Some Procedural Matters

Some Procedural Matters

Having shown how appreciation and criticism of Keynes's position on the role of government has been extended far beyond his contribution to economics, there must be speculation about what an economist can contribute to the discussion. I believe that the answer lies in adopting the framework of Classical political economy in which I was nurtured, remembering that this tradition is not to be confused with the 'Classical' economists that Keynes attacked because of their laissez-fairism. A way into the debate for the economist may be to seek to answer the question which Keynes raised about himself: 'Am I a Liberal?'

To provide a backcloth which could clearly reveal the distinctive features of Keynes's views on the role of the state, one could equally well start by setting out the characteristics of mainstream socialist economic philosophy. Indeed, it might be argued that, ultimately, Keynes's position is so far removed from collectivist socialism that it would stand out more clearly against a disquisition on socialist ideals. I have preferred to follow Keynes himself, who tended to match his views against those of so-called 'laissez-faire economists'. Even if he recognized that economists whom he respected had severed the nexus between economic analysis and political philosophy, he justified his mode of exposition as follows: 'the guarded and undogmatic attitude of the best economists has not prevailed against the general opinion that an individualistic laissez-faire is both what they ought to teach and what in fact they do teach' (CWIX 282).

A second procedural matter arises from the fact that what Keynes means by liberalism and its prescriptions for government does not necessarily accord with the meaning of that term today. While Keynes frequently contrasts his political position with laissez-fairism, he associates this doctrine not with the Classical economists such as Hume, Smith, Malthus and J.S. Mill but with their publicists, notably Bastiat, Marcet, Martineau and Whately - see CW IX (1972). The economists attending his Berlin lecture on 'The End of Laissez-Faire' in 1926 are likely to have been puzzled by Keynes's lack of reference to any members of the contemporary Austrian School, notably von Mises, whose famous attack on collectivist economic planning had appeared as early as 1908. My procedure is not to pick a quarrel with Keynes's view of liberalism, but rather to offer a synthetic view of liberalism, as would be offered by the heirs to the Classical tradition - the public choice school - and to contrast Keynes's pronouncements with that view. As I am not seeking to rank economists' philosophies of the state, it may be of more interest to proceed in this way rather than to get involved in criticizing Keynes for omissions in his knowledge of liberal thinking.

A third matter concerns Keynes's frequent changes in his ethical position and in his policy perceptions, which led Virginia Woolf to describe him as 'like a piece of quicksilver on a sloping board' (Woolf, 1977). Volumes have been written analysing these changes and I have nothing to add to them. I cannot avoid making some references to changes when these are of a major character, but in trying to convey Keynes's position 'in the round' I am bound to indulge in simplification. On policy questions, I have tended to concentrate on views expressed in his last years.

With these points in mind, let me now draw up my agenda for discussion. I shall start with an account which attempts to derive the broad tasks of the state from liberal principles, but I shall emphasize that the more we try to be precise in the delineation of those tasks, the more we are likely to find differences within the liberal camp. Some of these differences, as I shall demonstrate in Section III, arise from different perceptions of Keynes's own contribution to economic understanding. I then attempt to answer Keynes's own question about himself, but not with reference to his view on what liberalism meant but from the point of view of a modern liberal (Sections IV and V). A concluding section endeavours to assess Keynes's attitude to the role of the state.