The fascist’s favorite economist

I read the following thanks to this post

Keynes’s General Theory was, at least in the short run, one of the most dazzlingly successful books of all time. In a few short years, his “revolutionary” theory had conquered the economics profession and soon had transformed public policy, while old-fashioned economics was swept, unhonored and unsung, into the dustbin of history. How was this deed accomplished? Keynes and his followers would answer, of course, that the profession simply accepted a starkly self-evident truth. And yet The General Theory was not truly revolutionary at all but merely old and oft-refuted mercantilist and inflationist fallacies dressed up in shiny new garb, replete with newly constructed and largely incomprehensible jargon. How, then, the swift success?

Part of the reason, as Schumpeter has pointed out, is that governments as well as the intellectual climate of the l930s were ripe for such conversion. Governments are always seeking new sources of revenue and new ways to spend money, often with no little desperation; yet economic science, for over a century, had sourly warned against inflation and deficit spending, even in times of recession. Economists—whom Keynes was to lump into one category and sneeringly disparage as “classical’ in The General Theory—were the grouches at the picnic, throwing a damper of gloom over attempts by governments to increase their spending. Now along came Keynes, with his modern “scientific” economics, saying that the old “classical” economists had it all wrong: that, on the contrary, it was the government’s moral and scientific duty to spend, spend, and spend; to incur deficit upon deficit, in order to save the economy from such vices as thrift and balanced budgets and unfettered capitalism; and to generate recovery from the depression. How welcome Keynesian economics was to the governments of the world!

In addition, intellectuals throughout the world were becoming convinced that laissez-faire capitalism could not work and that it was responsible for the Great Depression. Communism, fascism, and various forms of socialism and controlled economy became popular for that reason during the 1930s. Keynesianism was perfectly suited to this intellectual climate.

[…]

One of Keynes’s most unfortunate effects was his misconceiving of the history of economic thought, since his devoted legion of followers accepted Keynes’s faulty views in The General Theory as the last word on the subject. Some of Keynes’s highly influential errors may be attributed to ignorance, since he was little trained in the subject and mostly read work by his fellow Cantabrigians. For example, in his grossly distorted summary of Say’s law (“supply creates its own demand”), he sets up a straw man and proceeds to demolish it with ease (1936: 18). This erroneous and misleading restatement of Say’s law was subsequently repeated (without quoting Say or any of the other champions of the law) by Joseph Schumpeter, Mark Blaug, Axel Leijonhufvud, Thomas Sowell, and others. A better formulation of the law is that the supply of one good constitutes demand for one or more other goods (see Hutt 1974: 3).

But ignorance cannot account for Keynes’s claim that he was the first economist to try to explain unemployment or to transcend the assumption that money is a mere veil exerting no important influence on the business cycle or the economy. Here we must ascribe to Keynes a deliberate campaign of mendacity and deception—what would now be called euphemistically “disinformation.” Keynes knew all too well of the existence of the Austrian and LSE schools, which had flourished in London as early as the 1920s and more obviously since 1931. He himself had personally debated Hayek, the chief Austrian at LSE, in the pages of Economica, the LSE journal.

[…]

Even if he had not agreed with this analysis, it was unconscionable for Keynes to ignore the very existence of this school of thought then prominent in Great Britain, a school which could never be construed as ignoring the impact of monetary expansion on the real state of the economy.

In order to conquer the world of economics with his new theory, it was critical for Keynes to destroy his rivals within Cambridge itself. In his mind, he who controlled Cambridge controlled the world. His most dangerous rival was Marshall’s handpicked successor and Keynes’s former teacher, Arthur C. Pigou. Keynes began his systematic campaign of destruction against Pigou when Pigou rejected his previous approach in the Treatise on Money, at which point Keynes also broke with his former student and close friend, Dennis H. Robertson, for refusing to join the lineup against Pigou.

[…]

In The General Theory, Keynes set forth a unique politico-economic sociology, dividing the population of each country into several rigidly separated economic classes, each with its own behavioral laws and characteristics, each carrying its own implicit moral evaluation. First, there is the mass of consumers: dumb, robotic, their behavior fixed and totally determined by external forces. In Keynes’s assertion, the main force is a rigid proportion of their total income, namely, their determined “consumption function.” Second, there is a subset of consumers, an eternal problem for mankind: the insufferably bourgeois savers, those who practice the solid puritan virtues of thrift and farsightedness, those whom Keynes, the would-be aristocrat, despised all of his life. All previous economists, certainly including Keynes’s forbears Smith, Ricardo, and Marshall, had lauded thrifty savers as building up long-term capital and therefore as responsible for enormous long-term improvements in consumers’ standard of living. But Keynes, in a feat of prestidigitation, severed the evident link between savings and investment, claiming instead that the two are unrelated. In fact, he wrote, savings are a drag on the system; they “leak out” of the spending stream, thereby causing recession and unemployment. Hence Keynes, like Mandeville in the early eighteenth century, was able to condemn thrift and savings; he had finally gotten his revenge on the bourgeoisie.

By also severing interest returns from the price of time or from the real economy and by making it only a monetary phenomenon, Keynes was able to advocate, as a linchpin of his basic political program, the “euthanasia of the rentier” class: that is, the state’s expanding the quantity of money enough so as to drive down the rate of interest to zero, thereby at last wiping out the hated creditors.

[…]

Keynes then came to the third economic class, to whom he was somewhat better disposed: the investors. In contrast to the passive and robotic consumers, investors are not determined by an external mathematical function. On the contrary, they are brimful of free will and active dynamism. They are also not an evil drag on the economic machinery, as are the savers. They are important contributors to everyone’s welfare. But, alas, there is a hitch. Even though dynamic and full of free will, investors are erratic creatures of their own moods and whims. They are, in short, productive but irrational. They are driven by psychological moods and “animal spirits.”

[…]

To develop a way out, Keynes presented a fourth class of society. Unlike the robotic and ignorant consumers, this group is described as full of free will, activism, and knowledge of economic affairs. And unlike the hapless investors, they are not irrational folk, subject to mood swings and animal spirits; on the contrary, they are supremely rational as well as knowledgeable, able to plan best for society in the present as well as in the future. This class, this deus ex machina external to the market, is of course the state apparatus, as headed by its natural ruling elite and guided by the modern, scientific version of Platonic philosopher-kings. In short, government leaders, guided firmly and wisely by Keynesian economists and social scientists (naturally headed by the great man himself), would save the day. In the politics and sociology of The General Theory, all the threads of Keynes’s life and thought are neatly tied up.

And so the state, led by its Keynesian mentors, is to run the economy, to control the consumers by adjusting taxes and lowering the rate of interest toward zero, and, in particular, to engage in “a somewhat comprehensive socialisation of investment.” Keynes contended that this would not mean total state Socialism, pointing out that

it is not the ownership of the instruments of production which it is important for the State to assume. If the State is able to determine the aggregate amount of resources devoted to augmenting the instruments and the basic rate of reward to those who own them, it will have accomplished all that is necessary. (Keynes 1936: 378)

Yes, let the state control investment completely, its amount and rate of return in addition to the rate of interest; then Keynes would allow private individuals to retain formal ownership so that, within the overall matrix of state control and dominion, they could still retain “a wide field for the exercise of private initiative and responsibility.” As Hazlitt puts it:

Investment is a key decision in the operation of any economic system. And government investment is a form of socialism. Only confusion of thought, or deliberate duplicity, would deny this. For socialism, as any dictionary would tell the Keynesians, means the ownership and control of the means of production by government. Under the system proposed by Keynes, the government would control all investment in the means of production and would own the part it had itself directly invested. It is at best mere muddleheadedness, therefore, to present the Keynesian nostrums as a free enterprise or “individualistic” alternative to socialism. (Hazlitt [1959] 1973: 388; cf. Brunner 1987: 30, 38)

There was a system that had become prominent and fashionable in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s that was precisely marked by this desired Keynesian feature: private ownership, subject to comprehensive government control and planning. This was, of course, fascism. Where did Keynes stand on overt fascism? From the scattered information now available, it should come as no surprise that Keynes was an enthusiastic advocate of the “enterprising spirit” of Sir Oswald Mosley, the founder and leader of British fascism, in calling for a comprehensive “national economic plan” in late 1930. By 1933, Virginia Woolf was writing to a close friend that she feared Keynes was in the process of converting her to “a form of fascism.” In the same year, in calling for national self- sufficiency through state control, Keynes opined that “Mussolini, perhaps, is acquiring wisdom teeth” (Keynes 1930b, 1933: 766; Johnson and Johnson 1978: 22; on the relationship between Keynes and Mosley, see Skidelsky 1975: 241, 305–6; Mosley 1968: 178, 207, 237–38, 253; Cross 1963: 35–36).

But the most convincing evidence of Keynes’s strong fascist bent was the special foreword he prepared for the German edition of The General Theory. This German translation, published in late 1936, included a special introduction for the benefit of Keynes’s German readers and for the Nazi regime under which it was published. Not surprisingly, Harrod’s idolatrous Life of Keynes makes no mention of this introduction, although it was included two decades later in volume seven of the Collected Writings along with forewords to the Japanese and French editions. The German introduction, which has scarcely received the benefit of extensive commentary by Keynesian exegetes, includes the following statements by Keynes: “Nevertheless the theory of output as a whole, which is what the following book purports to provide, is much more easily adapted to the conditions of a totalitarian state, than is the theory of production and distribution of a given output produced under conditions of free competition and a lance measure of laissez-faire.”

Murray Rothbard, “Keynes, the Man” (pdf)

Advertisements
Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s