How Friedrich Hayek became fascinated with the romance of Harriet Taylor and J S Mill

A great philosophical love affair - and the economist fascinated by it.

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Reckless passion: J S Mill’s devotion to Harriet Taylor was beyond question... but it troubled Hayek. Illustration: Ralph Steadman


Hayek on Mill: the Mill-Taylor Friendship and Related Writings
Edited by Sandra J Peart
Routledge, 424pp, £95

“For the student of relationships,” writes Sandra Peart in her introduction to this superbly edited volume, “the Mill-Taylor story is one of great drama and much mystery.” Much the same might be said of Friedrich Hayek’s interest in John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor. For Hayek, the long involvement of a thinker described by Gladstone as “the saint of rationalism” with a married woman whom he credited as the co-author of some of his best-known works was a relationship he could not fathom. How could one of the great minds of the Victorian age risk his standing in society in such a reckless manner? Hayek devoted years of his life to resolving the mystery, starting with an attempt to collect the letters between the two.

When I knew and talked with him in the 1980s, Hayek told me that retrieving the letters had been an extremely difficult business. The correspondence had been dispersed when Mill’s home in Avignon was sold in 1905; Mill had bought the house after Harriet died while visiting the city with him in 1858. With immense effort, Hayek had overcome the many obstacles that salvaging the letters presented. But he had gone further, he told me, in his effort to understand Mill: he had retraced some of Mill’s European travels, trying to stay in the hotels and rooms that Mill had occupied. He seemed disappointed with the results of his investigations, remarking sourly that many of the letters Mill had written from these locations were often concerned chiefly with the indifferent state of his health. I couldn’t help wondering what it was that Hayek had expected or wanted to find.

It was well known that the right-wing Austrian economist, who had shared the Nobel Prize with the left-leaning Gunnar Myrdal in 1974, disapproved of Mill. For a time it was believed that Thatcher used to carry a copy of Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty about with her in her legendary handbag, and even though the rumour was false (the book in question is a bulky tome) he was one of the New Right thinkers who helped make the Thatcher era possible. If she read the book she cannot have digested Hayek’s postscript, entitled “Why I Am Not a Conservative”. He believed he was reviving classical liberalism – the ideology of free markets and limited government that had supposedly been preached by Adam Smith.

Since the mid-19th century, classical liberalism had been in decline, and Hayek had no doubt that J S Mill (1806-73) was largely responsible for this sorry state of affairs. By introducing a distinction between production and distribution that Smith did not recognise, Mill had became a “constructivist rationalist” – a thinker who supposed human reason could design and then impose on society a new and improved economic system. At the same time Hayek accused Mill of having propagated a dangerous type of “false individualism”. By defending the freedom to engage in unorthodox “experiments of living”, Mill had undermined Smith’s “true individualism”, which stressed the stabilising virtues of tradition and social convention.

This was a simplistic analysis: Adam Smith was not anything like the doctrinal market liberal Hayek supposed, nor Mill a budding collectivist. As Peart rightly puts it, Mill was “the quintessential liberal of the 19th century”. While parts of his liberalism – such as his defence of experimental lifestyles – were original, all the main themes of 19th-century liberal thought are developed in his writings. Like many liberals at the time, Mill had mixed feelings about the industrial capitalism that was emerging, which he worried could promote a narrowly competitive form of life. These fears echoed anxieties in the work of Smith. A pristine, pro-capitalist, classical liberalism of the sort Hayek imagined he was reviving is actually rather untypical of 19th-century liberal thinking. If it can be found anywhere, it is among late-Victorian social Darwinists such as Herbert Spencer (1820-1903).

Hayek’s conviction that Mill had misled liberal thought goes some way to accounting for his interest in Mill’s involvement with Harriet. The bulk of this book consists of selections from the letters, with Hayek allowing the couple to speak in their own words and rarely offering an interpretation of his own. From related writings of Hayek’s that Peart has collected for the first time and included in this edition, it is clear that he blamed Harriet for Mill’s straying from the path of true liberalism; but by itself this can hardly account for his intense interest in the pair. What was it about their relationship that he found so disturbing?

John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor first met in 1830 when she invited him to dinner at the home she shared with her husband in the suburbs of north London. According to the Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle, Mrs Taylor was a woman of “vivid” and “iridescent” beauty; her husband, a wealthy pharmacist whom she had married when she was only 18, was “an innocent dull good man”. From the evidence that is available it is unclear when Mill and Harriet became lovers; but if they became friends soon after they met, their relationship quickly moved on.

A note from one of Harriet’s female friends, dated June 1831, contained the ­question: “Did you or Mill do it?” Whatever the answer, by 1832 a new pattern had been established in Mill’s and Harriet’s lives. Several nights a week they dined at the Taylor home, always in the company of others, while John Taylor went to his club. Later Taylor bought Harriet a country house, where he would visit her some weekends, with Mill coming to stay for most of the others. By the mid-1830s Mill and Harriet were travelling together on the Continent, sometimes accompanied by her children. They continued in this way until Taylor’s death in July 1849 enabled them to marry, which they did in April 1851.

Whether Mill’s relationship with Harriet was consummated is a question that still seems to bother some people. We cannot know, but it is hard to believe their life together was sexless. Peart tells us that Hayek altered the original title of his book soon after it was first published in 1951, changing their “correspondence” to their “friendship”. Yet if anything is clear in the Mill-Taylor story, it is that the two weren’t just friends. Why should these two strong-willed individuals allow their private life to be ruled by Victorian conventions that both of them despised? The strength of their passion for one another is beyond doubt. When they were able to marry and live openly together Mill withdrew from society, discarding long-standing friends and cutting himself off from his family. When travelling without her, he always headed to the local post office to pick up Harriet’s letters: “for words of love in absence”, he wrote to her, “are as they always were, what keeps the blood going in the veins”. Following her death, after less than eight years of what seems to have been a profoundly happy marriage for both of them, Mill spent half of each of the remaining 15 years of his life in the house he bought in Avignon, which he had chosen because it was close to the graveyard where she was buried.

The extent of Harriet’s intellectual influence on Mill has been as much a subject of dispute as their sex lives. In the Autobiography he compared her with Shelley, describing her mind as a “perfect instrument, piercing to the very heart and marrow of the matter; always seizing the essential idea or principle”. He went on to claim that a number of his writings – including the Principles of Political Economy (1848) and his treatise On Liberty (1859), probably the most famous defence of the value of human individuality ever written, which appeared a year after Harriet died – were, in effect, co-authored by her. The consensus view has been that an infatuated Mill exaggerated Harriet’s contribution to his work. Hayek’s view was different: Mill’s thinking was indeed shaped by Harriet, but in ways that caused lasting damage to liberalism.

Neither view acknowledges the extent of Harriet’s role in energising Mill’s intellectual life. If she did not lead him to change his views in any fundamental way, it was because on many questions they were close to being of one mind. Mill was concerned about what he condemned as the subjection of women long before he met Harriet: aged 17, after coming on a new-born infant that had been killed and its body left wrapped in dirty blankets in St James’s Park, he spent a night in jail under a charge of obscenity for distributing pamphlets to working-class women describing techniques of contraception. Harriet had similar concerns before she met Mill: an early piece on “the source of conformity” that Hayek reprints shows her mind moving in parallel with Mill’s.

Though Harriet may have shifted the balance of Mill’s views at some points, there is nothing to suggest that he changed his mind on central questions of philosophy and politics in any fundamental way because of her influence. What she clearly did – though this is rarely noted – was greatly improve his prose style. On Liberty is written with an aphoristic force and vitality lacking from the writings that Mill composed after her death, where he reverts to his usual meandering argumentation and circumlocutions. When Mill declared in his dedication to the essay that the book “belonged as much to her as to me”, he may not have been as far from the truth as nearly all commentators since have assumed.

In “J S Mill, Mrs Taylor and Socialism” – one of the writings included in this surely definitive edition – Hayek suggests that we can “solve the riddle which Mill’s relation to his wife presents” if we accept that “behind the hard shell of complete self-control and strictly rational behaviour there was a core of a very soft and almost feminine sensitivity”. It is a curious comment in a number of ways. Even in Victorian times, self-control and sensitivity were not understood as attributes necessarily opposed to each other. Nor were they always identified as masculine or feminine in nature – certainly not by Mill, who wrote extensively against this sort of stereotyping. Hayek’s description of Mill as having a “hard shell” of “strictly rational behaviour” is especially odd.

Much of Mill’s life was shaped by rebellion against the utilitarian rationalism of his father, James, which led him to start teaching his son Greek at the age of three. This rigid pedagogic regime played a big role in Mill’s “mental crisis”, a nervous breakdown that the young man suffered in the winter of 1826-27 when he lost the simple beliefs his father had instilled in him. For the rest of his life Mill believed his early education had been based on a narrow philosophy that left out the impulses that drive human action: as he put it in a public debate in 1828, “The passions are the spring of human life.” In an essay on Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the founder of British utilitarianism and James Mill’s mentor, Mill wrote in 1838 that Bentham’s knowledge of the mind was “wholly empirical, and the ­empiricism of one who has had little experience”. Bentham constructed a system of ideas that he claimed applied to everyone, but because it excluded “the experiences denied to himself” the system only revealed “the incompleteness of his own mind as a representative of universal human nature”.

Reading Mill’s description of Bentham, it is impossible to resist thinking that it could apply equally well to Hayek. Like Bentham, Hayek tried to build a universal theory on the basis of partial insight and speculative theory. Hayek attacked Mill as a “constructivist rationalist” yet Hayek was far more of a rationalist than Mill, who wrote in his Autobiography that when asked what philosophy he adopted after he abandoned his father’s he answered: “No system – only a conviction that the true system was something much more complex and many-sided than I had previously had any idea of.” In contrast, Hayek tried to confine human life within a few large ideas, such as the dogma that societies are networks of market exchange and the theory (reminiscent of Herbert Spencer) that societies develop in an evolutionary process. Creating a closed system from these fallacies, Hayek – who as a critic of socialism is unrivalled – led liberal thought into a dead end.

When I talked with Hayek, more than 30 years after his laborious researches, he seemed perplexed by the intensity with which he had struggled to unlock the relationship between Mill and Harriet. In truth, his work on the two 19th-century figures was the product of an obsession. Intriguingly, Hayek seemed at times to be conscious that this was so. It seemed to me then, as it does now, that Hayek’s own preoccupation with the subject posed as much of a riddle for him as their very relationship. Perhaps this wasn’t surprising. If any lesson can be elicited from the Mill-Taylor story, it is that the passions that move human beings cannot be understood from within the ideas that Hayek constructed.

Mill’s “false individualism” was truer to life than Hayek’s grandiose abstractions. Hayek condemned Mill’s defence of experi­ments of living as dangerous nonsense; but Mill tried such an experiment, and it worked. If Hayek couldn’t let go of the story of Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill, it may be because it pointed to experiences that were denied to him and exposed the incompleteness of his mind.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article appears in the 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition