A century and a half after the death of John Stuart Mill, it is easy to think that we have had enough of him. Although William Gladstone once posthumously canonised him as “the saint of rationality”, many contemporary thinkers believe he’s beyond his sell-by date. Monty Python offers an assessment for our age: “John Stuart Mill/ of his own free will/ on half a pint of shandy was particularly ill.”

In the eyes of sceptics, Mill has lost his relevance. The campaigns in which he fought have been won, and the ideas he defended — namely, free speech and female suffrage — have become widely embraced, elaborated, refined and transcended. Furthermore, aspects of his writings grate on current sensitivities. To many, his career in the East India Company reveals not only a thoughtless acceptance of colonialism but also a complacent conviction of the superiority of British society. His proposals to grant extra votes to the well-educated demonstrate a casual elitism, as does his emphasis on higher pleasures: on poetry rather than pushpin. What’s more, the negative picture of liberty he defended — focused on insulating people’s lives from outside interference — can be used today by libertarians and other boosters of minimally regulated markets; perhaps Mill was even a closet libertarian himself. Clear-headed charity should allow him to fade gracefully into the (Victorian) wallpaper.

All this, I believe, is profoundly incorrect. Mill was a far deeper thinker than many of his readers today recognise. He was a progressive, not a neoliberal, someone who has much to teach us about our own society and its conflicts.

These common misconceptions of Mill will no doubt be articulated in a future canonical text entitled Mill for Dummies. When this book is written, it will tell us what “everybody knows” about him. First, he was a utilitarian. To act rightly, he claimed, is to maximise happiness. Following Jeremy Bentham in this thesis, he added a new twist: some pleasures are “higher” than others. Reading poetry supplies more units of bliss (hedons) than you derive from playing childish games in your local tavern. Second, he was an ardent defender of individual liberty. The most important freedom, he tells us, consists in your choosing and pursuing your own good in your own way. Intervening in other people’s lives is warranted only to prevent their harming other folk. These two ideas are the major themes of his most important works: Utilitarianism and On Liberty.

Unfortunately, Dummies probably won’t address the obvious question: How do these two ideas fit together? To find an answer you’d have to go back to On Liberty, where Mill tells us that his defence of freedom will not involve any concept of rights that are independent of utility. He continues by explaining what he means: “I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being.” The authors of Dummies, who identify utility in terms of happiness with an elitist additive, will see this as obfuscation rather than clarification — a lapse into flowery Victorian rhetoric.

Yet the thought of human progress, together with a commitment to promoting it, is all over Mill’s writings. It is expressed in the closing pages of A System of Logic, in The Subjection of Women, throughout On Liberty, and in the Principles of Political Economy (a work roughly four times as long as Utilitarianism and On Liberty combined, and which went through eight editions in his lifetime). In fact, whenever Mill takes up any issue of social policy, he always asks first about how to make progressive changes in individual lives and in the conditions of society that foster or impede such advances. If he mentions happiness at all, it is an afterthought.

The “only freedom which deserves the name” — the ability to choose and pursue your own good in your own way — is at the core of his concept of progress. People’s lives are better when they have more opportunities for figuring out what kind of life they want to lead, more developed cognitive and emotional capacities for making choices about their aims and aspirations, more support in trying to attain their selected goals. When societies restrict options — when, for example, they deny women any chance to obtain university degrees or to own property or to engage in public activities allowed to men — they are interfering with human progress. Advances come when these kinds of restrictions are abolished. It is hardly surprising that Mill would oppose de jure restrictions on the kinds of activities women can pursue; he is, after all, the apostle of non-interference.

Once progress is understood in terms of freedom (real freedom), however, things get more complicated. A poor but talented black American child may dream of becoming a lawyer, perhaps even a judge, or a Supreme Court Justice. But if that child is being raised by a single parent, sometimes homeless, often hungry, and sent to a dangerous and underfunded school staffed by a rotating corps of disillusioned teachers, he may in principle have a chance to realise the dream of giving eloquent speeches in a courtroom, but, even with the most determined effort, his chances of success are slim. What the law allows is negated by the facts of the child’s life. In the absence of public goods — education of the quality available to their more fortunate contemporaries, or a “safety net” that protects against severe poverty and homelessness — the odds are against success for even the most gifted and diligent of children.

Despite popular assumptions, Mill’s conception of human progress does not write off the children of the poor. Throughout his entire career, he advocated Bentham’s famous dictum, “Each to count for one, and none for more than one”, elaborating it in a conception of human well-being that went far beyond his predecessor’s limited focus on momentary pleasures. To ground utility in “the permanent interests of man as a progressive being” is to demand providing resources to support the many members of affluent societies who are allowed to fall by the wayside.

Mill’s educational commitments go even further. If someone is to make a wise choice about how they want their life to be, they must be able to discover their talents and to understand the options for developing and exercising them. They require the emotional and social capacities to understand how their aims might have a positive impact on the lives of others. To improve individual lives is thus to fashion educational institutions that develop self-understanding; and to produce citizens who can work cooperatively together. A Millian society emphasises two kinds of liberty: not only freedom from the interference of others, but the freedom to become reflective and sensitive people as well.

Mill’s emphasis on the “cultivation” of the individual is evident in On Liberty, especially in its third chapter. There, the idea of “making the [human] race infinitely better” is tied to “furnishing more abundant aliment to high thoughts and elevating feelings, and strengthening the tie which binds every individual to the race”. Similarly, The Subjection of Women argues that allowing women “the free use of their faculties” and “the free choice of employments” makes social progress both through correcting an injustice and through doubling the power of individuals to contribute to society. Yet Mill’s most obvious break with libertarianism, and, indeed, with the dominant socio-political conceptions of our day, comes in the work in which he figures as one of the great predecessors of contemporary economic thinking: the Principles of Political Economy.

His purely economic writings are pervaded by judgments about what is most valuable in human life. For Mill, political economy consists in engaging the best ethical thought with investigations in the social sciences. Although that engagement appears in the work of other classical political economists (notably Adam Smith and Karl Marx), nobody pursued it more deeply than Mill. It figures prominently in Book 2 of the Principles, with its astonishing title and theme: “Distribution”. From the perspective of prior political economy, there should be no need to discuss how income and wealth should be distributed: the task is to understand how aggregate wealth is amassed and how societies prosper. After that, the chips — the bullion and the banknotes — fall where they may. For Mill, that is not good enough. The distribution of wealth must allow for as many individual lives as possible to flourish.

Hence, he is an early advocate of what contemporary libertarians call “death taxes”. With his respect for liberty, Mill gives inheritance law an interesting twist: the amount any person can gain via inheritance is to be limited; donors can decide how to spread their prosperity among a large number of recipients (Mill conjectures that they will often opt for providing public goods, apparently foreseeing the coming of Andrew Carnegie and his like). In each generation, he believes, differences in talent, industry and, he points out, luck will produce inequalities in wealth. But, as resources pass down the generations, a death tax results in more equal distribution, benefiting both those whose ancestors had little to leave them and the potentially pampered children of the rich, whose motivation to exert themselves would otherwise be sapped.

Nor is Mill obsessed with productivity and growth as primary economic imperatives. The progressive interests of humanity are not fostered by intensifying competition. In the section of Mill’s Principles entitled “Of the Stationary State of Wealth and Population”, he wrote: “I confess I am not charmed with the ideal of life held out by those who think that the normal state of human beings is that of struggling to get on; that the trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other’s heels, which form the existing type of social life, are the most desirable lot of human kind, or anything but one of the disagreeable symptoms of one of the phases of industrial progress.” If capitalism is superior to socialism — and that is a question Mill takes very seriously — it must be capitalism with a human face.

The narrative that will be contained in Dummies, then, sells Mill short. He is neither a peculiarly elitist utilitarian (indeed, it is doubtful whether he is any kind of utilitarian), nor is his concern for liberty consistent with even the slightest move in the directions that libertarians favour. Instead, he draws on a rich and complex approach to human progress, suggesting reforms both for his own society and for our own.

Were he alive today, Mill would remind us that freedoms are for all, not simply for a privileged few; that democracy requires taking the perspectives of all people seriously; that minimally regulated markets produce consumer goods cheaply at enormous personal and social costs; and that ethical inquiry should be the foundation of socio-political decisions. Much contemporary political “thought” would be subjected to the rebuke he directed at Bentham: politicians and pundits today see in human life “little but what the vulgarest eye can see”. In this, Mill belongs at the progressive end of the progressive parties of the modern world. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders should welcome their ally — Mill the progressive.

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