Mill’s Principles of Political Economy

I have long had a view that John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy is the best economics book ever written. But I have now also come to the view that no one is ever going to contradict me because virtually no one can any longer read the book. I have just been back over the book on a project on Mill I am just beginning and turned to Book I Chapter II which is “On Labour”. I say to you in all honesty that it is a fascinating chapter from which there is much to learn, including how little there is that is truly new that is not in Mill. But here is the opening para of the chapter from which the one thing I guarantee you will learn is how hard the book must be to read.

§ 1. The labour which terminates in the production of an article fitted for some human use, is either employed directly about the thing, or in previous operations destined to facilitate, perhaps essential to the possibility of, the subsequent ones. In making bread, for example, the labour employed about the thing itself is that of the baker; but the labour of the miller, though employed directly in the production not of bread but of flour, is equally part of the aggregate sum of labour by which the bread is produced; as is also the labour of the sower and of the reaper. Some may think that all these persons ought to be considered as employing their labour directly about the thing; the corn, the flour, and the bread being one substance in three different states. Without disputing about this question of mere language, there is still the ploughman, who prepared the ground for the seed, and whose labour never came in contact with the substance in any of its states; and the plough-maker, whose share in the result was still more remote. All these persons ultimately derive the remuneration of their labour from the bread, or its price: the plough-maker as much as the rest; for since ploughs are of no use except for tilling the soil, no one would make or use ploughs for any other reason than because the increased returns, thereby obtained from the ground, afforded a source from which an adequate equivalent could be assigned for the labour of the plough-maker. If the produce is to be used or consumed in the form of bread, it is from the bread that this equivalent must come. The bread must suffice to remunerate all these labourers, and several others; such as the carpenters and bricklayers who erected the farm-buildings; the hedgers and ditchers who made the fences necessary for the protection of the crop; the miners and smelters who extracted or prepared the iron of which the plough and other implements [30] were made. These, however, and the plough-maker, do not depend for their remuneration upon the bread made from the produce of a single harvest, but upon that made from the produce of all the harvests which are successively gathered until the plough, or the buildings and fences, are worn out. We must add yet another kind of labour; that of transporting the produce from the place of its production to the place of its destined use: the labour of carrying the corn to market, and from market to the miller’s, the flour from the miller’s to the baker’s, and the bread from the baker’s to the place of its final consumption. This labour is sometimes very considerable: flour is [1848] transported to England from beyond the Atlantic, corn from the heart of Russia; and in addition to the labourers immediately employed, the waggoners and sailors, there are also costly instruments, such as ships, in the construction of which much labour has been expended: that labour, however, not depending for its whole remuneration upon the bread, but for a part only; ships being usually, during the course of their existence, employed in the transport of many different kinds of commodities.

He does wear you out. I have visions of Mill, who wrote this thousand page book in about eighteen months while holding a full-time job in the East India Company, sitting there in his free moments with his pen, ink and paper, scratching out the text as he tried to distill his thoughts into something coherent. The man with the highest IQ in the nineteenth century, his book was the byword for economic theory for the following fifty years and then some. My copy is a discarded text from the 1920s that was still being used at the University of Melbourne. If you would like to see Mill up to date, you can read the 2nd ed of my Free Market Economics and when you see the book (unless you read it electronically) you will understand why the cover shows a water mill as its main motif.

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6 Responses to Mill’s Principles of Political Economy

  1. Old woman of the north

    What beautiful, clear English! The thought processes flow. I’ll bet a government economist could not write as well.

  2. TBear

    More self promotion. Don’t U sometimes feel a bit silly, Mr. Kates?

  3. Blogstrop

    No problem for anyone who had a proper education, which used to include literature by the likes of Jane Austen and Will Shakespeare.

  4. danger mouse

    Nothing wrong with Mill’s writing. Sure, verbose by modern standards. And the brain does need to work a bit harder. But then there is the payoff.

    And you should definitely keep plugging the book, Steve. It is important to get the message out. Besides, if you were looking to make a fortune from writing it is not like this would be the path you would choose!


  5. This reminded me of the Milton Freedman ‘how pencils are made’ story/analogy.

  6. incervisiaveritas

    John Stuart Mill
    By a mighty effort of will
    Threw off his natural bonhomie
    And wrote Principles of Political Economy

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