Principles of Political Economy

Principles of Political Economy

Cover first edition, 1848
Author John Stuart Mill
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Subject Political philosophy
Genre Nonfiction
Publisher John W. Parker
Publication date
Media type Print
Pages 450

Principles of Political Economy (1848) by John Stuart Mill was one of the most important economics or political economy textbooks of the mid-nineteenth century.[1] It was revised until its seventh edition in 1871,[2] shortly before Mill's death in 1873, and republished in numerous other editions.[3] Beside discussing descriptive issues such as which nations tended to benefit more in a system of trade based on comparative advantage (Mill's answer: those with more elastic demands for other countries' goods), the work also discussed normative issues such as ideal systems of political economy, critiquing proposed systems such as communism and socialism.[4] Along with A System of Logic, Principles of Political Economy established Mill's reputation as a leading public intellectual. Mill's sympathetic attitude in this work and in other essays toward contemporary socialism, particularly Fourierism, earned him esteem from the working class as one of their intellectual champions.

Preface and Preliminary Remarks

Mill's Principles were written in a style of prose far flung from the introductory texts of today. Devoid of the mathematical graphs and formulae that were only developed after his death, principally by Alfred Marshall, Mill wrote with the rich tone of grandeur that is found in all his books. His book continued to be used well into the twentieth century as the foundational textbook, for instance in Oxford University until 1919.

Book I Production

I Of the Requisites of Production

Mill explores the nature of production, beginning with labour and its relationship to nature. He starts by stating, that the "requisites of production are two: labour, and appropriate natural objects." A discussion follows of man's connection to the natural world, and how man must labour to utilise almost anything found in the natural world. He uses a rich array of imagery, from the sewing of cloth, to the turning of wheels and the creation of steam. Man has found a way to harness nature, so that "the muscular action necessary for this is not constantly renewed, but performed once for all, and there is on the whole a great economy of labour." He then turns on the view of who "takes the credit" for industry. "Some writers," he says,

"have raised the question, whether nature gives more assistance to labour in one kind of industry or in another; and have said that in some occupations labour does most, in others nature most. In this, however, there seems much confusion of ideas. The part which nature has in any work of man, is indefinite and incommensurable. It is impossible to decide that in any one thing nature does more than in any other. One cannot even say that labour does less. Less labour may be required; but if that which is required is absolutely indispensable, the result is just as much the product of labour, as of nature. When two conditions are equally necessary for producing the effect at all, it is unmeaning to say that so much of it is produced by one and so much by the other; it is like attempting to decide which half of a pair of scissors has most to do in the act of cutting; or which of the factors, five and six, contributes most to the production of thirty."

He refers to former French Economists and Adam Smith, who thought land rents were higher because there was more nature being provided. In fact, says Mill, the simple answer is that land is scarce, which is what enables greater rent exaction. He mentions that many things are limited in abundance, for instance, Arctic whale fishing, which could not keep supplied the demand. This alludes to an introductory principle of value, that "as soon as there is not so much of the thing to be had, as would be appropriated and used if it could be obtained for asking; the ownership or use of the natural agent acquires an exchangeable value."

II Of Labour as an Agent of Production
III Of Unproductive Labour
IV Of Capital

Capital, says Mill, is "the accumulated stock of the produce of labour". Though its nature is misunderstood. He gives an example of the consumption of food, as opposed to assets allocated for production.

"The distinction, then, between Capital and Not-capital, does not lie in the kind of commodities, but in the mind of the capitalist – in his will to employ them for one purpose rather than another; and all property, however ill adapted in itself for the use of labourers, is a part of capital, so soon as it, or the value to be received from it, is set apart for productive reinvestment."

Capital, like labour, can be unemployed, and Mill gives an example of inefficient taxation of productive capital. Then he observes the surplus to living standards created by industrialism.

"Finally, that large portion of the productive capital of a country which is employed in paying the wages and salaries of labourers, evidently is not, all of it, strictly and indispensably necessary for production. As much of it as exceeds the actual necessaries of life and health (an excess which in the case of skilled labourers is usually considerable) is not expended in supporting labour, but in remunerating it, and the labourers could wait for this part of their remuneration until the production is completed; it needs not necessarily pre-exist as capital: and if they unfortunately had to forego it altogether, the same amount of production might take place. In order that the whole remuneration of the labourers should be advanced to them in daily or weekly payments, there must exist in advance, and be appropriated to productive use, a greater stock, or capital, than would suffice to carry on the existing extent of production: greater, by whatever amount of remuneration the labourers receive, beyond what the self-interest of a prudent slave-master would assign to his slaves. In truth, it is only after an abundant capital had already been accumulated, that the practice of paying in advance any remuneration of labour beyond a bare subsistence, could possibly have arisen: since whatever is so paid, is not really applied to production, but to the unproductive consumption of productive labourers, indicating a fund for production sufficiently ample to admit of habitually diverting a part of it to a mere convenience."
V Fundamental Propositions respecting Capital
VI Of Circulating and Fixed Capital
VII On what depends the degree of Productiveness of Productive Agents
VIII Of Co-operation, or the Combination of Labour
IX Of Production on a Large, and Production on a Small Scale
X Of the Law of the Increase of Labour
XI Of the Law of the Increase of Capital
XII Of the Law of the Increase of Production from Land
XIII Consequences of the Foregoing Laws

Book II Distribution

Book III Exchange

In his third book, Mill addressed one of the issues left unresolved by David Ricardo's theory of comparative advantage, namely to whom the gains of trade were distributed. Mill's answer was that international trade benefited most the country whose demand for goods is most elastic. It is also in this third book, primarily in Chapter I, that Mill considers communism and socialism as alternatives to capitalism.

Book IV Influence of the Progress of Society on Production and Distribution

In his fourth book Mill set out a number of possible future outcomes, rather than predicting one in particular. The first followed the Malthusian line that population grew quicker than supplies, leading to falling wages and rising profits. The second, per Smith, said if capital accumulated faster than population grew then real wages would rise. Third, echoing David Ricardo, should capital accumulate and population increase at the same rate, yet technology stay stable, there would be no change in real wages because supply and demand for labour would be the same. However growing populations would require more land use, increasing food production costs and therefore decreasing profits. The fourth alternative was that technology advanced faster than population and capital stock increased. The result would be a prospering economy. Mill felt the third scenario most likely, and he assumed technology advanced would have to end at some point.[5] But on the prospect of ever intensifying economic activity, Mill was more ambivalent.

"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 the disagreeable symptoms of one of the phases of industrial progress.[6]

Book V on the Influence of Government

See also


  1. See Mill, John Stuart (1848), Principles of Political Economy with Some of their Applications to Social Philosophy, 1 (1 ed.), London: John W. Parker, retrieved 7 December 2012, volume 2 via Google Books
  2. See Mill, John Stuart (1871), Principles of Political Economy with Some of their Applications to Social Philosophy, 1 (7 ed.), London: Longmans, Green, Reader & Dyer; Mill, John Stuart (1871), Principles of Political Economy with Some of their Applications to Social Philosophy, 2 (7 ed.), London: Longmans, Green, Reader & Dyer, retrieved 5 June 2014, via
  3. Mill, John Stuart (1888), Principles of Political Economy with Some of their Applications to Social Philosophy (6 ed.), London: Longmans, Green, Reader & Dyer, retrieved 5 June 2014, via
  4. Capaldi, Nicholas (2004). John Stuart Mill: A Biography. Ch. 5: Worldly Success (1846–1850): Cambridge University Press. pp. 214 to c. 234. ISBN 978-0-511-16419-4.
  5. Pressman (2006) 45
  6. Mill (1871) Book 4, Chapter 6


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