Hutchison, ed. A. W. Coats, 155–184. New York: JAI Press.
  5. Milgate, Murray, and Shannon S 1993. Utility, Property, and Political Participation: James Mill on Democratic Reform. American Political Science Review 87 (4): 901–911.
  6. Mill, J [1804] 1966. An Essay of the Impolicy of a Bounty on the Exportation of Grain, and on the Principles which Ought to Regulate the Commerce of Grain. New York: Kelley.
  7. Mill, J [1808] 1965. Commerce Defended. New York: Kelley.
  8. Mill, J [1817] 1968. The History of British India. New York: Chelsea House.
  9. Mill, J [1820] 1967. On Government. In Essays on Government, Jurisprudence, Liberty of the Press and Law of Nations. New York: Kelley.
  10. Mill, J [1821] 1963. Elements of Political Economy. New York: Kelley.
  11. Sowell, 1972. Say’s Law: An Historical Analysis. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  12. Stephen, [1900] 1968. The English Utilitarians. Vol. 2: James Mill. New York: Kelley.

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