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Best Business Books 2009: Biography

Unconventional Lives

Richard Reeves
John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand
(Overlook, 2008)

T.J. Stiles
The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
(Knopf, 2009)

Alice Schroeder
The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life
(Bantam, 2008)


This year’s best business biographies — volumes on the lives of John Stuart Mill, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Warren Buffett — weigh in at a hefty eight and a half pounds, in toto. Fortunately, the varied and numerous rewards that readers will find in these three engaging books more than compensate for the risk of hernia and the obvious toll on the eyes of poring over 2,295 densely printed pages. Each of these biographies is meticulously researched, masterfully written, and replete with insights relevant to the lives of contemporary businesspeople. Because each book delights in a different way, the judgment of which of the three is best depends more on the reader than this reviewer.

Champion of Liberty

My personal preference among the three is British journalist Richard Reeves’s critical biography, John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand. Mill (1806–1873) was a true polymath — political economist, philosopher, polemicist, parliamentarian, and a prime mover in the 19th-century reform movement that transformed Britain from an aristocracy into a modern liberal democracy.

Homeschooled by his father, noted scholar James Mill (with an occasional assist from Mill family benefactor Jeremy Bentham), the young Mill mastered Latin at age 6 and Greek two years later, and was writing a treatise on political economy by his 12th year. Philosopher Isaiah Berlin deemed Mill’s education “an appalling success.” Indeed, years of nothing but study, coupled with immersion in Bentham’s coldly rational utilitarian philosophy (in which happiness is reckoned by a “felicity calculus”), turned Mill into the heartless thinking machine dubbed “Arithmetic Mill” by Thomas Carlyle. Eventually, a childhood and adolescence of all work and no play exacted a heavy toll on Mill: In his 20s, he suffered what he termed a severe “crisis,” or psychological breakdown.

What finally snapped him out of it was love, sweet love. Mill fell madly, adoringly, and enduringly in love with Harriet Taylor, who would become his lifelong soul mate and collaborator. Unfortunately, there was also a Mr. Taylor, whose existence would ordinarily have constituted a formidable obstacle in Victorian England, where divorces were rare and extramarital affairs were viewed as several degrees worse than scandalous. Undaunted, Mill and the Taylors entered into a kind of ménage à trois in which she had, in effect, two husbands. Taylor would retreat to his gentleman’s club when Mill visited. Things went on that way for two decades until John Taylor died, thus clearing the way for a happily-ever-after marriage between the persistent lovebirds.

Mill controversially claimed that Harriet Taylor was not only his inspiration for, but basically the coauthor of, some of his most important works. Reeves documents how she greatly influenced the conclusions in Mill’s multivolume Political Economy, often cited as the 19th century’s leading work on the subject, and in the classic On Liberty, the book on which his lasting reputation is based. Without a doubt, Harriet disabused Mill of his beliefs in doctrinaire utilitarianism: He would henceforth add a touch of poetry to Bentham’s mathematics.

Mill was, and still is, known as the “champion of liberty.” His “harm principle” is commonly used to define the proper limit of governmental authority over the individual: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.” He applied this principle to countless controversial domestic issues, including state control of prostitution, gambling, and the sale of alcohol. His conclusion will resonate with contemporary libertarians: Any activity should be legal to the extent it doesn’t harm others. (He also applied his principles to foreign policy, reasoning that a country has a duty to try to prevent a powerful nation from attacking a weak neighbor but, conversely, no nation has the right to intervene in the domestic affairs of another, even if the intent is to rid that country of a tyrannical leader.)

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