John Stuart Mill and Liberal Imperialism

In 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.

The 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.

With 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.

JOHN STUART MILL (1806-1873)

J. 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.

John 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.

Of 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.


In 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.

The 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)

Thus, 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)

In other words, a dead-wrong economic premise became justification for empire, which some people wanted on other grounds.


Mill 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.

No, 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)

Another justification was that the empire “increased England’s political power and prestige” ­ which was, in Mill’s words, “a great advantage to mankind.”(6)


This 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.

Mill 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.

He 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 outside.

And 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.

It 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 Bad Power.(8)

One could build an entire U.S. foreign policy on that interesting slogan.

Summarizing 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)

One could build an entire U.S. empire on that theory.


Miller 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)

I suggest 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.

Mill was precisely the “subaltern clerk” of narrow horizon about whom Ludwig von Mises so often complained.

Sullivan 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)


Those 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.

What 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.

The 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)

It 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!


1. Robert Lewis Dabney, The Sensualistic Philosophy of the Nineteenth Century (New York: Anson D. F. Randolph, 1987), pp. 52-84.

2. 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), p. 607.

3. Sullivan, p. 608.

4. 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.)

5. Sullivan, 611, and 610.

6. Sullivan, 611; Mill quoted, 612.

7. 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.

8. Mill, “A Few Words,” p. 383.

9. Kenneth E. Miller, “John Stuart Mill’s Theory of International Relations,” J. Hist. of Ideas, 22, 4 (Oct.-Dec. 1961), p. 509.

10. Miller, p. 510.

11. Sullivan, p. 614 (my italics).

12. 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.