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John Stuart Mill, An Economist In Love

Harriet Taylor Mill“It’s not you, it’s me. Well, it’s not me either: it’s just common sense, given the nature of my utility function.”

Going by Josh Freedman’s parody of an economist breaking up with his girlfriend, you might assume that practitioners of the dismal science are a cold-hearted bunch. But just because economists are really, really into being rational doesn’t mean they’re immune to Cupid’s arrows.

Take John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), whose thoughts on opportunity cost, individual freedom, and comparative advantage in trade continue to influence our economy today. While Mill was a formidable intellectual, a look at his personal life affirms that reason and passion aren’t mutually exclusive.

Growing up, Mill had the kind of education that would make Amy Chua proud. His father, a utilitarian and follower of Jeremy Bentham, set out to raise a prodigy. That meant giving his son Greek lessons at age 3 and schooling him in Latin at age 8, stuffing his brain with Plato and Aristotle and algebra, and not letting young Johnny play with kids his own age, apart from his siblings.

The elder Mill’s plan sort of worked. His son was a genius; by the time he was 13, he was helping his dad pen a textbook called Elements of Political Economy. But Mill was also desperately lonely. At 20, he suffered a major breakdown. “I sought no comfort by speaking to others of what I felt,” he wrote in his autobiography. “If I had loved anyone sufficiently to make confiding my griefs a necessity, I should not have been in the condition I was.”

With the help of poetry and literature, Mill eventually emerged from his depression. But the experience opened him up to the parts of life that lay beyond reason’s reach.

A few years later, he met a woman named Harriet Taylor, who would become the love of his life. While brilliant and beautiful, Harriet wasn’t the most logical choice for a romantic partner. She was already married to a good-hearted snooze: “a most upright, brave, and honourable man,” Mill wrote, “of liberal opinions and good education, but without the intellectual or artistic tastes which would have made him a companion for her.”

Despite Harriet’s marital status, Mill was smitten. “Although it was years after my introduction to Mrs. Taylor before my acquaintance with her became at all intimate or confidential,” he wrote, “I very soon felt her to be the most admirable person I had ever known… To her outer circle she was a beauty and a wit, with an air of natural distinction, felt by all who approached her: to the inner, a woman of deep and strong feeling, of penetrating and intuitive intelligence, and of an eminently meditative and poetic nature.”

Their acquaintance was more intimate and confidential than Victorian mores allowed Mill to admit. The pair soon began spending time alone together. (Harriet’s husband, an unusually laid-back sort, obliged by heading out to his club in the evenings.) By 1833, at her husband’s insistence, Harriet had taken up a separate residence. This allowed the lovebirds to meet more or less whenever they liked. In September of that year, Harriet wrote of Mill, “To be with him wholly is my ideal of the noblest fate; for all states of mind and feeling which are lofty & large & fine, he is the companion spirit and heart desire.”

While their living and romantic arrangements were unconventional, Harriet remained married to her husband until his death in 1849. In a remarkable display of patience–and wishing to subdue the scandalous chatter their relationship had already provoked–Mill and Harriet waited two more years before marrying in 1851.

As the Mills’ collaboration on works like “The Enfranchisement of Women” shows, theirs was a marriage of true minds. The essay’s impassioned case for gender equality reveals the deep mutual respect that lay at the heart of their relationship:

“When, however, we ask why the existence of one half of the species should be merely ancillary to that of the other; why each woman should be a mere appendage to a man, allowed to have no interests of her own, that there may be nothing to compete in her mind with his interests and his pleasure,—the only reason which can be given is, that men like it. It is agreeable to them that men should live for their own sake, women for the sake of men; and the qualities and conduct in subjects which are agreeable to rulers, they succeed for a long time in making the subjects themselves consider as their appropriate virtues.”

But their happiness was cut short. Harriet died from lung congestion in 1858. A broken-hearted Mill wrote in a letter, “It is doubtful if I shall ever be fit for anything, public or private, again. The spring of my life is broken. But I shall best fulfill her wishes by not giving up the attempt to do something useful.”

True to his word, he devoted himself to publishing the books and articles they had worked on together, including On Liberty. Released a year after Harriet’s death, it bore the following dedication: “To the beloved and deplored memory of her who was the inspirer, and in part the author, of all that is best in my writings.”

Mill kept Harriet’s memory close until his death in 1873, frequently returning to a small white house in Avignon that overlooked the cemetery where she was buried. He was sustained by his close relationship with Harriet’s daughter, Helen–a feminist who continued her mother’s advocacy for women’s rights and social reform.

“Surely no one ever before was so fortunate as, after such a loss as mine, to draw another prize in the lottery of life — another companion, stimulator, adviser, and instructor of the rarest quality,” Mill wrote in his autobiography. “Whoever, either now or hereafter, may think of me and the work I have done, must never forget that it is the product not of one intellect and conscience but of three, the least considerable of whom, and above all the least original, is the one whose name is attached to it.”

To read more about Mill and other thinkers who helped shaped our economy, check out “Positive Economics: How Economics Became a Science,” by Dr. Steven Cunningham. 

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