Smoothing Out Keynes

The Age of Keynes

by Robert Lekachman
Random House, 304 pp., $6.00

John Maynard Keynes
John Maynard Keynes; drawing by David Levine

The subtitle of this book is The Life, times, thought and triumph of the greatest economist of our age. The story leads up to the tax cuts of 1965 and ends with the suggestion that the United States will live happily ever afterwards in Keynesian full employment.

The life is pieced together from Harrod’s biography and other memoirs and reminiscences; the development of Keynes’s thought from quotations from his works up to the time of the General Theory. Already at this stage in the book a kind of mollifying process is at work, smoothing out contradictions. Keynes had a high degree of intellectual detachment but he frankly admits to an emotional ambivalence. Morally and aesthetically, capitalism disgusted him, while at the same time he felt that the system was the “best in sight” and must be defended. Robert Lekachman quotes only the defensive passages. From the analysis of the pre-1914 world in Economic Consequences of the Peace he gives us (p. 62) the description of the capitalists: “Like bees they saved and accumulated, not less to the advantage of the whole community because they themselves held narrower ends in prospect” but not:

the labouring classes accepted from ignorance or powerlessness, or were compelled, persuaded or cajoled by custom, convention, authority, and the well-established order of Society into accepting, a situation in which they could call their own very little of the cake, that they and Nature and the capitalists were co-operating to produce.1

From the Short View of Russia he gives us (p. 47) the oft-quoted phrase about “preferring the mud to the fish” but not the analysis of Communism as a new religion:

At any rate to me it seems clearer every day that the moral problem of our age is concerned with the love of money, with the habitual appeal to the money motive in nine-tenths of the activities of life, with the universal striving after individual economic security as the prime object of endeavor, with the social approbation of money as the measure of constructive success, and with the social appeal to the hoarding instinct as the foundation of the necessary provision for the family and for the future.2

What appealed to Keynes in Russia (in spite of the mud) was the hope of a society built on other motives.

This ambivalence runs through the General Theory itself. The hard argument demolishes the orthodox defense of the private-enterprise system and the bravura passages are full of devastating irony; yet at the end the “social philosophy towards which the General Theory might lead” turns out to be “moderately conservative.”3 It is the end that our author finds appealing; he does not have much to say about the rest.

THE MOLLIFYING TREATMENT is most marked in the account of Keynes’s relations with the United States at the end of his life.…

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