Sunday, April 09, 2006

John Maynard Keynes

Keynes is such an admirable historical figure. Of course he is no doubt best known for his groundbreaking economics but for me the sum is even greater than the very great parts. His route from the high Nonconformist Cambridge intelligentsia via G.E.Moore and Bloomsbury to being a fearsomely effective defender of liberal democracy in the years when it was most threatened is a troughly logical celebration and embodiment of rational, self-confident Liberalism. Our culture has not produced many higher achievements than the mind and life of Keynes. I suppose in these cold times he is mostly known as the developer of the inflation ridden and deficit financed (early Bushist?) 1970’s economies. The reality is of course very different, he would not have approved the bastardized and mechanical later “Keynesiasm” being always highly pragmatic and conscious of the ever changing conditions. What he developed in the nightmarish 1930’s was a crucially revitalizing message to the ailing liberal and capitalist democracy desperately threatened by the very vibrant seeming challenges from the extreme and violent Left and Right. He always very haughtily dismissed the elementary economic fallacies of orthodox Marxism – in a way that visibly bolstered the confidence of the West in the face of the Communist “Utopia” in Moscow that was so attractive to the intellectuals of the day. His arguments against the state controls of the British war economy would surprise the modern libertarians (whose persistent ignorance of history is truly amazing).

But as crucially important as he was as an economist and statesman in the defence of Western liberty, that is only a part of the story. Art and culture were never secondary to the pragmatic arts of social policy: he was at home in Bloomsbury, at home with literature, performing and visual arts seeing them central to the fragile human civilization. This fragility he understood very well. Apart from the unreal Cambridge high summer of the prewar Bloomsbury his life was spent during the worst nightmares humanity has known. This no doubt strengthened his Burkean sympathies and his very English empirical pragmatism. He appears to make indirect criticism of their early optimism in his elegant and succint essay “My Early Beliefs” that he delivered to the Bloomsbury Memoir Club in the late 30’s, but in all essential he kept faithful that high civilization of G.E. Moore and Principia Ethica. So many worlds away from the mundane fields of business and economics. I always enjoy his ironic disparagement of the leading businessmen of his times, these unintellectual, unimaginitive “practical” men so enthralled by the latest ludicrous fads. I think the modern “super” CEO:s are exactly where Keynes left them: shallow apparatchiks of the system utterly incapable of saving it should a deep crisis arise. For such tasks we need people with the calibre of Keynes.

So, this is what our civilization is capable of on its good days – an important reason for our continuing survival against many odds. Intelligence, pragmatic empirical reason, flexibility and imagination in the face of horrible crises, a deep respect of and hunger for culture and high art. I don’t think that I am wrong when I see exactly these factors weakening rapidly in the modern era. Dogma is everywhere replacing reason, rigid ideology trumping empirical pragmatism, liberty is not valued as a thing in itself, mindless entertainment is driving serious art to the fringes of society, people are becoming a commodity to be valued only in terms of material production, to be bought and sold in the interests of investment funds. Should a new crisis, a new instability arise where would our answer be? In the wisdom of G.W. Bush, in the vision and human understanding of Ann Coulter?


helsinkian said...

Is the 21st Century capable of interpreting Keynes? I think it is a very telling point that already in the 1970s Keynesianism was turning the vision of Keynes into a dogm. So it is a huge challenge to understand Keynes in the terms of his own context and worldview.

Can Keynes' pragmatism really be interpreted as a doctrine of Keynesianism? It is absolutely right to paint a more comprehensive portrait of Keynes than just the economic theory. Keynes is a great example of an intellectual with a broader view. In our time the lack of grasping the broader picture is a problem among our intellectuals. This is probably also the reason why Keynes is seen today in such a narrow manner. I believe everyone who makes the big decisions should have a vision of ethics or access to someone who does.

stockholm slender said...

I believe that in many ways in economics he never was that much misunderstood, overinterpreted certainly - it was the political dynamics that made the approach so ossified. Skidelsky has certainly made a great favour to posterity with his suberb biography - suberb especially in the sense how it brings out the whole personality and his wide scale of his interests and talents. For me very revealing was his concern with probability and causality - those are quite the cornerstones of any pragmatic approach to social questions.

Ben Harbour said...

Which brings us onto the debate, who do you prefer Adam Smith or John Maynard Keynes

Whilst Adam Smith being the founder of modern economics, his work is quite tiresomely long. If you have not read his works you can view a Free online copy at the link below

adam smith wealth of nation

also you can follow this discussion on