James Mill on the Growth and Limitation of Population


The brief passages reproduced below from James Mill's 1821 work, Elements of Political Economy, present an early analysis of total and net fecundity, a discussion of the scope and limits of government influence on fertility, and a reflection on the goal of a stationary population. In his preface Mill describes the Elements as “a school-book in political economy”—it was in fact based on the lessons he gave to his then barely teenaged son—and he disavows any claim to originality. Moreover, the chapter on wages, from which the excerpts come, has been generally disdained because of its espousal of the discredited wage-fund theory of wage determination. But Mill's treatment of population is as fresh and stimulating as it is concise.

James Mill (1773–1836) is now known more as the father of John Stuart Mill—and as the designer of the latter's famously rigorous education—than for his own writing. Born and educated in Scotland, Mill moved to England, making his living as a journalist. On the side, he was writing what became a three-volume History of British India (1817), which led to long-term employment in the London office of the East India Company. Mill's thinking on economics was strongly influenced by his friendship with David Ricardo and on public policy by Jeremy Bentham. The group of reformist thinkers that surrounded him, known as the philosophical radicals, were protégés in the main of Bentham. Mill, like others in this group, was a proponent of family planning, albeit far more cautious on the subject than the propagandist Francis Place. “Prudence,” which for Malthus meant only delay of marriage, Mill took equally to cover control of marital fertility: it should comprise measures “by which either marriages are sparingly contracted, or care is taken that children, beyond a certain number, shall not be the fruit.” In the last of the excerpts, offering an unapologetic vision of bourgeois leisure and affluence, he anticipates J. S. Mill's notable chapter on the stationary state (Book IV, Chapter 6) in the Principles of Political Economy (1848)—see the Archives item in PDR 12, no. 2.

The text is reproduced from the 3rd edition of the Elements (London, 1826), this part of which is virtually the same as the first edition aside from some minor improvements in expression. The excerpts are from Chapter 2, Section 2, pp. 46–50, 57–59, and 63–66.