Liberty Matters

Harriet Taylor Mill and the Response to the “Theory of Dependence”

I welcome the opportunity to comment on Giandonenica Becchio’s contribution to the discussion of the enduring importance of Harriet Taylor Mill. Before I consider the substantive issues, let me address how we came to appreciate Taylor Mill’s importance to our understanding of the social relationships of women and men then and ask what we can learn from this? The answer to the first part of the question is trivial: F. A. Hayek’s great 1951 John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor: Their Friendship [Correspondence] and Subsequent Marriage explored correspondence between John Stuart Mill and Taylor as well as the accounts of contemporary witnesses. The principle that events are seen more clearly when they are closer than when they are distant is exemplified in Hayek’s book. We have yet to understand the consequence of the economics’ professions abandonment of competence in the history of economics where, as Peart (2015) documents in detail, such great scholars of diverse points of view as Hayek, Piero Sraffa and John Maynard Keynes could cooperate in the search for unpublished material to gain greater insight into the making of economics.
Taylor Mill’s contribution to the third edition [1852] of J. S. Mill’s Principles of Political Economy needs to be examined closely to appreciate her part in the larger question of the role of economists in the movement toward equalizing the rights of women and other “dependents.” In the fourth paragraph in the chapter Taylor Mill’s contributed to Principles of Political Economy, “On the probable futurity of the labouring classes,” we find an articulation of the “theory of dependence” of the laboring class that was advanced by speakers for the upper classes:
… the lot of the poor, in all things which affect them collectively, should be regulated for them, not by them. They should not be required or encouraged to think for themselves … It is supposed to be the duty of the higher classes to think for them, and to take the responsibility of their lot … (Taylor Mill, 1998, p. 293)
This theory of dependence is the target of the chapter. It would not be hard to find the theory of dependence in many dimensions defended in her time. Dramatically, just three years earlier Thomas Carlyle had published in Fraser’s Magazine his “Occasional discourse on the negro question” ([Carlyle] 1849); Mill had responded in the next issue ([Mill] 1850). I’ll come back to Fraser’s.
In the last paragraph of the Taylor Mill chapter, we find perhaps the greatest defense of competition in the economics literature.
Instead of looking upon competition as the baneful and anti-social principle which it is held to be by the generality of Socialists, I conceive that, even in the present state of society and industry, every restriction of it is an evil, and every extension of it, even if for the time injuriously affecting some class of labourer, is always an ultimate good. (Taylor Mill, 1998, p. 315)
One passage in the chapter, in particular, that should not be overlooked is a reference to a caste system when Taylor Mill proposes “the opening of industrial occupations freely to both sexes.” (1998, p. 298). Concerns over a caste system are scattered in the work of Adam Smith, Montiford Longfield, J. S. Mill himself, as well as J. E. Cairnes so it is important to add Taylor Mill to that tradition since she widens the analysis to include women who face occupational limitations.
The ideas of institutions by which the accidence of sex is made the groundwork of an inequality of legal rights, and a forced dissimilarity of social functions, must ere long be recognized as the great hindrance to moral, social, and even intellectual improvements (1998, p 299)
Carlyle’s 1849 “Negro question” was not the first time Fraser’s Magazine articulated a theory of dependence as an idealization of social hierarchy. Fraser’s came into prominence in the early 1830s with a series entitled, “Gallery of Illustrious Literary Characters” featuring drawing by Daniel Maclise and “Notices” largely by William Maginn.  There were three named political economists included in the “Gallery,” Harriet Martineau, William Godwin, Francis Place. Each was subjected to ideological and personal attacks because each of the three had contributed to a rethinking of the relations of women and men. The attacks, albeit nasty, were very well informed.[1]
I now turn to what I consider an unfortunate consequence of the Mill – Taylor friendship. One of the most important issues raised by J. S. Mill in Principles of Political Economics is the distinction between the laws of production and the laws of distribution. Although Mill’s position has been often misunderstood, Sandra Peart (2015, p. xli) quotes a passage that is unambiguous and ought to have been decisive:
Human beings can control their own acts, but not the consequences of their acts either to themselves or to others. Society can subject the distribution of wealth to whatever rules it thinks best: but what practical results will flow from the operation of those rules, must be discovered, like any other physical or mental truths, by observation and reasoning. (Mill 1965, p. 200).
I take property and the legal rights defining property as an aspect of distribution that Mill’s distinction encompassed. The issue of marriage as contract that turned it into monopolizing property was stated with complete clarity by William Godwin:
Add to this, that marriage is an affair of property, and the worst of all properties. So long as two human beings are forbidden by positive institutions to follow the dictates of their own mind, prejudice is alive and vigorous. So long as I seek to engross one woman to myself, and to prohibit my neighbour from proving his superior desert and reaping the fruits of it, I am guilty of the most odious of all monopolies. (1793, p. 850)
This was, of course, written some years before Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft married. That event doubtless had something to do with Godwin’s changes in the third edition of An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice.
Contracts can be enforced by approbation, both positive and negative, as well as positive law. Disapprobation can be carried by gossip. Hayek’s work made clear the disapprobation that the Mill-Taylor connection generated and how it devastated the relationships in Mill’s immediate family.  Hayek pointed out that Alexander Bain recorded that Martineau was one of the first to spread the news of Mill and Taylor’s close connection, but Bain declined to pass on just what Martineau said (Hayek 2105, p. 36).
Martineau’s views of gender equality that Becchio mentions, have earned her a considerable collection of scholarly admirers so as a consequence we now have more access to her correspondence than Hayek had.  Martineau’s letters to her brother James Martineau, which he recorded in a code, were first utilized by R. K. Webb (1960) and published in full in 2012 (Logan 2012, pp. 383-517). From a letter of January 2, 1834, we learn of the coming cohabitation of Taylor and Mill
Mr. F.’s [Charles Fox] alienation from his wife, and widening dependence on E. F. [Eliza Flower] ruinous to her position, as it is selfish and inconsiderate in him, having at last a scandalous excess. The coincidence of this with Mrs. J. T.’s [Harriet Taylor] abandonment of her husband to live in Paris, making her mind to live with J.S.M. [John Stuart Mill] gives it a serious character and dangerous publicity which bodes nothing but evil. Mrs. J. T. takes no care of her three little children, excusing herself because “she has no faculty of patience.”  Logan (2012, p. 475).
The correspondence of Harriet and James Martineau sheds light on something puzzling; why despite her great competence as an economist Martineau has been so unappreciated (Levy and Peart 2022, 2023).
In Harriet Martineau’s letter to James of February 27, 1832 (Logan 2012, 460) she writes of a review of the first volume of her Illustrations of Political Economy by “J S Mill.” I suspect it is actually by James Mill. The author of the 1832 review starts by discussing why one could do economic science, unlike other sciences, as a tale. This I find to be compelling evidence of James Mill’s authorship, in spite of Martineau’s opinion in her letter, because the reviewer would be directly responding to James Mill's early objection he voiced to Martineau about the concept of her book saying that science cannot be done in tales (Levy and Peart 2022). Then the reviewer considers the tale itself.
In Life in the Wilds we are introduced into a small colony in the south of Africa, which has, by an incursion of savages, just been deprived of every vestige of capital. There is nothing but nature before them; and in their possession nothing but their own labour, unassisted by any of the contrivances of civilization or the accumulations of wealth. Life in the Wilds is the history of this small society; and the genius of the writer (already favorably known by her Traditions of Palestine) has enabled her to describe their proceedings with the interest of a simple romance. We have character, incident, scenery, while we forget we are learning the whole theory of labour, productive and unproductive: and through imbibing instruction on every page, fancy merely we are sympathizing in the misfortunes, and rejoicing in the prosperity of a remote and friendless community of compatriots, placed far amid the melancholy plains of the South African continent.
There was good reason for Martineau to be pleased with the review. It is a public retraction of James Mill’s previous objection to the book. And, as long as one assumes a Ricardian view of capital, totally accurate.  There is of course knowledge in Life in the Wilds, which for Adam Smith, who provided the basis for the Illustrations, would have counted as capital.
The 1834 review by J. S. Mill, included in the Collected Works is fascinating and invariably discussed by students of Martineau who seem not to know what I take to be James Mill’s review.[2]
Her object was, not to exhibit the science as a whole, but to illustrate such parts of as lead directly to important practical results. Having accomplished this, she has now brought together in one series, the principles which she had separately exemplified, and by hanging them each in its place. Has given to the “moral” of her “many Fables,” some semblance of an elementary treatise. It would be unjust to weigh this little work in a balance in which the most elaborate treatises on the subject would be found wanting. To all of them, perhaps, it may be objected, that they attempt to construct a permanent fabric out of transitory materials; … Thus, for instance English political economists presuppose, in every one of their speculations, that the product of industry is shared among three classes, altogether distinct from one another—namely, labourers, capitalists and landlords. … They are inapplicable where the only capitalist are the landlords and the labourers are their property, as it is in the West Indies.….
Miss Martineau’s little work is not more subject to the above criticism than works of far greater pretension; but on the contrary, less. And as an exposition of the leading principles of what now constitutes the science, it possesses considerable merit. Mill (1965, p. 226 emphasis added)
It seems clear that Mill is thinking about the distinction between the “laws of production” and the “laws of distribution” as even at this early date when he blames political economists for confusing transitory institutions for permanent ones. Moreover, a phrase he uses would reappear many years later when in 1874 Some Leading Principles of Political Economy became the title of the last great treatise of English classical political economy by Mill’s great admirer, J. E. Cairnes!
The problem with the review is that Martineau is not “less subject to the above criticism.” The criticism is directed at a book she did not write nor is it the same book discussed by the earlier review.  In Life in the Wilds, there is no capital so there are no capitalists. More importantly, the fourth tale of Martineau’s Illustrations is a novel of slavery set in the West Indies in which she considerably improves upon Adam Smith’s account of slavery by allowing enslaved people to be paid piece wages (Levy and Peart 2022, 2023). The importance of this might be appreciated because in Taylor Mill’s chapter in Principles, the importance of linking wages to output, documented by Charles Babbage, is stressed (Taylor Mill, 1998, pp. 302-03)
Taylor Mill considerably sharpened the response in Principles to the multidimensional hierarchism of the period.  It has not been appreciated how her attack on the dependence thesis would remerge in the first half of the 20th century in the attack on paternalism by Abram Harris and Frank Knight. Harris was a very careful student of Mill.Endnotes
[1] The commentary on Francis Place penetrated the disguised authorship (“Gamaliel Smith”) of the Jeremy Bentham – Francis Place Not Paul but Jesus (1823).  William Bates’ edition of the Gallery (Maclise and Maginn 1873) is easily accessible with an image quality far superior to even the original publication and of course to online scanned reproductions of magazines.
[2] Webb (1960), who only knows J. S. Mill’s review (Mill 1967), and emphasize its judgment, is particularly important as he was the first to systematically explore Martineau’s correspondence with her brother.  In Logan’s edition of Illustrations of Political Economy (2004, pp. 430-31) part of J. S. Mill’s review is republished; the earlier review is not noted.
[Jeremy Bentham and Francis Place = “Gamaliel Smith”]. 1823. Not Paul, but Jesus. London: John Hurt.
[Carlyle, T.] 1849. “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question.” Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country 40 (December): 670–679.
Godwin, William. 1793.  An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness. London: G. J. and J. Robinson.
Hayek, F. A. 2015, Hayek on Mill: The Mill-Taylor Friendship and Related Writings. Edited by Sandra J. Peart. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Levy, David M. and Sandra J. Peart. 2022. “Harriet Martineau (1802-1876)” In The Essential Women of Liberty Edited by Donald J. Boudreaux and Aeon J. Skoble. Vancouver: Fraser Institute.
Levy, David M. and Sandra J. Peart. 2023. “Harriet Martineau: Economist as Storyteller and Traveler.” Independent Review
Logan, Deborah A. 2012. Harriet Martineau: Further Letters. Bethlehem: PA. Lehigh University Press.
Maclise, Daniel and William Maginn. 1873. A Gallery of Illustrious Literary Characters (1830-1838). Edited by William Bates. London: Chatto and Windus.
Martineau, Harriet. 2004. Illustrations of Political Economy: Selected Tales. Somewhere in Canada: Broadview editions.
[Mill, James ?.] Feb 26, 1832. Review of Illustrations of Political Economy: No. I. Life in the Wilds: a Tale. By Harriet Martineau. London: C. Fox. Examiner Issue 1256 Sunday.
[Mill, John Stuart] 1850. “The Negro Question.” Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country 41 (January): 25–31.
Mill, John Stuart. 1965. Principles of Political Economy with Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy. Edited by J. Robson. Volumes 2 and 3 of the Collected Works of John Stuart Mill. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Mill, John Stuart. 1967. “Miss Martineau’s Summary of Political Economy” Essays on Economics and Society. Edited by J. M. Robson. Volumes 4 and 5 of the Collected Works of John Stuart Mill. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 225-228.
Taylor Mill, Harriet. 1998. The Complete Works of Harriet Taylor Mill. Edited by Jo Ellen Jacobs and Paula Harms Payne. Bloomington and Indianapolis. Indiana University Press.
Webb, R. K. 1960. Harriet Martineau: A Radical Victorian. New York: Columbia University Press.