But what does Mill's commitment to liberty's priority mean in the intensely controversial areas of his view on laissez-faire, socialism, and private property? As a start to answering this difficult tangle of questions, we need to challenge the traditional view that Mill's working conception of liberty was a negative one. For, first, several of the fairly explicit definitions he gives of liberty commit him to a strongly positive libertarian standpoint. Secondly, although indeed discusses the classical-liberal grounds and limits of justified coercion, that essay makes clear that Mill would regard any society which lacks conflicting modes of thought and life as failing to fit the ideal type of a society of free persons. Central to the argument of then, is the notion of the free person as having available to him a wide range of alternative lifestyles and modes of thought. Mill sees the free person as liberated from the yoke of custom and convention, from the conformist pressures of peer-groups as well as the legal penalties of law, in areas where harm to others is not an issue. This positive notion of informs all of Mill's writings on socialism and private property: It is related to the idea of the autonomous man defined in David Riesman's well-known sociological study of the nonautonomous or "other directed" person in modern society, The intellectual pedigree of freedom as autonomy extends back at least as far as de Tocqueville's writings on American democracy.
I have argued, from the revisionist viewpoint, that Mill could consistently attach a priority to individual liberty in political and social life. Allowing liberty to be preeminent whenever background conditions of security and an acceptable level of culture were established, Mill could yet remain faithful to his overriding utilitarian commitment.
In order to critically evaluate the various traditional and revisionist accounts of Mill's project of a science of human nature and society, it is necessary to consider just how far Mill endorsed the classic empiricist aspiration to formulate a theory of human nature using principles and methods no different from those employed by natural scientists. To succeed, such aspiration presupposes that human behavior is subject to universal regularities which are culturally and historically invariant. This aspiration also assumes that in the human or moral sciences, as in the physical sciences, explanation and understanding consist in fitting observed behavior under a general formula or natural law. It was, after all, that most skeptical of British empiricists, David Hume, who wrote that "mankind is much the same in all times and places." Before Hume, Machiavelli had expressed in the a similar conviction of the constancy of human nature: "In all cities and in all peoples there are the same desires and the same passions as there always were. ... Everything that happens in the world at any time has a genuine resemblance to what happened in ancient times. This is because the agents who bring such things about are men, and men have, and always have had, the same passions from which it necessarily comes about that the same effects are produced."
We may well question the practical cogency of Mill's vision of a society of fraternal but competitive workers' cooperatives. No one who now reads the can help reflecting that it became the standard economics textbook at a time when Britain was still only semi-industrialized. At this time the statification of the economy by interventionism was minimal and the joint-stock revolution had only recently got under way. It was an era when it was unthinkable that multinational corporations should arise possessing a discretionary authority often exceeding that of sovereign states. Further, we now know something of the problems of labor-managed economies (such as postwar Yugoslavia) resembling Mill's syndicalist utopia. What we know suggests their liability to debilitating influences, including especially an ineradicable disposition to an irrational allocation of labor. And, as both F. A. Hayek and Milton Friedman have had occasion to observe, Mill's distributionism, combined with his belittling of the achievements of technology, caused him to support the bizarre view that no further economic growth was needed in mid-nineteenth century England, but only a radical redistribution of its products. As Hayek has put it, Mill "appears to have been unaware that an attempt to cure even extensive poverty by redistribution would in his time have led to the destruction of what he regarded as cultured life without achieving its object."
Such an impression of Mill's "official" theory of human nature is seriously misleading, however, unless we severely qualify it. For Mill himself qualifies his assertion of the primacy of psychology among the social sciences with a reminder that it is necessary to grasp the historical context of human behavior if one is to understand it adequately: "as society proceeds in its development" he says "its phenomena are determined more and more, not by the simple tendencies of human nature, but by the accumulated influence of past generations over the present." Mill's effort in his to develop an account of the nature and scope of social explanation can be seen to embody an unresolved (and, very probably, insoluble) contradiction between the psychologistic methodological individualism (or "science of human nature") he had inherited from the empiricist tradition, and the Comtean, historicist belief that "the fundamental problem of the social sciences [is to discover] the laws according to which any state of society produces the state which succeeds it and which takes its place." It is widely recognized, even by the most sympathetic among Mill's interpreters, that his attempt to synthesize a form of methodological individualism which was no longer narrowly psychologistic with an emphasis on the cultural and historical contexts in which human behavior occurs was not, and could never have been successful.
If Mill's criticism of orthodox laissez-faire went so far, how did his "new political economy" differ from contemporary and later socialist orthodoxy? Pedro Schwartz shows in his important book, (1972) that the major targets of Mill's critique are the maldistribution of property and an oppressive system of industrial organization. One of the main causes of the maldistribution of property, according to Mill, was the concentrations of fortunes facilitated by uninterrupted accumulation of wealth across the generations. Mill's remedy for this maldistribution, which he proposed in the first edition (1848) of the was the institution, not of an estates duty, but of what we would nowadays call an accessions or inheritance tax, to be levied on the recipient and not on the donor of capital. For Mill, the merit of such a tax was that, unlike other arrangements, it need not transfer wealth from private individuals to the state, since it was easily avoidable by the desirable expedient of dispersing one's wealth widely. Importantly, Mill favored a steeply progressive inheritance tax. This tax, though it would allow the transfer of a "modest competence," would destroy all great fortunes in a couple of generations.
In this disastrous dissociation of production and distribution, with its implicit "manna from heaven" view of how goods and commodities are produced and with its failure to treat capitalism as a unified system of both production distribution, Mill propounds the central heresy of modern Social Democracy. For this misleading dichotomy of production and distribution sanctions the belief that productive and distributive arrangements of different sorts may promiscuously be mixed so as to realize some ideal or preferred pattern of distribution. This is a delusion that is justly assaulted both by Marxians and by such neo-Austrian economists as F. A. Hayek and Murray Rothbard. In this belief, Mill fostered a harmful tradition of social criticism of capitalism. We are only lately recovering from this belief's ill-effects in social theory and political practice. At the same time, all who are not exponents of natural rights theory will commend Mill for arguing that property rights are not things settled once and for all, deducible from some supposed axioms of ethics. Mill viewed property rights, no less than political institutions, as creatures of "time, place and circumstance," to be assessed and altered to harmonize with "the permanent interests of man as a progressive being."
In words which show him to have moved altogether outside the Benthamite utilitarian tradition, Mill goes on to illustrate the harmful consequences for human character and development of an overcrowded world: "It is not good for man to be kept perforce at all times in the presence of his species. A world from which solitude is extirpated is a very poor ideal ... Nor is there much satisfaction in contemplating the world with nothing left to the spontaneous activity of nature." Concluding the chapter in his with the search that "a stationary condition of capital and population implies no stationary state of human improvement," Mill effectively confirms his distance from the productivist central stream of classical economic thought and of its socialist aftermath. Clearly John Stuart Mill, at least among the great liberals, owed little—too little perhaps—to any culture of possessive individualism.
Speaking of his period of mental crisis, and of the change in his opinions which it wrought, Mill declared: "If I am asked what system of political philosophy I substituted for that which, as a philosophy, I had abandoned, I answer, no system; only a conviction that the true system was something much more comprehensive than I had previously had any idea of." There can be little doubt that it is this self-critical and open-minded eclecticism of Mill's thought which has led many commentators, exasperated by the systematic elusiveness of his standpoint on the great philosophical and social issues of his time, to despair of finding any coherent view in his writings. Certainly, these are good grounds for the traditional interpretation in Mill's own many-sided intellectual development. It must even be conceded that, in all probability, the traditionalists are right in their contention that Mill never succeeded in welding the diverse intellectual traditions by which he was influenced into an integrated system. To this extent, the traditional interpretation must be upheld.