The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes
The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes, Vol. 19, Activities 192429
The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes, Vol. 7, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money
One of the astonishing and little-examined aberrations of academic, professional, and business life is the prestige that is accorded without thought to the specialist. A highly practical design by which a person of everyday energy or competence is enabled to make a useful or anyhow identifiable contribution to intellectual, scientific, or economic pursuits emerges as something intrinsically superior to more diverse, broader knowledge, or greater effort. In medicine the specialist is considered much superior professionally and socially to the general practitioner; one notes, these days, the effort to show that the family doctor—the general practitioner—can really be quite a reputable fellow in his or her own way. In academic life one hears fleeting praise for breadth of scholarship, but no one doubts that scholarly depth is much better. The businessman has long been advised to take care of his own business. One of our more improbable metaphors holds that a shoemaker should stick to his last. I have never encountered anyone who knew what a last was.
Whatever the case in other disciplines, there can be no doubt that, in economics, specialization is the parent not only of boredom but also of irrelevance and error. Certainly, this is so in all practical matters. Widespread influences, many of them from far outside the “field” as it is commonly defined for classroom convenience, bear on every important economic decision. So it is in monetary policy, tax policy, prices and wages policy, trade policy, and all other government and private decision. The specialist, by his or her training, righteously excludes what it is convenient not to know. The specialized economist is thus spared the relatively modest expenditure of energy and intelligence that would bring most of economics and much of the relevant politics, social relations, and psychology within his grasp.
The question of specialization in intellectual matters, and its mind-saving role, is central to an appreciation of John Maynard Keynes, by far the most influential economist of this century and, with Smith, Marx, and possibly Ricardo, one of the three or four greatest economists who ever lived.
Keynes rejected specialization. His life and effort were guided by perhaps the most diverse thought and experience of any person in modern times. Passing into the British civil service in 1906, with not the highest distinction in mathematics and economics—“I evidently knew more about economics than my examiners”—he became concerned with the trivial intricacies of currency and banking in India. On this he wrote a monograph, Indian Currency and Finance, and then immediately broke with professional practice. Anyone of moderate capacity could have learned all that it was useful to know about the subject in around three months, perhaps less. In the modern professional mode, Keynes would have remained with it for most of his life and been celebrated in a modest way as its leading international authority. But his genius, many would now feel his eccentricity, led him quickly to other matters, and no one ever went so far into so …