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ROBERT SKIDELSKY

Robert Skidelsky was born in 1939 in China and graduated in 1960 from

Jesus College, Oxford, where he also obtained his MA and DPhil, in 1961

and 1967, respectively. He was a research fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford

(1965–8) and at the British Academy (1968–70), Associate Professor of

History at Johns Hopkins University (1970–76), Head of Department of

History, Philosophy and European Studies, Polytechnic of North London

(1976–8), Professor of International Studies, University of Warwick (1978–

90) and is currently Professor of Political Economy, University of Warwick

(since 1990). He was made a life peer in 1991.

Professor Skidelsky is one of the leading authorities on Keynes and the

interwar period. Among his best-known books are: Politicians and the Slump

(Macmillan, 1967); The End of the Keynesian Era (editor) (Macmillan, 1977);

John Maynard Keynes, Vol. 1: Hopes Betrayed, 1883–1920 (Macmillan, 1983);

John Maynard Keynes, Vol. 2: The Economist as Saviour, 1920–1937

(Macmillan, 1992); Keynes (Oxford University Press, 1996); and John Maynard

Keynes, Vol. 3: Fighting for Britain 1937–46 (Macmillan, 2000).

His articles include: ‘Keynes’s Political Legacy’ and ‘Some Aspects of

Keynes the Man’, in O.F. Hamouda and J.N. Smithin (eds), Keynes and

Public Policy After Fifty Years, Vol. 1: Economics and Policy (New York

University Press, 1988); ‘Keynes and the State’, in D. Helm (ed.), The Economic

Borders of the State (Oxford University Press, 1989); and ‘The Influence

of the Great Depression on Keynes’s General Theory’, History of Economics

Review, Winter–Summer, 1996.

Together with Peter Wynarczyk (formerly Principal Lecturer in Economics at

Northumbria University), we interviewed Professor Skidelsky in his office at

Warwick University on 9 March 1993.

Why did you decide to write a biography of Keynes?

It evolved out of my earlier historical work relating to the interwar years.

Keynes was a major presence in my previous books and a major source of

inspiration for my view of that period. I thought he was an interesting person

and I had better write about him. I came to that conclusion after reading the

biography by Roy Harrod in which I thought there were things which were

left too vague and unclear.

Does your interpretation of Keynes’s life and work differ in any fundamental

way from that offered by Harrod and Moggridge?

I am more historically minded. That may be the major difference. There are

historical ways of thinking about phenomena and economic ways of thinking

about them. Now I do not think you must draw a very sharp divide but

economists tend to be generalizers and historians tend to concentrate on the

idiosyncratic and unexpected. Historians make better biographers, on balance,

than economists. For many economists, evidence is simply data rather

than being history – the stuff of illumination. They treat history like statisticians.

That is not a very illuminating approach to understanding a man’s life

or work.

Why are there so many varied interpretations of Keynes’s General Theory?

Does this demonstrate the strength or weakness of the book?

Probably the main reason is that Keynes was a fertile rather than a systematic

thinker. He was much better over the short essay than over the treatise. His

mind was always brimming with ideas, and he could not really stick to one

line for any length of time. Too many things kept coming in. The second

reason is that there was, in all his work, a strong polemical element. He

wanted very much to do things. You have to sort out the polemics from the

theory and it is not always very clear where one begins and the other ends.

Keynes would always overemphasize one part of an argument in order to

clinch a policy conclusion. The third reason is that Keynes operated on many

different levels. You can pick and choose which level you find most attractive.

That is why there are these different interpretations.

Do you see this multidimensional picture as a strength?

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Yes, because, in the end, fertility is what lasts, not rigour. Rigour is for its

own time, fertility is for all time.

What elements of Marshall did Keynes reject and which did he retain in his

intellectual journey from The Tract to the General Theory?

The most obvious thing is that he took from Marshall his particular method

of dealing with time. He made a clear distinction, in many of his writings,

between the short period and the long period – that came straight out of

Marshall. But one must not take that too rigidly because Keynes retained a

fairly open mind about the analytic method he would use till quite late in the

writing of the General Theory – whether to use a short period equilibrium

framework or to use a disequilibrium framework. Secondly, he probably

never deviated much from Marshall’s theory of the firm and he always, rather

illogically, accepted Marshall’s perfect competition models, despite Marshall’s

acceptance of increasing returns. Keynes never thought much beyond that,

which is why he was really very uninterested in the imperfect competition

revolution. I always found that fascinating, paradoxical and odd. The evidence

is that although he was a great admirer of Piero Sraffa, he never took

on board that element of the Cambridge revolution starting with Sraffa’s

[1926] article leading through to Joan Robinson’s [1933] contribution. This

was partly because he remained very Marshallian on the supply side of

microeconomics and perhaps as confused as Marshall was on one or two of

these issues. Keynes believed in a third-generation theory of the firm and

tended to assume that firms decayed naturally before they established any

serious monopolistic position in the market. The third influence was the idea

that you should not take wants as given and that there were higher-value

wants. But, unlike Marshall, he thought that these higher-value wants were

derived from philosophy rather than from evolution. Fourthly, Keynes took

from Marshall the cash-balances version of the quantity theory of money. He

always thought about the quantity theory in that way and not in the Fisher

way. That’s how he got into the Treatise on Money and beyond that into the

General Theory. These legacies of Marshall were enormously important.

How would you characterize Keynes’s methodological stance?

I think Keynes was only weakly verificationist. He would not have much

favoured the view that hypotheses can be verified by tests of one kind or

another – certainly not hypotheses in the social or moral sciences. In fact that

was the root cause of his opposition to econometrics. He thought that the

most important thing about a theory is that it must be fertile and atuned to

one’s intuitions. He thought data were very important in forming these

intuitions: you should not ignore the real world. You should be a vigilant

observer, this was one of the economist’s most important tasks, but it was raw

stuff, it was not doctored or predigested. The kind of stuff modern economists

look at is all pre-done, the curves are already there. Keynes hated

economic data presented as graphs – that is why he never used graphs in any

of his writings, and the one diagram contained in the General Theory was

provided by Harrod. He always wanted the actual figures. The figures were

not to verify hypotheses; they were to indicate the sort of limits of the

validity of our intuitions. If the figures were totally contrary to your intuitions

then probably your intuition is wrong – but it was a rough and ready kind of

testing: nothing that could claim to be verificationist theory. What he would

have said about Popper’s falsifiability method I do not know. He may have

been more interested in that.

Given your detailed biographical work on Keynes, were there any real surprises

which you unearthed in your research?

The surprises, if at all, arise from the historical treatment itself, by embedding

Keynes’s ideas very carefully in historical and biographical situations, including

values and, therefore, paying greater attention to the more ephemeral

writings. It is usually there that one can see the mind in action and at the edge

of things. I find his lectures from the period 1931–3 to be much more interesting,

in a way, than the General Theory itself, because you can see the whole

thing raw. You can actually see more clearly what was going into it. When he

was writing his Treatise on Probability, he wrote to Lytton Strachey and said, ‘I

am now turning my stuff into a more formal treatise and everything original

that I have thought is going to be snuffed out in the course of doing it because

that is what academic life is like.’ Now that is not quite true; of course, the

General Theory was thought to be a revolutionary book when it came out. But I

think some of the raw energy that went into the creation of it was lost.

You have written that ‘Keynes’s inspiration was radical, his purpose conservative’

– how did Keynes reconcile these conflicting forces?

Well, the best answer to that was given by Galbraith, who said people who

are radical in monetary matters are usually social conservatives. In other

words, there is a certain kind of therapy for an economy which is nonstructural,

which serves the purpose of preserving the existing structures.

That does not give rise to a problem, in my mind. If you think of some of the

competing radicalisms of Keynes’s time, particularly Marxism, you do see

that Keynes’s theory was, by comparison with that, very conservative about

the social order, and deliberately so. He said, time and again, if you do not

accept my modest remedies you will be faced with having to accept much

more disagreeable ones sooner or later. I do not think his theory was simply

instrumental to preserving the existing social order but he had that as an aim

in his mind. He also really did believe that, with some small changes in the

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way things were run, you could avoid the worst of business fluctuations and

stabilize the economy. You could do this by improvements in economic

science. So in terms of economic theory he was eventually very radical, but

in terms of the concluding notes of the General Theory he maintains that his

theory is moderately conservative.

What exactly did Keynes mean when he talked about the ‘socialisation of

investment’?

Keynes was a political operator and it was one of those phrases tossed out to

the Labour Party. That phrase comes out of the 1920s when he was talking

about the growth of socialistic institutions in the womb of capitalism. By the

late 1920s he was really arguing that a large part of private enterprise was not

properly private any longer; it was, in some sense, socialized because its

managers paid more attention to stability than short-run profit maximization.

Once firms reached a certain size they also started developing public motives

and responsibilities and they tended to be run by people who are much more

like civil servants and dons than old-style thrusting Schumpeterian entrepreneurs.

So I think the socialization of investment minimally meant simply a

growing tendency for investment criteria to be social, arising from the natural

evolution of the capitalist system. I think Galbraith has something of the

same thought in his New Industrial State [1967].

How would you account for the very rapid spread of Keynesian ideas, especially

in the USA?

Well, did they spread very rapidly in the USA? Within academia you find a

very patchy picture if you look at the USA as a whole. Harvard, yes, certainly.

The Harvard–Washington nexus has been very well explored. Once

Keynesianism could take a tax remission form rather than a public spending

form, then, of course, you got quite a lot of conservative business support.

You could always give it a supply-side justification. That is why you had a

Reagan version of Keynes in the 1980s. There was a much more modest

built-in stabilizers version in the 1940s and 1950s. I personally think Keynes

had more effect on Roosevelt’s New Deal than he has latterly been given

credit for, especially in the first phase of the New Deal, the pre-General

Theory phase. But, as in Britain, Keynesianism really arrived in connection

with wartime finance.

Would you draw a clear separation between the work of Keynes and the

contributions of Keynesians? In particular, what is your view of the IS–LM

interpretation?

You always have to draw a distinction between the work of an original

pioneer and that of his followers. The fertility, innocence and sharpness of the

original version is modified and made acceptable for the ordinary business of

life. Keynes was always quite careful to have a portion of his theory that

could be modelled, even though he did not particularly spend much time

modelling it himself. It was left for others to do that, not only Hicks, but

Harrod and Meade; the whole thing was reduced to a set of simultaneous

equations, an approach which was not true to Keynes’s own spirit. He was

much more a chain equation person, being far more interested in chains of

causation, and trying to work those out. Hicks emptied the General Theory of

its real bite, he generalized and increased its acceptability, whilst laying the

basis for the neoclassical synthesis. It was a very important PR job but I do

not think it captured the essence of what Keynes was trying to say. In fact,

Hicks conceded this. The interesting point is Keynes’s reaction to Hicks’s

interpretation. Here I do differ somewhat from Don Patinkin, who has always

argued that Keynes accepted the Hicks version as an entirely accurate representation

of his theory. That Keynes never criticized it is perfectly true. My

own feeling is that Keynes, although it sounds odd to say this, never grasped

the significance of it and never thought it particularly interesting. He never

reacted to it, that is the important point. It is not that he said that this is

marvellous or awful, he just never reacted and that is puzzling. He was a

punctilious correspondent. Hicks sent it to him, yet he did not reply for six

months, and then said ‘I have got nothing to say about this’, apart from one or

two points which seemed rather unimportant. But it does seem to me he

thought Hicks was not a very interesting thinker. He said Hicks had got a

good beta plus mind. That was a mistake. There was something about Hicks

Keynes did not respond to – in exactly the same way Kaldor never did.

Kaldor once said to me that Hicks was not a great economist because ‘a great

economist has to be a pamphleteer – Hicks is a judge, he weighs up everything

and takes a middle view. That is not the tradition of Adam Smith at all.

Keynes was in that tradition, I, Kaldor, am in that tradition, Hicks is not.’

There was some lack of sympathy between Keynes and Hicks which meant

that Keynes tended to ignore anything which Hicks did.

Did Keynes give the classics a rough deal in the General Theory?

Yes. He set up an Aunt Sally. No classical economist ever believed in the

things Keynes claimed that classical economics stood for and none of his

associates did really. Neither Robertson, Hawtrey nor Hayek were classical

economists. The only classical economist was someone like Pigou. Keynes

was quite deliberate. He said the things he was describing as classical economics

were not what the economists of his day actually believed in, but the

things they would need to believe to make sense of what they were saying.

Keynes was challenging them to make their premises consistent with their

conclusions.

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If the General Theory had been written in 1926, could the economic disaster

experienced in the 1930s have been avoided?

No, I do not think that the General Theory could have been published ten

years earlier. That particular indictment of classical economics and, indeed,

of the way the economy behaved needed the great slump to crystallize it.

Keynes’s books were very good reflections of the experience of the different

decades. The Treatise on Money sums up the 1920s and had nothing to do

with the great slump. It is an open economy model where one country is not

doing very well. The General Theory is a book about a world slump and,

therefore, there is no escape except through the government. But your question,

in addition, seems to be asking: if people had been equipped with better

theory, would they have had better policy? You needed not only the better

theory but also the better theory to be accepted, and that is very different. My

hunch is that all theories of a Keynesian type, paradoxically, start to wilt a bit

if things get very, very bad. They are most acceptable when they are least

needed. In other words, everyone was Keynesian in the 1950s and 1960s

when there was no pressure. As soon as the pressure starts you find that

orthodoxy has a habit of coming back and here is a psychological puzzle:

when people are under great stress and there is a great increase in nervousness,

then people do cling to the oldest of their verities, not the newfangled

ones.

Do you think too much has been made of the Pigou effect as a way of

diminishing Keynes’s theoretical contribution? Did he not anticipate but

reject this idea himself?

In the 1920s it came under the rubric of ‘induced lacking’ which Keynes

added to Dennis Robertson’s Banking Policy and the Price Level [1926]. This

is where you increase your saving in order to restore the real value of your

cash balances eroded by inflation, and that is an equilibrating mechanism,

and Keynes suggested this real-balance effect to Robertson. Why did Keynes

not see it working in reverse, in a situation of deflation? I think the answer is

that he was not thinking along those equilibrium lines. I know Presley [1986]

makes out the case that he was, but I did not find his argument persuasive. In

the case of the Pigou effect, why did not Keynes admit it as a sort of

theoretical possibility and then simply discount it as irrelevant or very weak?

I do not know. Keynes was greatly concerned about the consequences of a

community becoming increasingly impoverished, rather than mechanical adjustments

of balances.

To what extent was there a Keynesian revolution in the UK and USA in the

post-Second World War period? Do you think Keynes would have approved of

the policies so often carried out in his name?

It is hard to say that there was not a revolution. Some commentators have

doubted whether there was. It still seems to me that if you commit yourself to

maintain a high and stable level of employment you are saying something

new, and governments had not said that before. How much you intend to do

about it is another matter. But once you have produced a form of words, even

politicians are somewhat constrained by them. And, of course, they would

only have made that pledge, had they had a somewhat different model of the

economy than they had before the war, and some experience of Keynesian

fiscal management, which came in the Second World War. So there was a

worldwide Keynesian revolution which was obviously different in different

countries. Everyone took what they wanted from Keynes and added it to their

own traditions.

How fundamental are the ‘presuppositions of Harvey Road’ to Keynes the

political economist? Surely the contributions made by the public choice

school and from the political business cycle literature have shown Keynes to

have been politically naive?

No, I would not accept that. You cannot really say that someone was naive

unless they lived through the relevant period and failed to register the findings

of that period. It is not the right word to use about Keynes and I think his

political views would have developed had he lived through the 1960s and

1970s. The assumptions that he made at the time probably fitted the facts of

the time rather better than they fitted the facts of later times.

Other than Keynes, who in your view has had the most important influence on

the post-General Theory development of macroeconomics?

Undoubtedly Friedman. Both as a challenger to Keynes and as a leader of

thought in his own right. The Friedmanite challenge to Keynes also led into

the rational expectations revolution. It is very, very important to understand

that Friedman is a macroeconomist and shares many of Keynes’s presuppositions

of the role of macroeconomics in stabilizing economies. Friedman has

always given high praise to Keynes’s Tract on Monetary Reform. The other

great economist of the twentieth century was Hayek, but Hayek disbelieved

in macroeconomics; he did not believe it to be a valid science because he was

a methodological individualist of a very extreme kind.

Given Keynes’s emphasis upon the importance of expectations in the General

Theory, what do you think he would have made of the rational expectations

hypothesis and the new classical models developed by Lucas and others?

Again, it is terribly difficult, because you are really asking a question about

Keynes’s epistemology and that takes you into his Treatise on Probability and

how you talk about the rationality of beliefs. There are flashes of rational

Robert Skidelsky 99

expectations in Keynes – you could tell a rational expectations story about

the instantaneous multiplier if you wanted to, since you expect or anticipate

all of the effects immediately – but on the whole, surely, his leading idea was

uncertain expectations.

David Laidler [1992b] has drawn attention to the low standards of historical

scholarship amongst economists. As a historian and an economist would you

agree with this view?

Yes, I think so, partly for the reasons I have outlined earlier. Economists are

not very good historians and I believe this comes out particularly in connection

with Keynesian studies which emphasize or pay exclusive attention to a

single book – the General Theory – and which show a lack of interest as to

how it fits into the whole of his thought and the history of the time. One of

the few economists who understood that was Axel Leijonhufvud [1968], who

took the Treatise on Money seriously and tried to build up a picture of

Keynesian theory that was halfway between the Treatise on Money and the

General Theory. That was a very interesting exercise. The new scholarship

has taken seriously the problem of linking Keynes’s later economic writings

to his earlier philosophical writing, but this approach is curiously unhistorical.

They do not, for example, see the Treatise on Probability as a work of before

1914, which is what a historian would instinctively see it as, and root it there.

These new scholars simply set it side by side with the General Theory and

explore the differences and similarities. That is not history.

Which non-economic elements most influenced Keynes’s economics?

I would have thought there were three key non-economic elements. First, the

classics, which he studied at school, and his sense of the classical world and

its methods. There are lots of classical and fairy-tale allusions in his writings.

Second, theology. A lot of his language, and the way he used it, was quite

theological. After all, economics was theology’s successor and retains many

of its characteristics. Third, the arts. What is economic activity for? This

comes out especially in essays like ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’

[1930]. Aesthetics influenced his view of the role of economics.

The vehement opposition to the UK’s membership of the ERM expressed by

leading British monetarists such as Alan Walters and Patrick Minford bears

an uncanny resemblance to Keynes’s attack upon Churchill in the 1920s. Are

the two episodes similar?

The two episodes are similar in many ways. In both cases the pound was

overvalued and insufficient attention was paid to the adjustment process.

Keynes’s opposition to the Gold Standard was based upon the argument of

the Tract on Monetary Reform, which is very monetarist. It has to do with the

lag system in the adjustment to new sets of prices or exchange rates. But I do

not think that Keynes was ever a currency floater in the 1970s monetarist

sense. He wanted a managed system, and remember he was one of the main

architects of the Bretton Woods system. In a world in which there were no

controls on capital and where you had a financial system that was much more

deregulated than it was even in Keynes’s day, one may conjecture whether he

would have thought that we cannot win the game against speculators; hence

the attempt to maintain fixed exchange rates is doomed to failure.

Despite the crisis in Keynesianism, widely recognized in the 1970s, such

ideas are now experiencing something of a resurgence. How do you account

for this? Do you see an emerging consensus, perhaps, where Keynesianism

again has a focal point in macroeconomics?

Well, yes. Keynes said two things that seem to me of permanent value and

must be part of anyone’s thinking about the way economies work. Firstly, he

emphasized uncertainty leading to volatility. Speculation is the balancer of

economies and the way it balances is through extreme volatility in other

markets. Secondly, he emphasized repercussions on income, output and prices,

rather than prices alone. These two things are very important and any modern

understanding of the way economies work must bear them in mind. If you

believe economies are volatile, that recessions are sufficiently severe and that

their effects do not go away automatically, then that dictates some role for

government. Other economists say that government should not play very

much of a role, just follow a few rules. This is where the real debate is and I

am on Keynes’s side. That does not mean that we shall exactly follow Keynes’s

own prescriptions. Times change and his policies would have changed with

them.

If Keynes had still been alive in 1969, do you think he would have received

the first Nobel Prize in Economics?

Ah [laughter]. Well, all one can say is yes [further laughter].

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