Keynes on why classical economics exerted the influence it did, from Chapter III of the General Theory:
That it reached conclusions quite different from what the ordinary uninstructed person would expect, added, i suppose, to its intellectual prestige. That its teaching, translated into practice, was austere and often unpalatable, lent it virtue. That it was adapted to carry a vast and consistent logical superstructure, gave it beauty. That it could explain must social injustice and apparent cruelty as an inevitable incident in the scheme of progress, and the attempt to change such things as likely on the whole to do more harm than good, commended it to authority. That it afforded a measure of justification to the free activities of the individual capitalist, attracted to it the support of the dominant social force behind authority.
Keynes combined a recognition that the success or failure of an idea could not be divorced from questions of power, with an optimism that good ideas, in the end, win out. I do not share the full measure of his optimism.
It is the fate of famous thinkers to be reduced to caricature. Those outside the limelight at least keep their nuance.
Since reading Zachary Carter’s biography of Keynes earlier this year, I’ve been exploring more of the great man’s nuance. ‘Keynesian’ is now synonymous with massive crisis spending programs, but this characterisation both fails to adequately describe the practicalities of a Keynesian program, while omitting entirely the Keynesian political project.
A more complete interrogation is the goal of this 2018 book review in the LRB by Adam Tooze. This passage in particular was striking:
On January 6th, Congress will receive the Electoral College’s votes to certify. This normally symbolic step will now be debated and voted on, following Republican Senator Hawley’s decision to object to the results. The vote is almost certain to meet the same fate as all of Trump’s attempts to overturn the election – failure. However, it will air his claims in Congress and force Republicans to take a loyalty test between the President or democratic norms.
As I’ve discussed several times before, Trump is not going anywhere and the fact that the electoral system has resisted outright subversion only makes the consequences of his actions more difficult to pinpoint.
Over Christmas I re-read Bertrand Russell’s wonderful essay, In Praise of Idleness. Its message is still incisive and revolutionary, if in slightly different ways.
In Russel’s day, elites jealously guarded leisure for themselves while proclaiming the dignity and virtue of work for others. Today, the leisure class has committed suicide, and both rich and poor are slaves to “the virtue of hard work as an end in itself, rather than as a means to a state of affairs in which it is no longer needed.” Often, it is no longer enough to simply perform the routines of work. Work must now reflect some core part of your identity; be passion in action. For those elites lucky enough to work in creative fields, the incongruity might be limited. For most, the demand that manual, menial, and repetitive tasks be described as anything other than means to ends is a cruel joke.
In other ways the essay is very familiar. It is still an implicit article of faith for many that poverty or stultifying labour are necessary parts of the social order. Many of the highly-paid members of the managerial class, who divide their weekends between the couch and the pub, do not hesitate to prescribe sobriety and discipline for others.
The most affirming and revolutionary part of the essay comes in its claim that there is no necessary relation between the positive moral qualities society needs and work:
Finally, passages like this alone make the essay worth reading:
We cannot therefore settle on abstract grounds, but must handle on its merits in detail what Burke termed ‘one of the finest problems in legislation, namely, to determine what the State ought to take upon itself to direct by the public wisdom, and what it ought to leave, with as little interference as possible, to individual exertion.’ We have to discriminate between what Bentham, in his forgotten but useful nomenclature, used to term Agenda and Non-Agenda, and to do this without Bentham’s prior presumption that interference is, at the same time, ‘generally needless’ and ‘generally pernicious.’ Perhaps the chief task of economists at this hour is to distinguish afresh the Agenda of government from the Non-Agenda; and the companion task of politics is to devise forms of government within a democracy which shall be capable of accomplishing the Agenda.