Most of all Drum is saying that the earlier history is not very illustrative of anything for today. I view it this way. Go back to Millian liberalism of the mid-19th century. Had American or for that matter British Progressivism been infused with more of this philosophy, the eugenics debacle never would have happened. … The claim is not that current Progressives are evil or racist, but rather they still don’t have nearly enough Mill in their thought, and not nearly enough emphasis on individual liberty. Their continuing choice of label seems to indicate they are not much bothered by that, or maybe not even fully aware of that. … they don’t seem to relate to the broader philosophy of individual liberty as it surfaced in the philosophy of Mill and others. That’s a big, big drawback and the longer history of Progressivism and eugenics is perhaps the simplest and most vivid way to illuminate the point. This is one reason why the commitment of the current Left to free speech just isn’t very strong. … Do we really want to identify with a general philosophy which embraced eugenics for so many decades, when so many pro-liberty and also social democratic thinkers were in opposition? I think Mill himself would say no.
It’s hard for me to read a defense of “Millian liberalism in the mid-nineteenth century” and not think about the response of Millian liberalism and associated forms of thought in political economy to the Irish famine in which a million or so people died, and a million emigrated.
Mill self-consciously belonged to a broader tradition of political economy that was highly influential in Britain during the relevant period. This tradition did not distinguish itself during the Irish Famine. I posted a few years back about the Economist’s editorializing that:
… the people, rapidly increasing, have been reduced, by acts for which they are chiefly to blame, to a sole reliance on the precarious crop of potatoes. It would be unjust to Ireland – it would be a neglect of a great duty which is imposed on us at this time – if we did not point to this calamity, assuming as it does this aggravated form, as in a great measure the natural result of that crime which has precluded the people from other available resources. That the innocent suffer with the guilty, is a melancholy truth, but it is one of the great conditions on which all society exists. Every breach of the laws of morality and social order brings its own punishment and inconvenience. Where there is not perfect security, there cannot be prosperity. This is the first law of civilization.
and Nassau Senior’s alleged quip that the Irish famine “would not kill more than a million people, and that would scarcely be enough to do much good” is reasonably notorious. As Cormac O’Grada notes, in his history of famine (p.205),
Radical nationalist John Mitchel’s dramatic claim that Ireland had ‘died of political economy’ in the 1840s was thus by no means entirely untrue; policy at the time was constrained by a stance that was obsessive about the moral hazard implications of relieving the starving, the providential nature of the failure of the potato crop, and fiscal prudence even in times of the extreme humanitarian crisis
John Stuart Mill, with his love of liberty, was entirely part of this consensus. Below, some extracts from his contemporary articles for the Morning Chronicle on the Irish Famine.
In response to a proposal that starving Irish people be granted relief in return for labour on public work projects:
The alpha and omega of the schemes for the relief of Ireland—the quintessence of all the propositions we hear, is, give, give, give. … But the objection common to all these schemes is, that they consist of giving, and nothing more. That objection is fatal. Did ever any one hear, was ever any one so completely out of his senses as to imagine, that the whole social and economical state of a country could be made to rest upon giving? Giving, when the whole labouring population are the parties concerned, is a thing to be done once, and then largely and generously, to the full measure of the need. But it is not a thing to be done at all, save when the object to be compassed, or at least greatly promoted, is that of so altering the condition of the receivers, that they shall not need to look to giving as a permanent resource. If this could be accomplished for Ireland—and that it could we are fully prepared to show—we will not venture to say what sum of money we would not willingly give, and call on others to give, for so noble a purpose. Or if the habitual condition of the Irish people were satisfactory, and the present distress a sharp but passing calamity, as little connected with the general course of events as the cholera—a torrent which they only required to be helped through, to be landed again in prosperity on the other side—then too we could join our voices with those who say, give freely, and ask no questions about the future. But as things are, we protest with all our force against giving one additional farthing on plans which hold out no better promise than that, after a larger or smaller sum of money is spent and gone, the Irish will be exactly as they were before. Give as much as you will, but let it be for the permanent improvement of the condition of the people. We will not hear of any giving merely to feed the disease, not to cure it. … Are the Irish, on the showing of the Times and its Commissioner, a people who can be trusted with an unlimited license to draw upon the national alms? … But the Irish peasant: what of him? Is he a similar paragon of industry, providence, self-reliance, and the other virtues of that mythological creation, “a stout peasantry?” Listen to Mr. Foster—listen to the “Times Commissioner,” and he will tell you that the Irish peasant, while he has his sufficient meal of bad, watery potatoes, will not stir two steps from the door of his turf hut to gain either comfort or luxury at the cost of half an hour’s exertion; that when a boat is found for him by his own parish priest, and a thousand herrings may be caught in one day, neither the prize can tempt nor the priest persuade him to make use of the opportunity; or he perhaps goes once, and brings home a week’s subsistence; but, declaring it too much trouble ever to go again, loiters at home and asks a passing traveller for money. Such are said to be the people to whom the Times wishes the Legislature to declare, that they need not take any trouble to feed themselves, for it will make the landlords feed them. … Because the Irish are indolent, unenterprising, careless of the future, doing nothing for themselves, and demanding everything from other people; because, being freemen, they want the characteristic virtues of freemen, it is proposed to create a fit soil for the growth of those virtues by placing them in the position of slaves!
And in a later article:
The entire population of the country are coming upon us to be fed. And we are called upon to decide instantaneously whether we will or will not undertake the office. There is no retreating, no putting off. The burden of Irish destitution is now to be borne by us. Ireland can no longer suffer alone. We must take our full share of the evil, or put an end to it. For a few weeks or months longer we have the choice which. Wait a year, and we may have it no longer. Wait a year, and the mind of the Irish population may be so thoroughly pauperised, that to be supported by other people may be the only mode of existence they will consent to. There may be a Jacquerie, or another ninety-eight, in defence of the rights of sturdy beggary. It may require a hundred thousand armed men to make the Irish people submit to the common destiny of working in order to live.
Under such a mass of impending evil it is no longer enough not to make the eleemosynary system permanent. That system must be promptly put an end to. We must give over telling the Irish that it is our business to find food for them. We must tell them, now and for ever, that it is their business. We must tell them that to find or make employment as an excuse for feeding those who have a head to seek for work and hands to do it, is a thing they are not to expect either from the Government, or from the barony, or from the parish. They have a right, not to support at the public cost, but to aid and furtherance in finding support for themselves. They have a right to a repeal of all laws and a reform of all social systems which improperly impede them in finding it, and they have a right to their fair share of the raw material of the earth. They have a right to that part of the earth’s surface which is as much theirs as any man’s, since no man made it, and no man has ever used or improved it. Millions of acres are lying waste, requiring little more than labour to render them productive, and to avoid giving these acres to the destitute, we are giving them, instead, many millions of pounds sterling. We are paying gold with both hands to destroy such industry, independence, and self-reliance as they already have, and we withhold what would cost us little or nothing, and would be to them the fountain spring of those virtues for all time to come.
It may be said, perhaps … that conjointly with remedial measures, and while doing everything in our power to raise up for the people an abundance of food and the amplest field of employment, we must also, to complete the impression on their minds, afford an assurance, not inferential but positive, of a sufficient maintenance. To which we reply, that to give them such an assurance in the present state of their minds is certain to render any and every remedial measure inoperative. No measure calculated to be of use to Ireland has a chance of effect unless the exertions of the people are called forth with considerable intensity to co-operate with it. With their present habits, the only motive which is found sufficient to produce any real exertion, and that not always, is the fear of destitution. From that fear it is proposed permanently to relieve them. What other motive is to be provided? It must be force; for reason and experience are equally against the wild idea that even a much more industrious people than the Irish will work with any efficacy for employers who are not permitted to dismiss them, unless it be like slaves, under compulsion, and if that is to be the resource, it is good to bethink ourselves, in the first instance, whether we can compel them to be compelled.
Depending on how one reads “sufficient maintenance,” Mills seems to be saying either that the only motivation (other than the threat of violence) sufficient to get the Irish to work hard in their current condition is the fear of starvation or (in a more generous reading) utter penury. Hence, providing them any guarantee of sufficient maintenance or employment would be ruinous.
On the one hand, Mill argues in this and other articles that the Irish are a victim of their institutional circumstances (and English landlords), rather than being inherently inferior to English people in some way, and calls for the repeal of oppressive laws. This, under other circumstances, is the genuinely attractive and compelling message of Millian political economy – that one should look first to the external circumstances that constrain people’s choices before appealing to innate differences (this intuition lies behind his feminism, for example). On the other, he ferociously condemns proposals to create public works schemes for people who are quite literally starving in their tens and hundreds of thousands as he writes, for fear that these measures would inculcate indolence and undermine self-reliance. In a controversy which I don’t discuss above, he indeed argues that any scheme of general relief for the starving Irish would be radically incompatible with the reforms he proposes – it would cement the Irish in their bad habits so that political economy reforms could not take hold. This kind of response to men, women and children dying in their multitudes next door is, to put it mildly, less attractive in its logic and implications.
Mill’s response to the Irish Famine was hence twofold. First, to contemn in the harshest terms efforts to help people who were, at that very moment, starving to death. Second and simultaneously, to propose political economy reforms to the Irish landholding system, which while based on a plausible diagnosis, were irrelevant to those whose immediate problem was not that they had no long term surety of property, but that they were dying for lack of food. “Let them eat liberty and secure property rights” is not an efficacious program for immediate famine relief, whatever its abstract and/or long term merits.
So if Tyler really wants to hang eugenics around the neck of progressivism, and deplore its insufficient infusion of mid-nineteenth century Millian liberalism, he really ought consider the demonstrable problems of mid-nineteenth century Millian liberalism itself, as expounded e.g. by John Stuart Mill himself. I don’t think it’s fair to accuse Mill of being engaged, a la J.K. Galbraith’s definition of conservatism, in a search for a higher justification for selfishness (I’d be less swift to pardon some other Whig voices of the period). But I do think it is entirely fair to see him – and the broader tradition he represents – as culpable of a specific obtuseness to the ways in which political economy prescriptions can blind one as well as enlighten one as to what is happening in the world around oneself, a blindness that could potentially be partly remedied by some of the collective commitments that e.g. progressivism can provide. Modern day economics – and associated strains of thought in libertarianism – sometimes seem to pride themselves on a kind of ostentatious moral toughness (exemplified and made almost parodic by the whole Robert Heinlein shtick that of course lunar settlers should be left suffocate if they can’t afford to pay for air) that is all too often an obnoxious and rather squalid form of callousness. Hence, if progressivism should reasonably be corrected by the Millian tradition on individual liberties, that tradition could do with a lot of correcting back (furthermore, Tyler’s implication that progressivism is somehow disreputable in a way that unalloyed Millian liberalism is not, simply does not seem to me to be justified by the historical evidence.