My purpose is to paint a broad brush narrative—it will have some visual representations as well—of how nineteenth-century political economists and their critics confronted a set of basic and related questions: Are men and women equally capable of self governance? Are they equally able to decide when and whom to marry and how many children to have? Can they be trusted equally to cast a ballot? Is their right to property inviolate or might new arrangements be designed and adopted for the production and distribution of wealth?

This is a story interwoven with extraordinary characters: John Stuart Mill will be featured heavily, though not exclusively. Alongside him frequently was his friend and later his wife, Harriet Taylor. Much of the story related to Mill on socialism will be told through the great critics of socialism in the twentieth century, Ludwig von Mises and (especially) Friedrich A. Hayek. Along the way, we will see that the criticisms in the first instance—in the nineteenth century—were largely about capacity. Critics of political economy made the case that men and women (English and Irish) were differently constituted; women (the Irish) were especially bad at making decisions about the family or voting.

Socialism, however, was different. Though he was intensely critical of Mill on socialism, Hayek’s treatment had nothing at all to do with the capacity of those who might benefit from a full or partial system of socialism. Instead, Hayek focused on the now-familiar argument that a system in which property was redistributed from rich to poor would result in grave consequences in terms of overall economic well-being and self-reliance, and he was critical of Mill for failing to see that some socialism would lead to more.

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Copyright © 2009 The History of Economics Society. This article first appeared in The Journal of the History of Economic Thought 31:1 (2009), 3-20.

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