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Principle, Pragmatism, and Piecework in On Liberty

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 July 2023

Dale E. Miller*
Philosophy and Religious Studies, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, VA, USA


In a well-known passage in chapter V of On Liberty, J. S. Mill notes that while economic competition is generally socially beneficial and should be permitted, this “Free Trade” doctrine does not follow from the liberty or harm principle because “trade is a social act.” In a largely overlooked passage in chapter IV of the same essay, however, Mill contends that for society to coercively prohibit the practice of piecework – paying workers by the unit rather than by the hour or day – does violate this principle. In this short note, I demonstrate that Mill's reasoning in these two passages is contradictory.

Copyright © The Author(s), 2023. Published by Cambridge University Press

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1 On Liberty, CW XVIII, p. 293. References to Mill's works will be to The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, 33 vols., ed. by John M. Robson (Toronto: Toronto UP, 1963–91), and will include volume and page numbers.

2 On Liberty, CW XVIII, p. 287.

3 J. S. Mill: Moral, Social and Political Thought (Cambridge: Polity, 2010), p. 122Google Scholar. Ben Saunders also touches on this passage briefly in J. S. Mill and Market Harms: a Response to Endörfer, forthcoming in Economics and Philosophy.

4 Mill sometimes spells this “piece-work,” and he sometimes instead calls it “taskwork.”

5 See, e.g., Stéphanie Premji, Katherine Lippel and Karen Messing, We Work by the Second! Piecework Remuneration and Occupational Health and Safety from an Ethnicity- and Gender-Sensitive Perspective, Pistes, 10 (2008), pp. 1–35, and Pangsapa, Pia, Textures of Struggle: The Emergence of Resistance Among Garment Workers in Thailand (Ithaca: ILR Press, 2007), pp. 2526Google Scholar, 135–36, 141–44, 162–63.

6 Curtains, Designing Women, created by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, season 3, episode 7, Bloodworth/Thomason Mozark Productions, 1989.

7 See, e.g., Susan Helper, Morris M. Kleiner and Yingchun Wang, Analyzing Compensation Methods in Manufacturing: Piece Rates, Time Rates, or Gain-Sharing, National Bureau of Economics Research Working Paper 16540 (2010),

8 Chapters on Socialism, CW V, p. 743. Cf. Mill's October 28, 1864 letter to Edwin Chadwick in which he observes that there are ways for cooperative societies to create “an identification of the interest of every labourer with the prosperity of the concern, more complete than mere piece work will effect” if they offer them more than wages (CW XV, pp. 960–61). Presumably, Mill is thinking here of profit sharing.

9 Principles of Political Economy, CW II, p. 140.

10 For my understanding of Mill's moral theory, see J. S. Mill, pp. 79–110.

11 Utilitarianism, CW X, p. 247.

12 On Liberty, CW XVIII, p. 224.

13 Principles of Political Economy, CW III, p. 934.

14 Principles of Political Economy, CW III, p. 783n. See also Mill's letters of 14 March and 3 April 1854 to Harriet Taylor Mill about the insertion of this portion of this passage in the fourth (1857) edition of the Principles (CW XIV, pp. 186, 195). On the possibility that the piece rate might be set unfairly low, see also Chapters on Socialism, CW V, p. 743.

15 Principles of Political Economy, CW II, p. 210.

16 Utilitarianism, CW X, p. 244.

17 Utilitarianism, CW X, p. 254.

18 See McCabe, Helen, John Stuart Mill: Socialist (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2021), pp. 113–14, 123–24Google Scholar.

19 Letter to Edwin Chadwick (22 December 1867), CW XVI, p. 1335.

20 Principles of Political Economy, CW III, pp. 933–34. In the first edition of the Principles, published in 1848, Mill's tone is rather different. There he treats it as an open question “whether the kind of associations here treated of can be a proper subject of any other than merely moral repression” (CW III, p. 934n). In other words, at the time that he writes the first edition, Mill firmly believes that workers who participate in these sorts of combination can be met with informal social punishments and is open to the possibility that legal punishments should be employed as well. His thinking seems to have changed quickly, however, as no later editions express the same view.

21 On Liberty, CW XVIII, p. 287.

22 On Liberty, CW XVIII, p. 285.

23 On Liberty, CW XVIII, p. 299.

24 On Liberty, CW XVIII, p. 292. If we follow them through consistently, Mill's remarks on competition and trade have implications that may be surprising. For instance, some of the most beloved fiction of Mill's own period depicts intense competition for marriage partners, where the stakes are not only romantic love but also estates and so many pounds a year. Under such circumstances, Mill's view seems to entail that a couple's decision to marry is not self-regarding, at least not when it negatively affects the material interests of disappointed prospective suitors for one or both of them.

25 Principles of Political Economy, CW II, pp. 216, 364.

26 At the micro level, employers will not pay a pool of workers an hourly or daily wage higher than the average productivity of the members of the pool. If the most productive workers are being paid by the piece rather than the hour or day – if they have made, we might say, a “separate piece” with employers – then the average productivity of the workers left in the pool will be lower.

27 CW V, pp. 659–60.

28 CW V, pp. 659–60. Saunders also notes the relevance of this passage in “J. S. Mill and Market Harms.”

29 On Liberty, CW XVIII, p. 225.

30 Principles of Political Economy, CW III, p. 944.

31 Principles of Political Economy, CW III, pp. 957–58.

32 The numbers do change between editions of the Principles. In earlier editions, Mill suggests that the state might impose a ten-hour day rather than leaving workers free to agree to work twelve. While Mill's framing of this point almost seems to suggest that no one loses by this resolution of the collective-action problem, this is true only if we restrict our attention to workers. The shorter working day comes at the expense of factory owners, who pay roughly as much in wages for 10% less work.

33 On Liberty, CW XVIII, p. 216; Autobiography, CW I, p. 261.

34 As a reviewer for this note observes, an interpreter who encounters an apparent contradiction in a text may respond to it in several ways. They may find some way to render the author's position consistent even if this means departing from what seems to be the clear meaning of the text, they may ascribe it to a change of the author's mind, or they may regard it as an intentional move by the author to stimulate the reader to search for a hidden or esoteric argument. Or they may treat it as a mistake, as I am doing here. I see no remotely plausible way to render Mill's position consistent, nor it is plausible to attribute an inconsistency within a single essay to a change of mind. The reviewer rightly says that if any of Mill's contemporaries had pointed out the inconsistency while he was drafting On Liberty and yet it still made it into the final text, this would be strong evidence for seeing it as an intentional move meant to encourage us to seek some deeper meaning in the passage. However, I am not aware that any of them did. Hence chalking the inconsistency up to a mistake seems to be the least unsatisfactory alternative.

35 I am grateful for helpful suggestions from Ben Eggleston and two anonymous reviewers.