Essays on Some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy Informative Summary

Overview: John Stuart Mill’s “Essays on Some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy” delves into fundamental economic principles that were under debate in the early 19th century. The essays, penned in 1829-1830 and published in 1844, reflect Mill’s early economic thinking, heavily influenced by David Ricardo. The first essay, “Of the Laws of Interchange between Nations,” builds upon Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage, analyzing how the benefits of trade are distributed between nations. It explores the impact of factors like demand, supply, transportation costs, and government policies (taxes and bounties) on this distribution.

Mill challenges the prevailing emphasis on consumption as the driver of national wealth, arguing that production is the primary force. He emphasizes that the benefits of unproductive consumption are limited and often localized, while increased production leads to broader national gains. The essays also grapple with defining “productive” and “unproductive” labor, ultimately settling on a definition that focuses on contributions to the permanent sources of enjoyment, whether material or immaterial. Mill further analyzes the relationship between profits, interest, and wages, highlighting the influence of cost of production on wages and the role of factors like banking and paper money on interest rates. The final essay tackles the definition of political economy itself, advocating for an abstract, deductive approach (à priori method) while acknowledging the importance of empirical verification (à posteriori method).

Key Findings:

  • Comparative Advantage and Trade: The benefits of trade arise from differences in comparative production costs between nations, not absolute costs.
  • Distribution of Trade Gains: The gains from trade are not necessarily equally distributed, and factors like demand, supply, and government policies influence this distribution.
  • Production Over Consumption: Production, not consumption, drives national wealth. Encouraging consumption without corresponding production can be detrimental.
  • Defining “Productive”: Labor and expenditure are productive when they contribute to the permanent sources of enjoyment, whether material (e.g., manufactured goods) or immaterial (e.g., skills).
  • Profits and Wages: Profits depend on the cost of production of wages, meaning both the quantity of goods a laborer receives and the cost of producing those goods.
  • Interest Rates: Interest rates are influenced by both the rate of profit and factors like individual preferences for lending or engaging in business, the volume of savings, and the activity of banks.
  • Method of Political Economy: Political Economy should primarily employ an abstract, deductive method (à priori) but must be grounded in and verified by empirical observations (à posteriori).


  • Comparative Advantage: Readers will learn that nations can benefit from trade even if they are less efficient in producing all goods, as long as they have a comparative advantage in producing at least one good. Details about how specializing in goods with comparative advantage leads to greater overall production are provided.
  • Demand and Supply in International Trade: The essays illustrate how demand and supply forces influence the prices of goods traded between nations and, consequently, the distribution of trade gains. Examples are used to show how changes in demand in one country can affect prices and consumption in another.
  • The Role of Money in Trade: Mill explains how the introduction of money, though essentially facilitating barter, adds complexities to international trade dynamics. The impact of money flows on prices and the role of banking and paper money in influencing interest rates are discussed in detail.
  • The Importance of Production: Readers will learn why focusing solely on increasing consumption without adequate production is a flawed approach to national wealth creation. The essay provides arguments against the then-prevalent idea of a “general glut” and emphasizes the role of production in creating its own demand.
  • Distinguishing Productive and Unproductive Activities: The essays provide a framework for understanding which activities contribute to long-term economic growth and which do not, based on their impact on the “permanent sources of enjoyment.” This distinction helps clarify the true meaning of productive labor and consumption.
  • The Interplay of Profits, Interest, and Wages: The essays offer a detailed analysis of the complex relationship between these key economic variables. The concept of “wages of superintendence” is introduced to explain the difference between profits and interest, and the factors influencing both are explored.
  • Methodological Debates in Political Economy: The essays delve into the methodological debates surrounding the study of economics. The reader will learn about the strengths and limitations of both deductive and inductive approaches, and the importance of combining abstract reasoning with empirical verification.

Historical Context:

The essays were written during a period of significant economic transformation in Europe, marked by industrialization, population growth, and intense debates about free trade versus protectionism. Ricardo’s influential work on political economy had sparked new discussions on international trade and the distribution of wealth. The essays reflect these ongoing debates, offering Mill’s perspective on these crucial issues.


  1. Comparative Advantage Drives Trade: Trade occurs because nations can obtain goods more efficiently by specializing in producing goods with a comparative advantage and trading for others.
  2. Demand Influences Trade Gains: The nation with a higher demand for the other’s goods may gain more from trade, as it can dictate more favorable terms of exchange.
  3. Transportation Costs Affect Trade: The cost of transporting goods between nations impacts the prices of traded goods and the distribution of trade benefits.
  4. Taxes on Exports Can Impact Domestic Prices: Export taxes can, under certain conditions, lead to a rise in domestic prices of the taxed good and a fall in prices of imported goods.
  5. Taxes on Imports Can Affect Foreign Consumers: Import taxes can lead to higher prices for consumers in the exporting nation, thus shifting some of the tax burden onto them.
  6. Non-Protecting Import Duties Can Be a Source of Revenue: Duties that don’t discourage importation but are levied solely for revenue purposes can partially be borne by foreign consumers.
  7. Technological Advancements Can Shift Trade Advantages: A nation that develops a new, cost-effective production method gains a temporary advantage in trade, which may disappear if the technology becomes widely adopted.
  8. Exporting Machinery Can Impact Trade: Allowing the export of machinery can benefit the importing nation but may disadvantage the exporting nation if it leads to competition in industries where the exporter previously held an advantage.
  9. New Markets Can Lower Import Costs: Opening up new export markets can lead to lower prices for imported goods in the exporting nation due to increased demand for its products.
  10. “Underselling” Can Shift Trade Advantage: A nation that can produce a good at a lower cost than another can capture a larger share of the market and potentially force the other nation to exit the trade.
  11. Colonial Restrictions Can Benefit the Colonizer: Forcing colonies to trade exclusively with the colonizing nation can provide the latter with a trade advantage at the expense of the colony.
  12. Sudden Free Trade Can Cause Temporary Disruptions: A sudden shift to free trade can lead to temporary price fluctuations and adjustments in domestic industries, potentially causing short-term economic difficulties.
  13. Absentee Landlords Can Harm Local Economies: Remittances to absentee landlords can lead to a drain of capital from the local economy and harm local businesses dependent on their expenditure.
  14. Sojourners Can Benefit Local Economies: Foreigners residing in a location can increase demand for local goods and services, benefiting local businesses, especially in places with limited external trade.
  15. “Brisk Demand” Indicates High Production: Periods of strong demand for goods generally coincide with periods of high production, as the national capital is more fully employed.
  16. Excessive Production of Specific Goods Is Possible: Overproduction of a specific commodity can lead to a surplus and falling prices for that good.
  17. General Overproduction of All Goods is Unlikely: General overproduction is unlikely because production creates its own demand, and increased output can fuel consumption if distributed proportionally across various goods.
  18. Capital Accumulation is Beneficial: Accumulating capital generally leads to increased wealth, not poverty, as it fuels production and creates opportunities for employment.
  19. Temporary General Excess Can Occur: A general reluctance to buy, driven by economic uncertainty or lack of confidence, can lead to a temporary oversupply of goods relative to money.
  20. Depreciation Can Falsely Stimulate Production: Currency depreciation can create an illusion of prosperity and encourage increased production, leading to overinvestment and eventual difficulties when the depreciation ends.


  1. Comparative Advantage: A nation’s ability to produce a good at a lower opportunity cost than another nation.
  2. Demand and Supply: Economic forces that determine the price and quantity of goods in a market. Demand represents consumers’ willingness to buy at a given price, while supply represents producers’ willingness to sell.
  3. Cost of Production: The total cost incurred in producing a good, including labor, materials, and capital.
  4. Wages: Payment for labor services.
  5. Profits: The surplus revenue a business generates after deducting all costs, including wages and the cost of materials.
  6. Interest: The cost of borrowing money, typically expressed as a percentage of the amount borrowed.
  7. Capital: Assets used in the production of goods and services, including machinery, buildings, and financial resources.
  8. Productive Labor: Labor that contributes to the creation of goods and services that add to the permanent sources of enjoyment.
  9. Unproductive Labor: Labor that contributes to activities that do not add to the permanent sources of enjoyment, often providing direct enjoyment instead.
  10. Net Produce: The portion of the annual production that exceeds what is required to maintain the existing capital stock and labor force.


  1. England and Germany Trading Cloth and Linen: The essay uses a hypothetical example of England and Germany trading cloth and linen to illustrate the principles of comparative advantage, demand and supply, and the distribution of trade gains.
  2. Taxing Cloth Exports: Mill analyzes the potential effects of England imposing a tax on cloth exports to Germany, highlighting how it could impact prices, demand, and the overall trade balance.
  3. Foreign Sojourners in Paris: The impact of foreign tourists spending their income in Paris is used to explain the localized benefits of unproductive consumption and its potential effects on local businesses.
  4. The Court Moving from London to Birmingham: This hypothetical scenario is used to explain how the relocation of a large consumer base can impact the distribution of capital and production between locations.
  5. A Village Receiving Remittances: Mill uses the example of a village receiving money remittances from abroad to illustrate how such inflows can lead to increased production and consumption without necessarily displacing existing economic activity.
  6. A Wartime Increase in Government Borrowing: The essay discusses how government borrowing during wartime can drive up interest rates due to increased demand for capital, even if the general rate of profit remains unchanged.
  7. London Bankers and Deposits: The practices of London bankers, who typically do not pay interest on deposits due to the abundance of investment opportunities, are used to illustrate how competition can shape interest rates.
  8. Scotch Banks and Interest on Deposits: The practices of Scotch banks, which do pay interest on deposits due to the limited local investment opportunities for their customers, are contrasted with London banks to explain how regional differences can influence banking practices and interest rates.
  9. Bankers Issuing Paper Money: Mill analyzes how banks issuing paper money can increase the supply of loanable funds and potentially lower interest rates, while also discussing the potential negative consequences of currency depreciation.
  10. The Resistance of the Atmosphere to Falling Objects: This example from physics is used to explain the concept of “disturbing causes” and how they can modify the outcomes predicted by general laws without constituting exceptions to those laws.


Mill’s “Essays on Some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy” provide a rigorous examination of foundational economic principles. They emphasize the importance of production over consumption for national wealth, advocate for a nuanced understanding of “productive” activities, and offer valuable insights into the complex interplay of profits, wages, and interest rates. The essays argue for a deductive approach to political economy grounded in empirical observation, highlighting the importance of careful analysis and verification of theoretical conclusions when applied to real-world situations. This work serves as a testament to Mill’s early economic thought and his commitment to developing a scientific understanding of economic phenomena.

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