Mill’s ,An Existentialist ?
Existentialism, in its broadest terms, is simply the view that freedom is fundamental to humans, and that “existence precedes essence.” More simply, life has no purpose or function until one defines it for oneself. Mill’s ideas seem to parallel this notion. Reading plenty of ancient Greek philosophy at a very young age, Mill was exposed to very convincing arguments by Socrates that life is more than sitting around watching television while drinking beer. While it is a life, it is a life fit for pigs. A true seeker of wisdom enjoys mathematics, poetry, art, music, and philosophy. These should be indulged in for their own sake, not for personal gain. Education makes a man wiser and more able to notice the world around him. Preferences are actually developed, not given. Once a man is able to think in this manner, he is able to notice that his preferences, while unique and fixed to a certain extent, are actually better than those who have not had as broad an education. This central concept explains Mill’s view that while all preferences are unique, some are truly better than others because preferences for things that improve the quality of life, rationality and the state of one’s soul are more important than preferences that favor consumption for the purpose of satisfying physical urges. That being said, it is possible to “make yourself” (as Sartre would say) by indulging in preferences that better your situation and the situation of others.
One can improve his lot in life by taking charge, not waiting for handouts, and becoming educated. Becoming educated means that mankind can improve his situation in the future and have influence over it. Mankind has the ability to adapt and survive; to influence their future situation in ways no other species on the planet can. A wise choice from an educated man can enhance the future. I praise his very modern view of economics because the results are contingent upon people who take it upon themselves to improve their existence, and in turn, improve everyone else’s. This world does not have to die from hunger as because humans can alter and influence distribution in a normative sense. For example, those who inherit large sums of money and subsequently abandon their education should lose very large portions of that money to taxes. These taxes should go to those trying to make something of themselves because their knowledge could one day greatly improve the human situation. Improvements in productivity are the best way to improve the standard of living. Mill is on the right track. The former welfare system provided incentives not to work! The newer system is trying to get people back to work through “workfare” programs or re-employment bonuses. Mill would cringe if he were around to see uneducated people on television showing off their cars and “cribs” because they are contributing nothing to society. While consumption is important to some extent, keeping knowledge and technology growing through new ideas is the way to make a certain amount of labor go further. Many countries do not grow because they simply take invested money and spend it. Humanity needs to place a higher premium on education and not idolize people who can tile their floor with diamonds.
Mill’s idea of an (almost) existential existence and/or economy also brings to mind Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Mill would have championed the movement from physiological and safety needs to esteem needs and needs of self actualization by trying to provide the correct incentives. The mastery of a task and personal fulfillment are indeed more important to the whole of humanity because the person who saves the world from hunger will not be the uneducated, waiting-for-a-handout slob sitting on the couch; it will be the self-motivated, educated, utilitarian who is concerned with more than Polish sausage and beer. Mill places the fate of humanity on humanity itself. This is my favorite aspect about his economic thinking. I find only one problem: when humanity finds self-actualization and no longer needs material goods, economists will be out of a job. No one will be concerned with prices. It will, however, be a better day when Mill’s dream of people finding happiness in the arts and philosophy becomes true.