Romance and Socialism in J. S. Mill

Originally published in the Summer 2017 issue of American Affairs.

Hayek on Mill: The Mill-Taylor Friendship and Related Writings
by Friedrich Hayek, edited by Sandra J. Peart
University of Chicago Press, 2015, 373 pages, $65

John Stuart Mill had the worst personal life of any libertarian philosopher, a competitive category for bad personal lives. Marriage in particular has a record of making libertarian philosophers behave discreditably—that is, in a way that brings discredit not just on their character but on their ideas.

Bertrand Russell famously divorced the first of his four wives after a bicycle trip: “suddenly, as I was riding along a country road, I realized that I no longer loved Alys.” Thus reasoned the most rational man in England. Ayn Rand forced her husband to endure loud and lofty protestations that forgoing an affair with Nathaniel Branden would be a sin against objectivism. William Godwin, England’s first anarcho-libertarian, wrecked two marriages on his individualism: first to Mary Wollstonecraft, whom he set up in a separate apartment and communicated with by letter, and then to a harridan of no redeeming qualities apart from her ability to keep house who he, in his solipsism, permitted to torment Mary’s children.

Even in this company, John Stuart Mill is on another plane. Under the influence of his wife, Harriet Taylor, he drove his youngest brother George to suicide. His doting sisters were banished from his life over the flimsiest imagined slights to his wife’s honor. He gave up his former friends and became a recluse, retiring to a cottage in Blackheath Park where he entertained virtually no one while Mrs. Mill lived. After her death, he made himself a national laughingstock by declaring in his Autobiography that his wife had been more poetic than Shelley and a greater thinker than himself, and that he had “acquired more from her teaching than from all other sources taken together”—phrases written not when Mill was a grieving widower but during Harriet’s lifetime, in drafts which she read and approved for publication evidently without embarrassment.

And that’s only what she did to him after they wed. Their marriage was preceded by twenty years of brazen and self-righteous infidelity. When Mill met Harriet she was married to a good-natured pharmacist of enlightened political opinions, if no great intelligence, named John Taylor. After three years of growing mutual obsession, they bullied him into giving Harriet her own household, where she lived with their three children and entertained Mill on weekends. No one, not even his family, was permitted to mention Harriet’s name in Mill’s presence, much less to allude to the scandal their conduct had raised. His oldest friend, John Arthur Roebuck, was the only one who ever dared; Mill never spoke to him again. The couple withdrew into their private ménage, reassuring each other that it was only society’s “baby morality” (her phrase) that cast shame on their exalted passion. A bizarre story—and until the 1950s, an unknown one.

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Strange as it seems, the first biography to treat John Stuart Mill’s private life was not written for more than eighty years after his death. The reason for the delay was simple. Mill’s papers, including his letters to Harriet, were stored at his house in Avignon and guarded by his stepdaughter, Helen Taylor, who considered it her life’s mission to uphold Mill’s legacy and her mother’s. When Helen died, her niece Mary Taylor took over and was if anything more protective, having some notion of editing Mill’s collected correspondence herself. Mary was institutionalized for insanity in 1918, and the Avignon papers were put up for auction at Sotheby’s and dispersed to the four winds.

The task of assembling Mill’s letters had to await another libertarian philosopher who, true to type, was in the middle of his own soap opera. The love of his life had married another back in Vienna in the 1920s, and he had married his secretary on the rebound. Two decades later, after World War II, his lost love was widowed and he decided to get a divorce to be with her. His colleagues at the London School of Economics, who were left to nurse his first wife through a breakdown, stopped speaking to him (“As far as I am concerned the man I know is dead and I should find it almost intolerably painful to have to meet his successor,” said one). This was Friedrich Hayek.

Hayek became obsessed with the Mill-Taylor relationship. He tracked down Mill’s letters across half a dozen university libraries and countless private collections—mundane work for a scholar of his stature, especially in the flush of celebrity he enjoyed after The Road to Serfdom. After that surprise hit, the first book he wrote to follow it up was a Mill-Taylor dual biography, which is still the only book about their marriage. The Constitution of Liberty was first outlined during a vacation Hayek and his second wife took in Italy and France that retraced exactly a journey Mill and Taylor had taken a hundred years earlier.

It was not the resemblance to his own situation that drove Hayek’s obsession. It was the suspicion that Harriet had turned Mill into a socialist.

Hayek’s intellectual allegiance was to the tradition of British liberalism, which since the Scottish Enlightenment has been different from anything on the continent. He loved its pragmatism, its impatience with abstraction, its celebration of bourgeois rather than romantic-heroic virtues. But sometime around World War I, that priceless legacy had been captured by socialists. The party of Gladstone and Macaulay had become the party of Laski and Keynes.

It occurred to Hayek that the same trajectory had played out in miniature in the life of John Stuart Mill. His beginnings were solidly Benthamite; the original edition of his Principles of Political Economy was mostly sound; but the second edition said alarmingly nice things about the Fourierists and the third edition all but endorsed Communism. “If the choice were to be made between Communism with all its chances, and the present state of society with all its sufferings and injustices,” Mill averred, “all the difficulties, great or small, of Communism would be but as dust in the balance.” The manuscript Mill was working on when he died, later published under the title Chapters on Socialism, showed that his drift toward collectivism might have proceeded even further had he lived.

Hayek imagined that figuring out what had sent Mill down the wrong path might reveal what had gone wrong with British liberalism more broadly. And to solve the mystery of Mill—cherchez la femme.

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No one can help falling in love with another man’s wife. It is what happens next that determines a man’s character. John Stuart Mill did not handle it well.

One might blame his unusual upbringing—the Greek lessons at three, the apprenticeship in Benthamism at ten, the isolation from other boys until his teenage years and from the female sex until well after that. But his father was just as doctrinaire and, if possible, more robotic, and even James Mill knew not to go chasing after married women. He confronted his son with a remorselessly utilitarian argument for giving Mrs. Taylor up before matters went too far, in order to facilitate the greater happiness of all three parties in the long run. John replied that “he had no other feelings towards her than he would have towards an equally able man.”

This pretense of platonic admiration lasted from their first meeting in 1830 until the crisis of 1833. In September of that year, Harriet persuaded her husband to grant her a six-month separation, and she departed for France with the children. Unknown to Mr. Taylor, Mill followed her there in October.

After six weeks with Mill and at his urging, Harriet wrote a letter to her husband explaining that she and Mill had run the numbers, so to speak, in their utilitarian calculation, and concluded that whatever compromise would most conduce to Mr. Taylor’s happiness would be all right with them as long as the two lovers were not required to “renounce sight” of each other (which had been Mr. Taylor’s opening bid). Mr. Taylor acquiesced, and soon Harriet was able to tell Mill that she had received “one of those letters from Mr Taylor which makes us admire & love him. He says that this plan & my letters have given him delight—that he has been selfish—but in future will think more for others & less for himself.”

The way Mill and Harriet enlisted utilitarian language to justify their adultery is unattractive. Shortly before the Paris jaunt, Harriet had—with audacity entirely in character—asked Mill to write an essay explaining his position on marriage. The unpublished manuscript, found in the Avignon papers, reads in part:

All popular morality is, as I once said to you, a compromise among conflicting natures, each renouncing a certain portion of what its own desires call for, in order to avoid the evils of a perpetual warfare with the rest. That is the best popular morality, which attains this general pacification with the least sacrifice of the happiness of the higher natures, who are the greatest, indeed the only real sufferers by the compromise; for they are called upon to give up what would really make them happy; while others are commonly required only to restrain desires the gratification of which would bring no real happiness.

The “general pacification” of Taylor having been obtained in the Paris negotiations, the parties muddled along in their compromise for the next fourteen years. Mill and Taylor spent two nights a week and nearly every weekend together, but did not appear in public as a couple. Eventually Taylor died, and in 1851 Mill and Harriet were finally wed.

Marriage solved nothing. Quite the opposite, it led Mill to terminate relationships that had long been preserved, however tenuously, by the omertà surrounding Mrs. Taylor. Friends who expected to find their relations with Mill eased instead discovered that Harriet was settling old scores. Anyone she suspected of having gossiped about her during her first marriage or not sufficiently approving of her new one, she declared an enemy of the household, and naturally Mill adopted her grudges as his own.

The most egregious example was George Grote Mill, John’s younger brother by nineteen years. John had not bothered to inform George of his marriage. Nevertheless, when he learned of it a month late and at second hand, George sent his best wishes. The letter survives; it is utterly inoffensive. His crime was to make a jovial reference to Harriet’s well-known feminist opinions. (“Believing that [she] would generally rather discourage than encourage the marriage of others, I certainly was at first surprised to find her giving so deliberate an example of marriage in her own case.”) This elicited from Mill a letter beginning:

I have long ceased to be surprised at any want of good sense or good manners in what proceeds from you—youappear to be too thoughtless or too ignorant to be capable of either—but such want of good feeling, together with such arrogant assumption, as are shown in your letters . . . I was not prepared for. The best construction that can be put upon them is that you really do not know what insolence and presumption are: or you would not write such letters & seem to expect to be as well liked as before by those to whom & of whom they are written.

Many of those who received letters like this regained Mill’s affection after Harriet’s death—his sister Mary, Sarah Austin, George and Harriet Grote. But it was too late for his baby brother. Two years after John cut off contact, George Mill, driven into exile in Madeira by his worsening tuberculosis, committed suicide.

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So Harriet was awful—fine, but did she affect his work? That would raise the story above mere gossip. Mill maintained that everything written after Political Economy was effectively a joint production. Was this true, or did he misjudge her influence as badly as her virtues?

Independent testimony would settle the question, but independent testimony is just what we do not have, since so few of Mill’s friends were ever permitted to make Harriet’s acquaintance. Thomas and Jane Carlyle were among the tiny handful who ever met her, and they both thought Mill was out of his mind. “Full of unwise intellect, asking and re-asking stupid questions,” was Carlyle’s opinion of her. “A peculiarly affected and empty body,” was Jane’s. (In one staggering letter, Harriet recites a long list of Mill’s eminent friends, including Carlyle, the jurist John Austin, and Alexis de Tocqueville, and dismisses them as “narrow in intellect, timid, infinitely conceited . . . more or less respectable puppets.”)

The other obvious place to check would be their letters to each other. Alas, these are almost entirely devoid of intellectual discussion. Even allowing for the mundanity of most correspondence between husbands and wives, one might have hoped that they would, at least occasionally, discuss something other than their respiratory ailments.

Our only source for judging Harriet’s influence is Mill’s writing, which thankfully includes eight full years before they met. The most glaring change is the complete disappearance of a sense of humor. Few of his fans realize that Mill did not always write in the lucid, lawyerly style of On Liberty. Consider this squib from 1828, mocking the Duke of Wellington’s new cabinet:

ONE GUINEA REWARD—Lost or stolen, from a Cabinet of Curiosities near the Treasury, a Skull. It is extremely thick, and the eyes are so fixed in it, as to be unable to see beyond the length of the nose. It is also remarkably soft to the touch, and the organ of place is very strongly developed. It is entirely empty, and of no use to any person, except the owner. The reward offered, greatly exceeds the value of the article, as the owner, having recently been appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, cannot conveniently do without it.

Or this from an article defending grave-robbing, on the Benthamite grounds that everyone benefits from having surgeons well instructed in anatomy: “If bodies had never been dissected, sentimentalists could not have appealed to our hearts in behalf of the sanctity of the tomb, for whether we have or have not such an organ, would probably to this day have remained a problem.”

Both of these pieces were written after Mill’s notorious “mental crisis,” the life-changing depression he fell into at the age of twenty. It was not depression that robbed him of his humor. It was Harriet. In everything written after he met her, he is indignant where before he would have been biting or sarcastic. You may read The Subjection of Women from cover to cover, for example, and find nothing resembling wit.

But Mill’s progressive leftward tilt, Hayek eventually decided, was not Harriet’s fault. Mill’s own principles unfolded naturally on their own. Hayek had not yet come to this conclusion when he published his Mill-Taylor book, which contains an abundance of previously unavailable primary sources but surprisingly little analysis. It took decades to dawn on him that Mill had never been a good classical liberal. “Many years of work on John Stuart Mill,” admitted Hayek near the end of his life, “actually shook my admiration of someone I had thought a very great figure indeed, with the result that my present opinion of John Stuart Mill is a very critical one.” One Hayek biographer went to the trouble of totting up the citations in his major works and found that Mill went from being the most frequently cited author in The Constitution of Liberty to being the sixth-most in Fatal Conceit, where every mention of Mill is negative.

Hayek should not have been so surprised. After all, the Benthamites had always been in favor of confiscatory inheritance taxes, as a way of eliminating England’s landed oligarchy. The first edition of Mill’s Political Economy was explicitly billed as “a refutation of socialism” by its German translator, but even there Mill proposed limits on inheritance and bequest that he later claimed “would pull down all large fortunes in two generations.” It was a very short leap from there to the position expressed in Chapters on Socialism, where Mill argues that socialism is no different from the limitations on property rights that have been part of Western law since Rome. English village law limited the rights of landholders to evict their tenants; why not limit the right of factory owners to fire their employees? The only reason not to would involve trust in emergent order, which, as Hayek came to realize, Mill utterly lacked where economics was concerned.

In his correspondence with true-believing socialists, Mill usually told them that he fully expected socialism to come to England one day but that at present mankind was unprepared for it. Mill had every hope that this unpreparedness would be temporary, for he had limitless faith in the power of education to shape humanity. If a single group of children could be raised to be socialists as deliberately as James Mill had raised him to be a Benthamite, then it would only take one generation to prove to the world that cooperative socialism was no utopia but an alternative within reach. Instructing this pioneer generation was one of the things he thought Harriet could have done for humanity, if she had lived.

For a thinker whose entire philosophy depended on human perfectibility, Mill had remarkably little idea how to bring it about. Not only was he silent on the mechanics of moral education, socialist or otherwise, he betrayed a total ignorance of the most basic facts of how character is cultivated—for example, that knowing the right thing to do is a lot easier than doing it. “He who does anything because it is the custom, makes no choice,” he sneers in On Liberty. “He gains no practice either in discerning or in desiring what is best. The mental and moral, like the muscular powers, are improved only by being used.” To the countless Englishmen following the same code as their grandparents—work hard, raise upright children, don’t sleep with other men’s wives—he offered not merely dismissal but mockery. Long after his youthful fanaticism had waned, he still contemptuously referred to Judeo-Christian morality as “the notions of a tribe of barbarians in a corner of Syria three thousand years ago.”

Mill’s nickname, given him by Gladstone, was “the Saint of Rationalism.” He had a reputation as England’s gentle philosopher, whose school, if it erred, did so only in assuming that the rest of mankind was as decent and benevolent as himself. But the more we examine him, the less plausible it is that Mill was too good for this world. Instead it begins to appear that Mill was unable to tell his readers how to become decent, benevolent people—because he wasn’t one himself.

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It is sometimes said that John Stuart Mill was ahead of his time, that all the radical things he believed have become the commonplaces of today. But Mill’s principles were always commonplaces. “The greatest happiness for the greatest number”? The phrase originated in 1725, and in any case it loses its punch once you grant that society should value certain kinds of happiness over others. Mill discounted all forms of happiness that did not strike him as having been rationally chosen; eighteenth-century utilitarian William Paley felt the same way about happiness that did not come from doing God’s will. Which rather leaves political philosophy back where it started. Mill’s real contribution was to associate philosophical banalities—like the harm principle, which sounds comprehensive until you try to pin down “harm”—with political liberalism.

Once he popularized this connection, everyone who disagreed with him seemed to be not just against liberalism but against happiness. Once at a party, Jane Carlyle was introduced to a woman who said, “Oh, you’re the wife of the man who believes in the least good for the greatest number.” That is not what Carlyle believed, obviously. But he disagreed with Mill on politics, so that is how he has come down to us.

In that sense, at least, today’s globalist Left could hardly be more Millian. In his obituary for Mill, his disciple John Morley related this description from an American visitor who came to pay his respects to the great philosopher:

You placed before him the facts on which you sought his opinion. He took them, gave you the different ways in which they might fairly be looked at, balanced the opposing considerations, and then handed you a final judgment in which nothing was left out. His mind worked like a splendid piece of machinery; you supply it with raw materials, and it turns you out a perfectly finished product.

Does this not sound like Vox? Across the distance of a century, today’s rationalists share with Mill a conviction that every problem can be solved with a single basic set of analytical tools—in our case, the pragmatic neoliberalism of modern social science. This simplicity does tend to give analysis a certain superficiality; Mill’s polymathic contemporary William Whewell said that “he appears to me to write like a man whose knowledge is new.” But utilitarian calculation will give you an intelligent-sounding answer every time, and these days a compelling infographic as well.

Utilitarianism has inclined the leading lights of the modern Left to embrace some positions that Mill (and their other liberal forebears) would find odd: Vox executive editor Matt Yglesias once praised Bangladeshi sweatshops. But they are still recognizably Mill’s descendants, sharing with him a basic preoccupation with making everything in public life account for itself rationally. Any relationship of allegiance, authority, or dependence must either be translated into the language of utilitarian advantage or else discredited as an irrational restriction on personal choice.

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And yet the irrational keeps bubbling up. For all his overgrown powers of reason, Mill in his private life was roiled by passions that he never understood. So instead he rationalized them. To justify his overwhelming love for Harriet, he made up a story about her being objectively the greatest human being on earth.

There is a lesson in that: in pursuing the utilitarian ideal, it is not the unformed rabble whose irrationalism betrays them, but the liberals’ own. Today’s Left spends all its time worrying about backlash from irrational populists, when it really ought to be worried about social justice warriors, masked “antifa” thugs, and gnostic diviners of a “privilege” that mysteriously pervades all things yet is based on studies that cannot be replicated and history that telescopes the facts.

In 1835, Harriet revealed the underlying principle of her philosophy in a letter to Mill designed to steel his resolve to persist in their relationship despite his friends’ and family’s disapproval.

I have always observed where there is strong feeling the interests of feeling are always paramount & it seems to me that personal feeling has more of infinity in it than any other part of character—no ones mind is ever satisfied, nor the imagination nor the ambition—nor anything else of that class—but feeling satisfies.

Feelings were the great loophole for Mill. His fundamental metric of happiness rested on the foundation of feelings, and it turned out that his feelings were—without his fully realizing it—under his control. In order to justify his relationship with Harriet, he needed his passion for her to overwhelm anyone else’s unhappiness in the utilitarian calculation, and so his feelings grew and grew until the equation balanced.

He posed as a modern Stoic who thought that with the right education and self-discipline men could channel their emotions toward higher ends. But as Harriet proved, all the incentives in Millian philosophy are to make feelings bigger, more demanding, more willful, more intense. Which may explain why the Left today is simultaneously more utilitarian, more pragmatic-sounding, more soothingly chart-driven than ever before—and more irrational than at any time since the 1960s.