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2.7 Interpreting the General Theory

One of the great problems in discussing the content of the General Theory is

that, being a highly complex, controversial and influential book, it has enabled

economists of widely different persuasions to find statements within it which

support their own vision of Keynes’s essential message. The Keynesiology

literature, already vast, continues to grow exponentially! The diverse range of

views is a source of confusion and enlightenment. E. Roy Weintraub (1979),

for example, has a chapter entitled ‘The 4,827th re-examination of Keynes’s

system’! To get some idea of the contrasting theoretical interpretations of the

General Theory the reader should consult Hicks (1937), Modigliani (1944,

2003), Klein (1947), Patinkin (1956, 1976, 1990b), Leijonhufvud (1968),

Davidson (1978, 1994), Chick (1983), Coddington (1983), Kahn (1984) and

Meltzer (1988). The papers collected in the edited volumes by Cunningham

Wood (1983) give some idea of the critiques and developments which emerged

after 1936. To understand the development of Keynes’s contributions in the

wider context of his life and philosophy, the reader should consult the excellent

biographies of Keynes by Harrod (1951), Moggridge (1992) and Skidelsky

(1983, 1992 and 2000). The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes,

edited by Donald Moggridge, runs to 30 volumes!

There is no definitive interpretation of Keynes which commands universal

support; nor could there ever be, given the non-mathematical style of the

book. The turbulence Keynes has caused in economics continues and the

General Theory remains a text which is ‘not yet fully mined’ (Phelps, 1990;

see also Akerlof’s Nobel Memorial Lecture, 2002). One of the reasons for

this is that the very issue with which Keynes was concerned, namely the

effectiveness of market forces in generating a stable full employment equilibrium

without active government intervention, is still at the centre of economic

debate (the same issue relating to government v. market failure lies at the

heart of controversy elsewhere in economics – see Snowdon, 2001b).

Bill Gerrard (1991) attempts to analyse the reasons why different interpretations

occur. These include confusions generated by Keynes himself due to

‘technical incompetence’, ‘stylistic difficulties’, ‘inconsistencies’ and ‘mistakes’.

Other possible sources of confusion are ‘reader-generated’ and result

from ‘selective reading’, ‘inappropriate framing’ and ‘reliance on secondary

sources’. A further problem arises in the sheer quantity of material which

Keynes produced in addition to the General Theory; for example, some

contributors have shifted emphasis towards Keynes’s earlier and neglected

philosophical papers (O’Donnell, 1989). Gerrard concludes that the achievement

of Keynes’s General Theory is mainly in ‘its ability to generate a

diversity of research programmes’ reflecting a number of possible ways of

looking at the macroeconomy. In short, Gerrard suggests that we should stop

worrying about multiple interpretations, since this confirms the fertility of

Keynes’s work and its ‘reference power’.

Since we cannot hope to do justice to the wide variety of interpretations of

Keynes, here we will present a conventional account of some of the main

arguments associated with the General Theory.