John Maynard Keynes: ‘New Wisdom for a New Age’
John Maynard Keynes: A Personal Biography of the Man Who Revolutionized Capitalism and the Way We Live
Last year the centenary of Keynes’s birth was celebrated in Cambridge, England, in almost too seemly a manner. A meeting at the Guildhall (where long ago Keynes’s mother had presided as mayor) turned out to be a decorous exercise in body-snatching. John Kenneth Galbraith denounced monetarists and suggested that the saint’s relics and truest disciples were really to be found in Cambridge, Massachusetts; a Liberal member of Parliament pounced on Keynes’s loyalty to that party and duly appropriated him; and in the most engaging speech Roy Jenkins trounced the Conservative and Labour parties by quoting Keynes on their dispiriting defects and claimed him for the Alliance of Liberals and Social Democrats which Jenkins himself had created. Meanwhile King’s College conducted an awe-inspiring international seminar of over a hundred economists that concluded with a dinner for them and some descendants of extended Bloomsbury at which two short speeches by octogenarians were followed by one of fifty-three minutes by a Nobel Prizeman, after which the diners tottered into the dusk punch-drunk with oratory. Keynes would have tolerated the oratory: he had listened to so many speeches in his lifetime. But the feature he would most have enjoyed was the musical divertissement about him and his Bloomsbury friends in the spirit of Walton’s Façade, composed, played, and sung by undergraduates.
Far more important was the appearance of the first volume of Robert Skidelsky’s new biography. It is authoritative, documented, and readable—indispensable for anyone who wants to understand the young Keynes and the moral and philosophical problems that exercised his mind and were to shape his conception of the world and the part economics should have in it. It is also a major revision of Roy Harrod’s commemorative biography. Like a boa constrictor swallowing an elephant, Harrod digested in only four years archives of material though he faced fearful obstacles. Not only was Keynes’s wife alive. So were both his parents and his brother, itching to burn compromising letters; and also breathing down his neck were old Bloomsbury and the left-wing Cambridge Keynesians who wanted Harrod, who was then a Liberal in politics, to turn Keynes into a collectivist.
But what undid Harrod was his university not his politics. He was a fine flower of Oxford culture in the Twenties, a romantic who could not bring himself to believe Cambridge pursued truth so ruthlessly and despised worldly success. Harrod’s Keynes speculated about truth and beauty, as an ardent young man should, and enjoyed Bloomsbury’s iconoclasm. But once he had served in the Treasury and learned the ways of the world Harrod’s Keynes put aside, as an aspiring young man should, childish things such as pacifism and the cult of personal relations. What could be more natural than to distance himself gently but firmly from his old Bloomsbury friends? What could be more romantic than for Prince Desiré, having broken the spider’s web of Carabosse Clemenceau in the forest of Versailles, to marry Aurora Lopokova? What could be more dramatic than for the savior of capitalism to die just as the world was accepting his ideas and Fame was placing laurels on his brow?
Robert Skidelsky has destroyed that oleograph forever. He shows beyond doubt how loyal Keynes remained all his life to the beliefs he formed and friends he made at King’s and in the Apostles. He has made a major revision in our understanding of the foundations of Keynes’s thought even if he is not entirely sound on either of these societies. He is wrong to suppose, for instance, that Provost Okes opposed the reforms that threw King’s open to non-Etonians: in fact, he headed the reforming party. The private (and satirical) language of the Apostles which calls subjects and activities worth discussing “real,” and those not “phenomenal,” is not Kantian; it is Hegelian and became current in the 1840s. Nor is it the aim of the Apostles to elect to their number the most brilliant intellects among their contemporaries. It was not at all odd, as Skidelsky suggests, that, for instance, the future statistician and biologist Karl Pearson and the welfare economist A.C. Pigou were not elected: the former was intolerant in discussion and the latter had no use for it—he disliked, as he put it, jaw.
Nevertheless, the picture Skidelsky paints of Keynes’s days at Cambridge is full of life and important, because it emphasizes how intensely the beliefs he formed in those days affected his view of the world. Perhaps it is difficult for us to understand how much precise, intricate beliefs founded on propositions mattered to Keynes. “It is not so much,” writes Skidelsky, “that we have lost our beliefs as that we have lost the belief in the possibility of having true beliefs. And this must mean that our beliefs make less claim on us.” Isaiah Berlin recollects how he first met Keynes dining in King’s College and told him that he was reading a paper afterward on Pleasure. “Pleasure?” said Keynes. “What a ridiculous subject.” For him distinctions about pleasure and happiness had been settled long ago.
Everyone knows that these beliefs derived from G.E. Moore’s ethics, which, together with Moore’s pure, passionate, innocent personality, made such an overwhelming impression on Keynes and his friends at the turn of the century. What Keynes deduced from Moore—and it is irrelevant here to argue whether or not he was right to do so—was that the public virtues of loyalty to the state, devotion to family, and respect for obligation that every citizen was expected to assume paled into insignificance before loyalty to friends and the pursuit of truth, even if that meant ignoring authority and institutions. What is significant, Skidelsky argues, is the intensity with which Keynes studied in his youth the intricacies of defining the good, the length and diversity of the notes, jottings, and annotations on this question among his papers.
Characteristically, Keynes was an advanced egoist and pluralist in ethics. Attempts to prove that the pursuit of one’s own happiness or the attainment of a good state of mind could be reconciled with the happiness of the greatest number he regarded as bogus and deceitful. “My goodness demands that my states of mind should be as good as possible, and yours depend upon your states of mind,” he wrote in 1906; “and there is nothing whatever to prevent these two competing.” But Keynes did not entirely neglect the world of politics and action. What, if anything, can one do to make this world good? That depends, the young Keynes thought, on knowledge of the likely consequences of our actions. Will they fulfill our aims and intentions? That in turn must lead us to consider how far we can calculate the probable results of our actions. From 1906 to 1914 Keynes’s main intellectual concern was not economics, but probability theory.
Keynes wanted human beings to pursue good ends by following their egos and their intuitive judgments. No one could judge the probable consequences of his actions—and this conclusion was fundamental to the attack that Keynes and his friends launched not so much on utilitarianism as on Christianity. It is also fundamental to his concern with the short run in economics and the impossibility of calculating what will happen in the long run. Political and social ends were not good in themselves nor were they even meant to be good; and almost inevitably if pursued they would diminish one’s own good. This is the reason why throughout his life Keynes poured scorn on enthusiasm in politics, on slogans, causes, panaceas, political and social theories.
For him politics was a dodge. There was no one perfect, self-evident solution to any practical problem in economics. There were various remedies. His hero in political thought was not Bentham, still less Condorcet. It was, so Skidelsky shows from studying his undergraduate essays, Burke. Burke told us never to adopt measures which would bring hardship and evil tomorrow on the grounds that next year we would be all that much happier. He admired Burke because Burke saw politics as a matter of expediency. Politics had nothing to do with the realization of goods. It was concerned with promoting happiness.
Skidelsky’s chapter on Keynes’s beliefs is masterly, superior to any other account that has been made of the effect of Moore’s thought upon that particular generation. He is right to argue that Keynes never outgrew Moore, as Harrod declared he did, and also that his economics was divorced from his ethics. Economics simply fills a box marked “happiness of others” which did not contain, indeed was separate from, the search for the good. On the other hand Skidelsky acknowledges that there were impersonal social forces which enabled Keynes and his Apostolic friends to neglect Moore’s fifth chapter on “Ethics in Relation to Conduct.” Harrod was right to suggest that the partial economic recovery from the hardships and fierce politics of the 1880s had made Fabianism and the new Liberalism less interesting: just as in the 1950s the young turned away from politics and the dilemmas of personal relations and became engrossed by the concept of culture. Skidelsky also accepts that there was another reason why for all his loyalty to Moore, Keynes could not entirely neglect the notions of duty and obligation. He was very much the child of his parents.
His parents were both children of Dissenters rising in the world of diligence. His father, recognizing that he would never become more than a workaday don, quit the role of bottle-washer to the great economist Alfred Marshall and rose to become the top administrator in Cambridge University. Both were intensely ambitious for their sons’ success. Neville Keynes’s weekly admonitions to Maynard to work harder, his daily presence whenever he took any examination, and his determination to make Maynard take his degree in mathematics even though he himself had abandoned it when he was an undergraduate would have been unendurable to any but such a dutiful and loving son. His father and mother were always at his elbow with worldly advice, urging him not to leave the India Office and return to academic life now he had got a safe billet there, or later not to abandon the Treasury because he disapproved of the conduct of the war, or again not to retain the offensive passages in his polemic against the Versailles Treaty. Keynes resembles Reynolds’s portrait of Garrick between the Muses of Tragedy and Comedy, his Bloomsbury friends signaling imperiously to him to follow Higher Things, his parents with nods and becks and wreathed smiles inveigling him not to forget the rewards of this world. Keynes kept faith with Moore and Bloomsbury; but time and again he deferred to his parents. He knew just what he owed them and his devotion was touching.
Victorian Dissenters are often praised as being the conscience of the nation; but Dissenters on the way up and out of the Nonconformist communions had other aims in view. John Sheppard, who became provost of King’s when Keynes was bursar, detected a defect in his friend: “Non-conformist snobbery. I know all about it—they’re like bugs in a rug. Bugs in a rug.” He did indeed know all about it: he was the son of a Baptist. (Oscar Browning in 1902 had to obtain permission from Sheppard’s father to take his son to the theater.) Keynes was two generations away from it, Virginia Woolf three generations from the rough, tough West Indian merchant who became a fervent Evangelical.