Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Keynes and Anti-semitism

I think a lot of people who are familiar with Keynes know that he harbored some anti-semitic views, although some people are still surprised when they hear this (here, here - HT Bob Murphy). Recently, this statement of his has gotten some coverage:

"[Jews] have in them deep-rooted instincts that are antagonistic and therefore repulsive to the European, and their presence among us is a living example of the insurmountable difficulties that exist in merging race characteristics, in making cats love dogs …

It is not agreeable to see civilization so under the ugly thumbs of its impure Jews who have all the money and the power and brains."

The fuller context of that passage is even stranger, because it starts by complimenting the intellect and contributions of several Jewish friends and acquaintances of Keynes (including Einstein) in Germany. Complimenting the intellect and contributions after, of course, first insulting Einstein. It's an extremely odd read.

Keynes's anti-semitism is always tied to the idea of the love of money. Early in his life, he talked about that as a Jewish legacy in Europe, and an obstacle to living the good life. Later in his life, most prominently in the General Theory, but also in Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren, it's clearly not presented as a Jewish problem, but a much broader human problem.

Keynes was also in support of eugenics. I don't know as much about his specific views on eugenics (except that he ascribed to Malthusianism and was worried about overpopulation), but as far as I know he did not make any connections at all between anti-semitism and eugenics. This is an important point. He held some terrible prejudices against Jews, but then he also held terrible prejudices against Russians, Americans, and probably many other groups. But as far as I know it was prejudice and never a view that there was any kind of inhuman quality to any of the groups he didn't like. Very, very early on in the Nazi regime he called their crimes against the Jews barbaric and emphatically opposed them. In Economic Consequences of the Peace, Keynes mocked Poland's backwardness citing specifically its abuse of its Jews. And at the time of the peace conference, Keynes was closely involved with a committee promoting Zionism and the establishment of a Jewish state.

Keynes was clearly an anti-semite. There's no question of this at all. Maybe he lost some of it later in life? That would be nice, but I just don't know. He doesn't seem to reference Jews at all in the General Theory on precisely the issues that he prominently associated with them earlier (the desire to acquire money), so maybe he did grow out of it. I think a lot of people grew out of anti-semitism over the course of the 1930s. Over the last year I've been reading through H.P. Lovecraft's letters from 1929 to 1937, and he makes a fascinating transition out of anti-semitism during this period for two reasons: seeing how ugly anti-semitism was in continental Europe, and recognizing that the broad economic troubles couldn't be placed at the feet of Jews. I would say - whether he grew out of it or not - as far as I can tell Keynes never had anything more than prejudices. He never thought Jews were criminal or inhuman in any way that necessitated action against them. He just didn't like them and had some nasty ideas about them.

Jonathan Catalan discusses all this here. He writes:

"Maybe now Brad Delong, et. al., can be a little bit more sympathetic to Ron Paul. Well, I am not asking for sympathy — rather, I ask Brad DeLong, et. al., attack the actually relevant aspects of Paul’s philosophy (the philosophy he is bound to act on as president of the United States)."

I'm still not quite sure this cuts it. First, there's a big difference between anti-semites before and after the 1930s, just like there's a big difference between racists before and after the 1860s and certainly before and after the 1960s. Jefferson associated with racists but I'm pretty sure he was genuine about liberty and democracy and all that. Ron Paul associated with racists, and I really have to wonder what's going on in his head. The 1990s are not the 1790s. That's not saying Jefferson was right, of course - he certainly wasn't. It's simply to speak to Jonathan's point about "relevant aspects" of philosophy and policy. Jefferson's racism is probably mostly irrelevant to his philosophy because it was the 1790s and it wasn't exactly a viewpoint that people could be differentiated on. Anyone associating with racists today is much different.

Anyway - I don't want to open up the Ron Paul thing again, but I don't think the historical context was completely irrelevant. If Ron Paul associated with these sorts of people in his college days you probably wouldn't even hear me talk about (and although I think most people now are of the same mind on the point of whether Ron Paul wrote them, and a lot of people agree with me that Ron Paul is not a racist, his willingness to associate with racism should be crystal clear from the 1996 interviews).


  1. I've commented on Catalan's post before that there was an article that concluded that Keynes merely uncritically accepted Jewish stereotypes rather than actually holding animousity toward the Jews, but I couldn't recall the article. Now, I have recalled the article, and here it is.

  2. A famous British Orientalist in the 19th century once said about South Asian people that deceit and perfidy are second nature to them.

    Among the intellectual classes in 19th century Britain, I am surprised by the level of chauvinism in **some** of them. Not because there is anything surprising about chauvinism - an old trait of human nature.

    I was surprised, because chauvinism and ethnic suspicions are not exactly the necessary traits for victors of history. (Chauvinism is more typical of the defeated ones - such as Middle Easterners after the end of the Ottoman Empire.) After the English asserted near global dominance, it is utterly baffling why they wanted to rub it in everyone's faces and remind them that they are the superior. Well of course someone from London in 1900 will be much better educated and materially better endowed than someone in Mogadishu in 1900. What's the big deal of reminding everyone of that?

    Same for these quotes by Keynes. The English enjoyed high enough living standards, high enough cultural standards. Why should they feel threatened by the presence of a tiny minority? Because a tiny group of people shall displace the local habits and culture?

  3. Well, the 1990's were not the 2010's either - so much has happened since I've been alive, both visibly and behind the curtains, that I'd almost characterize the progress of humanity as a logarithmic progression. It's roughly 20 years since those newsletters were published, and much has happened in the political atmosphere since then. Gays are much, much more visible and accepted today as they were then, racial minorities are more prevalent and their issues are taken more seriously, ditto with women (although much work is still to be done). A conservative cracking jokes about black looters in '92 was nothing unexpected, nowadays it's (mostly) frowned upon.

    I think Ron Paul grew up in a racially insensitive setting and may still harbor prejudices that seemed normal at that time, but judging by his recent rhetoric on religious tolerance, drug wars and foreign affairs, it's clear that he has let go of a lot of it. Old as he is, I think he's grown as a person and does disawow the newsletters. (He may have too much respect for Rothbard to throw him under the bus, though.)

    This is not to try and make Paul the perfect candidate - he's not. There are plenty of valid reasons to not vote for Paul. I just think that the most you can draw from this issue is his public relations problems that might translate to incompetency as the leader of the executive branch, not the disgrace of having a bigot in the White House.

  4. is the Keynes quotation taken from a diary written when he was 17 or 18

  5. No, I believe it's from 1933 Anonymous.

    The article does quote an earlier essay he wrote when he was young.

  6. *Logarithmic meaning exponential in this case... I think. I always get those two mixed up.

  7. Ron Paul is Running for president now.

    JMK has been dead for a while. There's an important difference in there somewhere in how we should approach their ideas.

  8. Is it surprising that Keynes was a product of his time? Not getting why this is a big deal.

    "It's an extremely odd read."

    Nothing odd about it; there is an easy way to see it - Keynes was trying to integrate individual Jews into his general anti-Jewish mindset, while also still treating them as Jews. Garden variety bigots still do this today. Always assume that someone is a garden variety schmuck in all things except for what they are famous for.

  9. I don't think it's a big deal, Lord Vader. I've agreed he was a eugenicist and an anti-semite for a while, and it obviously hasn't swayed me from appreciating him. I can still appreciate his other ideas and appreciate him as a historical figure without liking the bad stuff. This is particularly convinced that it doesn't have any real influence on the aspects of him I do like.

    I'm writing this up because this stuff has been in the blogosphere recently in a few places, and I think it's important - as a Keynesian - to be clear on these points. It's unhealthy for people to think that those they admire can walk on water - so it's particularly important to critique our own. That's all I was doing - making sure I lent my voice to the recent discussion of this.

  10. I still think it's an odd read. Did you read the whole passage. It wasn't just "I don't like Jews, but this particular Jew is nice". He was quite mean and then quite generous to these guys as a individuals, all before criticizing Jews more broadly. It was a very schizophrenic passage - more than just the typical attempt at integrating views on an individual into prejudices about a community.

  11. Dude, haters going to hate; if someone is going to dislike Keynes they are going to use this fact to their advantage. If you like Keynes, like him.

    All academic professions have polarizing figures like Keynes; camps of thought that are just really ugly sometimes; etc., so that's my frame for looking at Keynes and all that. What is weird (and I mean that in a good sense - weird is often good) about economics (and what I had never considered before that article in the Economist) is how much of that is on public display. Economists really get their freak on for the world to see. Could be because economics is a more "political" field. I just throw that out there because it is the only explanation that comes to mind.

  12. Keynes was 17 and simply parroting the widely held views of his time.


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