June 17, 2008: Ten Years Ago at Grasping Reality
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Imprisonment by Malthus and "Negative Liberty": Outtake from Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Long 20th Century

Il Quarto Stato

At the start of the Long 20th Century John Stuart Mill, Britain’s leading economist, leading moral philosopher, and one of its leading imperialists and rulers of the empire as a former India Office bureaucrat, was putting the finishing touches on the final edition of the book that people then looked to to learn economics: Principles of Political Economy, with Some of Their Applications to Moral Philosophy. His book and his thought gave due attention and place to the 1730-1870 era of the British Industrial Revolution. Yet in the year 1870 he looked out on what he saw as a poor and miserable world. “Hitherto”, he wrote, looking at the world and at the Great Britain and Ireland of his day:

it is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day’s toil of any human being. They have enabled a greater population to live the same life of drudgery and imprisonment, and an increased number of manufacturers and others to make fortunes. They have increased the comforts of the middle classes...

Denser populations, more and richer plutocrats, a larger middle class—those were all the fruits Mill saw of the 1730-1870 Industrial Revolution. Humans in 1870 were still, he saw as he looked at his world and his country, under the harrow of Malthus: There were few resources, too fertile a population, and too slow technological progress for the world to be anything other than constantly near the edge of famine.

Whatever possibilities for a better world existed in the womb of better technology were stillborn because of greater human numbers and the resource scarcity thereby generated. One word in Mill’s paragraph stands out: imprisonment. The world Mill saw was not just a world of drudgery—where humans had to work long and tiring hours at crafts and tasks that came nowhere near to being sufficiently interesting to engage the full brainpower of an East African Plains Ape. The world Mill saw was not just a world in which most people were close to the edge of being desperately hungry, and were justifiably anxious about where their 2000 calories a day were going to come from next year—or net week. The world Mill saw was not just a world of low literacy—where most could only access the collective human store of knowledge, ideas, and entertainments partially and slowly. It was a world in which humanity was imprisoned: not free, in a dungeon, chained and fettered.

That is how things were back at the start of the long twentieth century.

As an aside, this observation by founding libertarian Mill makes me think that most libertarians today who draw heavily on the Oxford inaugural lecture of Isaiah Berlin (1958): Two Concepts of Liberty https://tinyurl.com/dl20180618g, with its claim that “negative” and “positive” liberty are in “direct conflict”, fundamentally misconstrue the libertarian project—or, at least, have no warrant to call themselves intellectual descendants and comrades of John Stuart Mill, and fail at some fundamental level to grasp what Mill thought the libertarian project was. Berlin’s definition that “I am normally said to be free to the degree to which no man or body of men interferes with my activity… the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others…” is one in which Mill’s use of the word imprisonment makes no sense at all...