John Stuart Mill

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What were John Stuart Mill's views on private property?

John Stuart Mill's views on private property were that the laws of property had never conformed to the principles on which the justification of private property rests and that, therefore, one could not legitimately compare the existing system of private property with that of Communism.

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In a characteristically open-minded discussion, John Stuart Mill shows himself amenable to different conceptions of private property. Though a political liberal with an impassioned commitment to individual liberty, Mill was also possessed of a communitarian streak which made him sympathetic to more radical ideas.

In his Principles of Political Economy, Mill argues that the current laws of private property

have never yet conformed to the principles on which the justification of private property rests.

In other words, the operation of the laws relating to private property has never come up to the exacting standards of the traditional theory of private property. Private property is supposed to be a good thing, a marker of someone's liberty. And yet so many people in Mill's day didn't have any private property to speak of due to a legal system that was heavily skewed in favor of the rich and privileged. This inevitably raised the question as to just how many people in Victorian Britain could genuinely be described as free.

Given his concern with the unfair distribution of private property, it's not really all that surprising to find Mill prepared to give Communism a fair hearing. However, Mill is insistent that only Communism at its best, as he calls it, can legitimately be compared with the regime of private property at its best, not as it is but as it might be.

What this means is that we can only make a meaningful comparison between the two diametrically opposed ideologies if we take them in good faith as being concerned with maximizing liberty.

Successive generations of critics have castigated Mill for what they perceive as his naivety over Communism. Although, in his defense, one could say that Mill didn't have the benefit of foresight and so could not have foreseen the appalling horrors inflicted on vast swathes of humankind by Communist regimes of the twentieth century.

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