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2.6 Keynes’s General Theory

Keynes’s contribution to economic theory remains a matter of considerable

debate, despite almost seventy years having gone by since the publication of

the General Theory, in February 1936. Few economists would challenge

Samuelson’s (1988) view that Keynes’s influence on the course of economics

has been ‘the most significant event in twentieth-century economic science’

or that macroeconomics was his creation. Opponents are convinced that

Keynes was fundamentally mistaken (Hayek, 1983; see also the Friedman

and Lucas interviews at the end of Chapters 4 and 5 respectively). Keynesians

themselves are divided between those who, like Keynes, regard the policy

implications of the General Theory as being moderately conservative (Tobin,

1987), and others who see Keynes’s magnum opus as representing a revolutionary

break from mainstream classical and neoclassical doctrines (Robinson,

1971; Davidson, 1994, and Chapter 8). That the General Theory has had a

profound influence on the development of macroeconomics and the conduct

of macroeconomic policy making, for good or ill, is beyond question.

Keynes was essentially an applied economist brought up in the Cambridge

tradition of Alfred Marshall, where the attraction of economics lay in the

prospect it held out to its practitioners for making the world a better place.

But for Keynes to write the General Theory involved a ‘long struggle to

escape … from habitual modes of thought and expression’. The old ideas

from which Keynes sought to escape were the laissez-faire doctrines associated

with the liberal tradition of nineteenth-century classical economics.

Following Adam Smith, political economy had an underlying bias towards

laissez-faire. The classical economists, with some exceptions, were preoccupied

with government failure. In their view the state should confine its activities

to ensuring a peaceful, competitive environment within which citizens could

pursue their individual objectives as fully as possible. Only the evils of

monopoly power or too much state involvement in economic affairs could

prevent the price mechanism from yielding maximum national output, given

the constraint of scarce but fully employed resources. In contrast to this

orthodoxy, the most revolutionary aspect of Keynes’s work, which we can

detect in his writings from the mid-1920s onwards, was his clear and unambiguous

message that with regard to the general level of employment and

output there was no ‘invisible hand’ channelling self-interest into some social

optimum. Although Keynes’s iconoclastic vision emerges time and time again

in his critiques of UK government policy during the 1920s, many of his

policy recommendations lacked the theoretical structure from which they

could logically be derived. For example, in 1929 Keynes was arguing forcefully

for government programmes to expand demand via deficit financing in

full support of Lloyd George’s Liberal programme of recovery (see Keynes,

1929). But he was doing so without a theory of effective demand and a

multiplier mechanism which are so important to the argument (see Keynes,

1972, Vol. IX).

In order effectively to confront the existing classical orthodoxy head-on,

Keynes needed to provide an alternative theory. With the onset of the Great

Depression we find Keynes retreating ‘into his ivory tower at King’s to

engage, at age forty-eight, in a supreme intellectual effort to save Western

civilisation from the engulfing tide of barbarism which economic collapse

was bringing about’ (Skidelsky, 1992, p. xxvii). Keynes was acutely aware of

the extreme fragility of world capitalism at this point in world history.

The authoritarian state systems of today seem to solve the problem of unemployment

at the expense of efficiency and freedom. It is certain that the world will not

much longer tolerate the unemployment which, apart from brief intervals of

excitement, is associated … and, in my opinion, inevitably associated … with

present-day capitalistic individualism. But it may be possible by a right analysis

of the problem to cure the disease whilst preserving efficiency and freedom.

(Keynes, 1936, p. 381)

We therefore find Keynes from 1931 onwards groping towards his General

Theory, a book that, unlike many of his earlier writings, was addressed to his

fellow economists.

By late 1932, and certainly no later than early 1933, the initial vision or

‘grey fuzzy woolly monster’ in his mind was beginning to appear in his

Cambridge lectures (see Skidelsky, 1992; Patinkin, 1993). To his critics the

General Theory has remained a ‘monster’. Lucas, a leading modern critic of

Keynesianism, finds it a book ‘he can’t read’ which is ‘carelessly written’ and

represents a ‘political response to the Depression’ (see Klamer, 1984). Even

Samuelson, one of Keynes’s earliest converts, describes the book as ‘poorly

organised’ and ‘badly written’. But for Samuelson ‘it is a work of genius’

which, because of its obscurity and polemical character, will remain a longrun

influence on the development of economics (Samuelson, 1946). Galbraith

(1977), reaching a similar conclusion, sees the ambiguity contained in the

General Theory as a feature guaranteed to win converts, for:

When understanding is achieved after much effort, readers hold tenaciously to

their belief. The pain, they wish to think, was worthwhile. And if there are enough

contradictions and ambiguities, as there are also in the Bible and Marx, the reader

can always find something he wants to believe. This too wins disciples.

It is hardly surprising that it was mainly the younger generation of economists

at Cambridge UK and Cambridge USA that took quickly to the new

ideas. Whereas economists over the age of 50 were on the whole immune

from Keynes’s message, the General Theory ‘caught most economists under

the age of thirty-five with the unexpected virulence of a disease first attacking

and decimating an isolated tribe of South Sea islanders’ (Samuelson, 1946).

That change in economics comes with the changing generations also played

an important role some forty years later when the rise of new classical

economics infected mainly the younger generation of economists, so much so

that Keynesians appeared to be threatened with extinction (see Colander,

1988; Blinder, 1988b).