Mill and Liberal Imperialism
my last column, I told some of the story of Cold War liberalism. Today, I want
to look at a similar phenomenon, one which might be considered a forerunner of
Cold War liberalism. That phenomenon is liberal imperialism.
fact that there is such an historical category already suggests that "liberalism"
was, from a very early time, a thing of sliding definitions and declensions. For
my purposes, liberalism has to do with individual liberty, free markets, and free
trade. If that makes it sound a lot like libertarianism, so be it. Others may
deploy their own notions of what constitutes the essential liberal tradition.
so many erstwhile libertarians taking up the imperial burden, it may be interesting
to look at a classic case of a famous English liberal one, indeed, who
still enjoys a reputation as a libertarian who was a pioneer of liberal
imperialism. This may give us some sense of the prospects for the liberventionists'
program of Goldwaterism with a human face.
STUART MILL (1806-1873)
S. Mill was born to English liberalism. His father James, was an ardent laissez
faireist, wheel-horse of the "philsophical radicals," and a follower of the utilitarian
philosophy of Jeremy Bentham, whom Edmund Burke, with sound instinct, detested.
The young Mill started his study of ancient Greek at age three, but that was not
the source of his problems.
Stuart worked many years as part of the bureaucracy governing India. He served
in Parliament. His writings covered philosophy, political economy, politics, and
whatever it came into his head to write on.
Mill's famous theory of knowledge and ideas, I shall only say that Robert Lewis
Dabney, Presbyterian theologian and ex-Confederate, decisively refuted it in 1875.(1)
One doubts that Mill would have paid much attention to a Presbyterian polemicists
from Virginia, had he lived to see Dabney's book. Some of Mill's best-known work
is in economics. And here the problems begin.
POLITICAL ECONOMICS FOR BRITISH IMPERIALISM
his history of economic thought, Murray Rothbard referred to Mill's mind as a
great "kitchen midden" of conflicting doctrines and notions. Earlier political
economists had tended to frown on colonies, regarding them as burdens better dispensed
with in the name of free trade. At the India Office, Mill fell under the influence
of the Colonial Reformers, who traced their policy ideas back to Edward Gibbon
Wakefield. This led him into new territory.
Wakefieldian reformers believed that England suffered from two "surpluses": one
of people and one of capital. Emigration could relieve the first. Following the
Colonial Reformers' lead, Mill reasoned that the surplus of capital was
as Eileen Sullivan writes "not a glut but a decline in the rate of profit."
Either way, state projects of colonial development were the answer.(2)
the empire was a positive good. Sullivan adds, "long before Hobson and Lenin,
liberals had established the connection between the problem of surplus capital
and the solution of imperialism."(3) Murray Rothbard was a bit more critical:
"by being converted to Wakefield's fallacy of the inevitable accumulation of surplus
capital in advanced capitalist countries, John Stuart Mill lent his great prestige
to the notion that capitalism economically requires empire in order to invest,
to get rid of, allegedly surplus savings or capital. In short, Mill was one of
the ultimate founders of the Leninist theory of imperialism."(4)
other words, a dead-wrong economic premise became justification for empire,
which some people wanted on other grounds.
REASONS FOR EMPIRE
had non-economic arguments for the British empire, as well. One was cultural.
Backward, barbarous peoples could not just be left lying around to govern or misgovern
themselves. Take the Irish, for example (one of his cases, not mine). No telling
what might happen.
England had a civilizing mission to take these backward children in hand and whip
them into shape. Sullivan notes that, for Mill, "England had a right to rule despotically
because it brought the benefits of higher civilization."(5)
justification was that the empire "increased England's political power and prestige"
which was, in Mill's words, "a great advantage to mankind."(6)
DOCTRINE OF HUMANITARIAN INTERVENTION
brings us to Mill's general doctrine in favor of intervention outside the
empire. Mill is perhaps most known, this side of the water, for his essay On
Liberty. The essay is certainly about liberty, but not nearly as favorable
to that notion as is commonly believed. Similarly, Mill's essay on Non-Intervention
(1859) is about its topic.(7) Unfortunately, it is hardly favorable to
non-intervention at all.
sets off with a lament about how good, how noble, how selfless British foreign
policy has been, and is, by its very nature. He suffers from knowing that the
rest of the world fails to appreciate this unalloyed philanthropy and suspects
Britain's motives. This part of the essay could form part of any recent speech
by George W. Bush, although Mill's literary style is superior.
quickly finds problems in the strict non-interventionist creed of Richard Cobden
and John Bright and casts it aside. We can't treat civilized and barbarous nations
alike, he says. These barbarians may need good government imposed on them from
what of people fighting for freedom against a native despotism? Well, that's tricky,
Mill admits. One has to decide these things on a case by case basis, old chap.
is clearer, of course, when the oppressed are fighting for freedom against a state
imposed by outsiders. This only applies to civilized peoples fighting for freedom,
remember, the barbarians need not apply. Britain ought to intervene in cases of
the former type. This he calls "Intervention to enforce non-intervention"
that is, to enforce non-intervention on the part of Austria, Russia, or some other
could build an entire U.S. foreign policy on that interesting slogan.
Mill's views gleaned from various writings, Kenneth Miller has written that Mill's
"final conclusion [was] that a nobly-intentioned intervention, with England assumed
to be nobly-minded, on moral and libertarian grounds, which presumably England
alone might interpret, is justifiable if, on weighing the consequences, it appears
likely to be successful and beneficial."(9)
could build an entire U.S. empire on that theory.
writes that "it was [Mill's] own practical experience at the India Office that
prevented him from being guilty of the excesses of the theoretical reformer."(10)
the truth runs the other way around. Mill adopted a colonial office bureaucrat's
way of looking at problems of political economy. This rather than
sentimentality about the workers, or the influence of Harriet Taylor, the woman
in his life is what undermined whatever commitment he once had to laissez
faire, that is, to free market economics. His "excesses" (meaning libertarianism)
never got started.
was precisely the "subaltern clerk" of narrow horizon about whom Ludwig von Mises
so often complained.
notes that "the colonies represented Mill's ideal of a capitalist economic system."
Further: "Mill's concern for the governance of colonies and dependencies had its
greatest impact on his political economy.... he recommended that England carefully
regulate the economic systems of dependencies. This concern for careful regulation
was an important influence in his rethinking of both private property and the
general policy of laissez faire."(11)
'BLOWBACK' FROM EMPIRE
overwrought fellows Cobden and Bright liked to argue that bad policies developed
in the empire will flood back into the home country. The same thing seems to apply
to the world of ideas. Cobden and Bright's occasional ally, J. S. Mill, seems
proof of that.
will our latter-day National Libertarians learn at George Dubya's India Office?
What will the warfare state teach them? When shall we begin to hear that private
property and laissez faire require some rethinking? Pretty soon, I would guess.
National Libertarians may get more invitations to National Review editorial
dinners and better seats at the Coliseum this way. What will the cause of liberty
get from their efforts? About as much as it got at the hands of John Stuart Mill,
imperialist and proto-Deweyite.(12)
would not be quite fair, however, to say that Mill himself "sold out." He was
never much of a liberal to begin with, if by liberalism we mean a rigorous and
principled defense of individual liberties, as opposed to a defense of them as
means to something else, something to which they may be sacrificed as circumstances
change. None of those "excesses of the theoretical reformer" for him!
Robert Lewis Dabney, The Sensualistic Philosophy of the Nineteenth Century
(New York: Anson D. F. Randolph, 1987), pp. 52-84.
Eileen P. Sullivan, "Liberalism and the Imperialism: J. S. Mill's Defense of the
British Empire," Journal of the History of Ideas, 44, 4 (Oct.-Dec. 1983),
Sullivan, p. 608.
Murray N. Rothbard, An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought,
II: Classical Economics (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 1995), p. 288. (The
"kitchen midden" remark is on p. 277.)
Sullivan, 611, and 610.
Sullivan, 611; Mill quoted, 612.
J. S. Mill,"A Few Words on Non-Intervention," in Gertrude Himmelfarb, ed., John
Stuart Mill: Essays on Politics and Culture (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books,
1963), pp. 368-384.
Mill, "A Few Words," p. 383.
Kenneth E. Miller, "John Stuart Mill's Theory of International Relations," J.
Hist. of Ideas, 22, 4 (Oct.-Dec. 1961), p. 509.
Miller, p. 510.
Sullivan, p. 614 (my italics).
Imperialism is just one of Mill's drawbacks. The really sinister core of Mill's
system rested on a deep hatred of tradition and Christianity and centered on a
new religion of humanity to be realized in an entirely transformed society. See
Joseph Hamburger, John Stuart Mill on Liberty and Control (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1999), which is very thorough, even if Hamburger doesn't quite
say whether or not he approves of Mill's goals and his subterfuges.
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