Tuesday, November 26, 2013

John Maynard Keynes

The Economist posts its beautiful 1946 obituary of John Maynard Keynes, which begins:
The sudden death of Lord Keynes on Easter morning has removed a great man. In turn civil servant, pamphleteer, don and college bursar, editor, company chairman, patron of the arts, government spokesman and adviser, member of the Upper House—he touched no career that he did not brilliantly adorn. More than any other man of his time he had the power to arouse informed opinion to the acceptance of novel proposals and if the public mind is better prepared in this country than in many others to face the problems of the period that is now opening, Keynes can claim far more than one man’s share of the credit. The story is told that when he was appointed a director of the Bank of England, he was accused by a friend of turning orthodox in his old age and replied, with his perfect self-assurance, “You are wrong. Orthodoxy has caught up with me.” What would have been conceit in another was the simple truth in his case. He had the gift that comes only to real leaders, of being well ahead of his generation and yet able to pull it along behind him. For this, more than intellect and more than lucidity are needed—though Keynes had both in plenty. He had also the integrity of the philosopher and, when he wished, the fervour of the prophet.
Cardiff Garcia brings my attention to Robert Skidelsky's memoir of writing his Keynes biography, which concludes:
"But, soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or ill," Keynes wrote, in one of his most famous passages. I have often puzzled about the word "dangerous". Keynes was a most careful user of words. How can ideas be dangerous for good? A more obvious word would be "powerful"; the thought behind it being that ideas have a stronger influence on events, for good or bad, than have interests. And this is how the passage is usually interpreted. But the word "dangerous" adds a subtlety characteristic of Keynes: the thought that ignorance is dangerous, but that knowledge, too, is dangerous, because it tempts to hubris - the usurpation by men of divine powers - whose inevitable fruit is nemesis. That Keynes great revolutionary manifesto, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money should have ended on this oblique note of warning is striking testimony to a greatness that transcended economics. An intellect that could soar, seemingly without limit, accepted the discipline of earth- bound limits in the management of human affairs. This is the Keynes I love, and whose personality and achievements I have tried to convey.

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