“Mutual Obligation”: John Stuart Mill versus Dennis Milner – lessons for 21st century policies on income support

Written 2006, don’t know where published

Australia’s current policies on income support will be viewed through the eyes of two significant writers. The central themes which will be interrogated include: liberty, conditionality, desert and paternalism. This is done with a view to assessing whether the current policies are designed to enhance or reduce the autonomy and dignity of people who receive income support. The current income policies started to take shape in the mid-1980s under Labor but have become more clearly defined since the election of the Liberal Coalition Government led by John Howard. The first Australian legislation dealing with Federal income support was introduced in 1908 (prior to that income support came under the jurisdiction of the States). State and Federal policies on income support have been significantly influenced by attitudes enshrined by administrators of British Poor Laws.

The approach taken here is to select from the writings of the British philosopher John Stuart Mill (one if not the most, celebrated 19th century liberal defender of freedom) and to compare his views with those of an early 20th century proponent of Basic Income: Dennis Milner. Mill was selected because many Australian politicians and social policy aficionados are familiar with his writings particularly his essay On Liberty. Milner was chosen, rather than one of the many current proponents of Basic Income, because his writings demonstrate that policies on income support which enhance autonomy have a long lineage.

This article will examine the different approaches taken by John Stuart Mill [in his essay On Liberty] and Dennis Milner in Higher Production by a Bonus on National Output: A proposal for a minimum income for all varying with national productivity (1920) in relation to how they interpret the ethics of imposing obligations upon people who receive income support from the State. Mill’s earlier and far more extensive text, Principles of Political Economy, originally published in 1848, will be relied upon to put into context some of the statements he makes in his essay On Liberty.

It would require a very long article to do justice to Mill’s extensive writings on moral philosophy, his utilitarianism or even his writings on the concept of the social contract. This article does not purport to be a major philosophical or policy analysis of Mill’s writings. Many others have attempted to do this. I have simply taken his essay On Liberty, rigorously searched it for comments on liberty particularly where they relate to income support and compared them with passages from the writing of Dennis Milner. In relation to Milner, I am indebted to Walter Van Trier (1995) who devoted a considerable part of his PhD thesis to analysis of Milner and his colleagues’ attempts to introduce a Basic Income in Britain in the early 20th century.

This brief analysis will then be used to interrogate the approach to rights and responsibilities taken by Prime Minister John Howard in the last decade.


John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) originally published his essay On liberty in 1859 and it ran to four editions in a decade. It is available on the World Wide Web thanks to Bartleby.com. Within a short time, this book came to be acknowledged as the classic liberal defence of the freedom of the individual. Mill set out to explore “the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual” (Ch. 1 p. 1) and the “struggle between Liberty and Authority” (Ch. 1 p. 2). He says:

The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle … That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant (Ch. 1 p. 9).

Mill constructed the concept of “self-regarding” actions to explain what part of human behaviour he considered the absolute right of that individual to control. Essentially, he determined that unless harm could be demonstrated to another from an individual’s action then society had no right to intervene in the actions of the individual. Mill elaborates upon this point when he makes his celebrated distinction between acts likely to incite and action likely to inform:

An opinion that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn-dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard (Ch. 3 p. 1).

Mill qualifies somewhat his absolute position about the freedom from interference for individuals, who do not cause harm to others, when he argues that all members of a society should be compelled to do their duty by giving evidence in court, playing a role in common defence of the society and “interposing to protect the defenceless against ill-usage (Ch. 1 p. 11)”.

Mill clearly sets a high bar, in defence of individual rights when he asserts:

The best government has no more title to it than the worst. It is as noxious, or more noxious, when exerted in accordance with public opinion, than when in opposition to it. If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind (Ch. 2 p. 1).

Mill returns to the issue of general obligations owed to fellow members of a community when he writes:

Though society is not founded on a contract, and though no good purpose is answered by inventing a contract in order to deduce social obligations from it, every one who receives the protection of society owes a return for the benefit, and the fact of living in society renders it indispensable that each should be bound to observe a certain line of conduct towards the rest (Ch. 4 p. 3).

This issue of the absence of a real or implied “contract’ is one to which I will return later. I prefer, for the moment, to concentrate on the issue of good form and the concomitant absence of the right to compel. Mill claims this balance lies in the fact that “We have a right, also, in various ways, to act upon our unfavourable opinion of any one, not to the oppression of his individuality, but in the exercise of ours (Ch. 4 p. 5)”. Mill equivocates on this point when he allows that knowledge of a person’s “vices” might “corrupt or mislead” (Ch. 4 p. 8). Here, as in most of On Liberty, Mill refers to the general obligations of every person, irrespective of their social rank, to comport themselves as good citizens.

In his final Chapter, Mill is clear that fellow citizens might warn another against foolish or non-violent drunken conduct but should not compel another. But then abruptly goes on to claim:

idleness, except in a person receiving support from the public, or except when it constitutes a breach of contract, cannot without tyranny be made a subject of legal punishment; but if, either from idleness or from any other avoidable cause, a man fails to perform his legal duties to others, as for instance to support his children, it is no tyranny to force him to fulfil that obligation, by compulsory labour, if no other means are available (Ch. 5 p. 6).

The closest that Mill comes to arguing this point is when he asserts that:

It still remains unrecognised, that to bring a child into existence without a fair prospect of being able, not only to provide food for its body, but instruction and training for its mind, is a moral crime, both against the unfortunate offspring and against society; and that if the parent does not fulfil this obligation, the State ought to see it fulfilled, at the charge, as far as possible, of the parent (Ch. 5 p. 12).

I will return to these largely unsupported statements later in this article when dealing with points of departure between Mill and Milner.


In 1920, Dennis Milner (1892-1956) published one of the early English books supporting the introduction of a Basic Income. It ran to only one edition. The entire book can be accessed at the Basic Income Guarantee Australia (BIGA) website. From 1918 to the early 1920s Milner, his wife Mabel and Bertram Pickard campaigned in Britain for the introduction of a Basic Income, paid to all individuals irrespective of age (Van Trier 1995, Cunliffe and Erreygers 2004). They variously referred to their proposal as a “State bonus” or a “National dividend”. All three were Quakers.

The Milners’ pamphlet a “Scheme for a State Bonus” (1918 reprinted in Cunliffe and Erreygers 2004) argued that their proposal would increase feelings of security, abolish poverty, improve health, assist large families, improve education by keeping poor children at school longer and improve gender equality (pp.126-131, see also Pickard 1919 reprinted in Cunliffe and Erreygers 2004)”. The Milners went on say:

in order to produce a healthy race everyone must have access to the primal necessities of life, namely, food, shelter and liberty. Then, in order to encourage work it will be necessary to offer proper inducements, such as just pay, proper conditions of labour, public opinion, patriotism and the common welfare (p.131).

The Milners’ main justification for the provision of a Basic Income (1918 p.131) was similar to that of Thomas Paine’s “natural right” or the right to a share of the common wealth (1797 reprinted in Cunliffe and Erreygers 2004). They were concerned that the administration of the welfare system, particularly the requirement to prove destitution prior to receiving assistance, created perverse incentives. They did not fear that the presence of a Basic Income would create work disincentives. They were more concerned that “No one should be driven by the threat of destitution into accepting work which is underpaid, unhealthy, or even dangerous (p. 124)”.

In Higher Production by a Bonus on National Output: A proposal for a minimum income for all varying with national productivity, Milner (1920) set out to do just as the title suggests; designate ways in which national productivity could be increased in a way which would reward all and punish none. His first Chapter dealt with the “Problems of production”. In the second Chapter he sets out a proposal to introduce a minimum income guarantee “for every man, woman and child in the country (p. 19)” paid from a pool of “one-fifth of National production (p.21)”. He does qualify that universalism by excluding unnaturalised foreigners and Irishmen who lived in England less than six months (pp. 27-28). But he insists “The Minimum Income would be absolutely inalienable and free from all legal obligations (p. 28)”. He saw his Bonus replacing much of the welfare and social insurance systems.

Chapters 3 to 6 inclusive, deal with the creation of an efficient workforce by encouraging but not compelling labour. In Chapter 5, he deals explicitly with the problem, of those he indelicately terms “slackers”, arguing that of those who would be tempted to avoid work and just live on the income guarantee “is the type of man who does exceedingly little now” and he goes on to argue that national efficiency would be improved if they were removed from the work force “so that their feeble efforts would no longer be a drag on the work of others (p. 84)”. Finally, he returns to the topic of increasing production by avoiding strikes and unemployment and ensuring that all get a decent living in the land in which they toil.

The points of similarity

Both Mill (1909) and Milner (1920 Chs. 3-6) considered that public opinion was a great modifier of the amount of effort people contribute. Mill argued that “though the ‘master’s eye’, when the master is vigilant and intelligent, is of proverbial value, it must be remembered that in a Socialist farm or manufactory, each labourer would be under the eye not of one master, but of the whole community (1909 p. 205, see also Milner 1920 p. 85)”. After pointing to similarities between religious communities and socialist communities, Mill goes on: “independently of the public motive, every member of the association would be amenable to the most universal, and one of the strongest, of personal motives, that of public opinion (1909 p. 206)”.

Milner (1920), whilst strongly of the view that a Basic Income would discourage idleness (p. 79 and Ch. 6) points out “that there is no way of compelling willing work, which is the only efficient work (p. 81 italics not in original)”. Milner accepted that his proposal “will enable the idle to do no work (till their neighbours, in the interests of the Common pool, take the matter in hand) [p. 117]”. Some 80 years later Guy Standing wrote:

Dignified work needs basic security, or real freedom is denied. The ultimate paradox is that it requires the freedom to do no work at all. Dignified work can only exist when it is done for intrinsic reasons, not because a landlord, a boss or the state says it shall be so (2002 p. 277).

Mill writes quite favourably about some forms of socialism. He says, “The most skilfully combined, and with the greatest foresight of objections, of all forms of Socialism, is that commonly know as Fourierism (1909 p. 213, see also Cunliffe and Erreygers 2004 Chs.10 and 11, Cunliffe and Erreygers 2001)”. Mill refers to Fourier’s 1803 suggestion of a Basic Income as “distributing a certain minimum (1909 p. 214)” to every member of a community. He prefers the Fourier approach to that of communism because Fourier, in addition to the minimum, allowed other economic distribution commensurate with talent and labour.

Mill (1909 p. 969) supports the public provision of “certainty of subsistence” for the destitute who were able bodied rather than have them rely on private charity for the following reasons:

  1. “charity almost always does too much or too little: it lavishes its bounty in one place and leaves people to starve in another”.
  2. the state provides for the criminal poor and should do the same for those who have committed no crime.
  3. “Private charity can give more to the deserving. The state must act by general rules. It can not undertake to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving indigent. It owes no more to the first and can give no less to the last … The dispensers of public relief have no business to be inquisitors. Guardians and overseers are not fit to be trusted to give or withhold other people’s money according to their verdict on the morality of the person soliciting it”.

Milner’s colleague Pickard argued for the abandonment “of public and private philanthropy, which, however well intended, has failed to raise permanently any considerable number of the ‘submerged tenth’ from an abyss where Faith is a mockery, Hope is an impossibility, and Charity a byword indeed (1919 p. 136)”.

The points of departure

Milner claimed that under his scheme “there is no advantage to the idler (there will be nothing to be gained by laziness, everything to be gained by working), because earnings will be no bar to receiving the Minimum income (1920 p. 98)”. He writes “if, therefore, we wish to see a growing productivity, we must undermine suspicion by a tangible pledge that all classes will actually share the benefits of greater National Income (pp. 111-112)”.

At this point, we should return to the two long quotations from Mill’s On Liberty from Chapter 5 which concluded the first discussion of Mill’s writings, in this article. There, he contended that, once a person was reliant upon receiving support from the public, they forfeited the right to be left to their own devices. Mill does not justify that position in On Liberty but he attempts to do so at length in his earlier Principles of Political Economy (Book 5, Ch. 9 section 13). He concedes some people require assistance “and none needs help so urgently as one who is starving (p. 967)”. He goes on:

in all cases of helping, there are two sets of consequences to be considered; the consequences of the assistance itself, and the consequences of relying on assistance. The former are generally beneficial, but the latter, for the most part, injurious … And this is never more likely to happen than in very cases where the need of help is the most intense. There are few things for which it is more mischievous that people should rely on the habitual aid of others … and unhappily there is no lesson which they more easily learn (p. 967).

Mill commends the principle of less eligibility, enshrined in the 1834 Poor Law. He approves “guaranteeing all persons against absolute want” on the condition that “those who are supported by legal charity can be kept considerably less desirable than the condition of those who find support for themselves (p. 968)” claiming that the application of strict rules by the Poor Law Guardians had succeeded in abolishing pauperism from parts of England.

The language Mill employed in the mid 19th century may well seem antiquated but, as will be seen below, the essence of what he said is very much a part of the debate about income support in 21st century Australia. Many of the same struggles which the Milners and Packard fought in England during the early 20th century are still being waged in Australia today.

Moral jeopardy

Nowadays, economic fundamentalists who wish to limit the access of less affluent people to welfare assistance rely substantially upon the sort of argument originally mounted in 1848 in Principles of Political Economy (Mill 1909 Book 2, Ch. 1, Book 5, Ch. 9 section 13). In particular, the argument that whilst limited assistance is sometimes necessary it should be temporary and provided under conditions which ensure:

that the assistance is not such as to dispense with self-help, by substituting itself for the person’s own labour, skill, and prudence but is limited to affording him a better hope of attaining success by those legitimate means (Mill 1909 p. 968).

Perhaps those righteous rich, allegedly so concerned about the moral wellbeing of the poor who are given welfare assistance, should read Mable and Dennis Milner’s 1918 pamphlet where in relation to those who claim:

there is a moral value in poverty, both to the poor and to those who assist them. Yet there is abundant evidence that those who live in ‘want and the fear of want’ are cramped in their spiritual outlook, and the few who are virtuous would be so under any circumstances. On the other hand, those who minister to the needs of the poor will find ample scope for their efforts when the merely economic factor in destitution is removed.

Surely this economic minimum is the first step to the realisation of any spiritual advance. ‘Great are the uses of adversity’ – but even the preacher has his breakfast (p.132, italics in original).

The suggestion that imposing obligations upon poor people who receive assistance helps them avoid “welfare dependency” did not impress the Milners. In a far less theological vein, I have argued that it is the affluent who are the clear beneficiaries of such mystifying suggestions (Tomlinson 2004).


At the time of writing this article, John Howard has completed a decade as Prime Minister of Australia and political commentators are falling over themselves to assure the public he is still as popular as he was in 1996 when he promised, that if the voters would only toss Labor out of office, we would all become “relaxed and comfortable” (Borghino 2006). The Australian economy has experienced 12 years of continuous growth. The Australian military has pre-emptively engaged in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Thousands of asylum seekers have been incarcerated for years on the Pacific Islands of Nauru and Manus and in outback immigration detention centres like Woomera and Baxter. The independent, elected Indigenous agency (the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission) has been abolished. Over 100 Indigenous communities have been coerced into signing shared responsibility agreements in return for receiving access to goods and services most Australians take for granted (See Manne 2004, Marr and Wilkinson, Brennan 2003, Bessant, Watts, Dalton and Smyth 2006, Tomlinson 2005 [a], [b], 2004, 2003).

Since Howard (1999, 2000) set out his plans for social welfare in this country, the social security system has become more selective and targeted. Recipients have been forced to meet increasingly oppressive requirements (Ziguras, Dufty and Considine 2003). This Government policy is euphemistically described as providing recipients with the opportunity to meet their “mutual obligations”. Howard claims that if people receive assistance from the Government it is only fair that they give something back in return. Here he is invoking the concept of a contract, albeit unwritten, between the recipient and the Government. This contract soon takes on a physical form. Officers of Centrelink (the department which pays social security) make their “customers” enter into written agreements in return for receiving social security benefit payments. Such Government conduct would seem to fly in the face of Mill’s suggestion in On Liberty that “society is not founded on a contract, and … no good purpose is answered by inventing a contract in order to deduce social obligations from it (Ch 4 p. 3)”.

Many writers (Kinnear 2000, Goodin 2001, Tomlinson 2003, Schooneveldt 2004) have suggested that such contracts are unethical because poor people have little choice but to comply with the dictates of government. Howard is asserting that it is right (just) for the State to unilaterally impose a contractual obligation upon some of the most powerless people in our land. Goodin (2001) points to the propensity of governments to assert an implied consent for changes in income policy between welfare recipients and the State through the widespread use of the language of the social contract. He conjures the image of a highwayman declaring that even if one had parted with one’s money in return for one’s life; no court would enforce such a contract. He goes on:

The proposition that the welfare worker is putting to her putative ‘client’ is: ‘Agree or starve.’ That is the same, in all essentials, to the proposition the highwayman puts to his victim: ‘Agree or die.’(p.191).

Just as we still have an obligation to feed people even after they have committed heinous crimes so too we have an obligation to not let people starve even if they have committed mortal sins against the labour market …Welfare recipients have not agreed to those new arrangements at the macro-level; and such consent as they give at the micro-level, in ‘agreements’ negotiated under effective duress with welfare caseworkers, has no moral standing (p.195).

If we seriously believed that work is good for you and that it is the state’s legitimate role to force you to do it, then we would have no grounds for confining our paternalism to the poor. Paternalistically speaking, it would be equally important to make the rich work too (p.198).

It is a pity that the Howard Government has ignored Mill’s assertion that:

The dispensers of public relief have no business to be inquisitors. Guardians and overseers are not fit to be trusted to give or withhold other people’s money according to their verdict on the morality of the person soliciting it (1909 p. 969).

If the Government has taken anything from Mills in relation to welfare assistance it is from the two pages immediately preceding this quotation. In particular:

There are few things for which it is more mischievous that people should rely on the habitual aid of others … and unhappily there is no lesson which they more easily learn (1909 p. 967).


Mill, in his essay On Liberty, provides a reasoned defence of freedom for all individuals except those who, from necessity, are forced to rely upon income support assistance. Every reader selects what appeals to them in the texts that they read. That being the case, we are left to wonder about the thought processes of Howard Government ministers that lead them to believe that if social security recipients are not forced to engage in “work for the dole” programs, fill out a “dole diary” and meet all their other “mutual obligations” then they will sink into the slothful state of “welfare dependency”.

It is clear from the actions of the Howard Government that they do not trust social security recipients to make an effort to escape poverty without such compulsion. It is unfortunate that they have not come to share Bertram Pickard’s view that “Even the cynic will probably admit that genius, love of family, satisfaction in labour well done, ambition, and the desire for free and full development, together account for a very large proportion of the stimulus that urges men and women to work (1919 p.138)”.

The Government’s paternalistic claim that by imposing obligations upon social security recipients it is assisting people avoid “welfare dependency” flies in the face of Mill’s injunction that society should avoid such impositions because a citizen’s “own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant (Ch. 1 p. 9)” to intervene.

It was equally open to Government Ministers to adopt Mill’s (1909 p. 969) suggestion that it was not the job of dispensers of welfare to determine the moral worth of recipients. Had they done this, they might have been able to move on to the early 20th century ideas of Dennis Milner and see the job of social security as being to provide “a minimum income below which none can fall (p. 117)”.


I would like to thank Penny Harrington for her editorial assistance and encouragement.


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