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A turning point in the concept of justice: from Adam Smith to John Stuart Mill

Estrella Trincado Aznar


Classical economists, John Stuart Mill included, based their theories on Adam Smith’s system. At some point, they labelled it as a "utilitarian" theory. However, Smith was non-utilitarian, perhaps even anti-utilitarian. One of the most amazing differences between classical economics versus Smithian theory consists of their concept of justice. Classical economics were based on a utilitarian concept; Smith criticizes the concept of utilitarian justice. Utility being a subjective picture, classical economists find it more difficult to draw limits to state intervention than Smith does. This paper compares Smith’s and John Stuart Mill’s concept of justice when they make the case for land tenure. Mill admits that society cannot properly be said to owe anything to the poor. However, not arguing from 'abstract rights,' but from 'utility' understood in its largest sense, Mill defended the nationalization of land. Mill was unable to draw any limits to state intervention. Conversely, Smith defended that justice is not a utilitarian concept. In this case, limits to state intervention are more easily drawn.


John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith, state intervention, land tenure, justice

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