Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Keynes on Plans for Society

I was reading Keynes's 1926 review of Trotsky's book Where is Britain Going? and particularly liked this passage:

"Granted his assumptions, much of Trotsky's argument is, I think, unanswerable. Nothing can be sillier than to play at revolution if that is what he means. But what are his assumptions? He assumes that the moral and intellectual problems of the transformation of Society have been already solved--that a plan exists, and that nothing remains except to put it into operation. He assumes further that Society is divided into two parts the proletariat who are converted to the plan, and the rest who for purely selfish reasons oppose it. He does not understand that no plan could win until it had first convinced many people, and that, if there really were a plan, it would draw support from many different quarters. He is so much occupied with means that he forgets to tell us what it is all for. If we pressed him, I suppose he would mention Marx. And there we will leave him with an echo of his own words "together with theological literature, perhaps the most useless, and in any case the most boring form of verbal creation."

Trotsky's book must confirm us in our conviction of the uselessness, the empty-headedness of Force at the present stage of human affairs. Force would settle nothing no more in the Class War than in the Wars of Nations or in the Wars of Religion. An understanding of the historical process, to which Trotsky is so fond of appealing, declares not for, but against, Force at this juncture of things. We lack more than usual a coherent scheme of progress, a tangible ideal. All the political parties alike have their origins in past ideas and not in new ideas and none more conspicuously so than the Marxists. It is not necessary to debate the subtleties of what justifies a man in promoting his gospel by force; for no one has a gospel. The next move is with the head, and fists must wait."

First, as in the General Theory and the Tract on Monetary Reform Keynes comes out firmly against this idea that anybody has a viable blueprint or plan that they can just superimpose on society. In the General Theory especially he made repeated mention of the fact that we must take a gradual, experimental approach and be cognizant of the fact that different societies are going to accept different forms and extents of reform. This point, of course, gets back to my old complaint about rationalist vs. empirical outlooks, and my old complaint against social engineering mindsets.

I am also quite fond of the point against people who promote themselves through the use of force. The dismissal of this option reminds me of Christopher Hichens; the advocacy of force in the imposition of these master-plans should not lead us to a debate over the alleged plan. "It is not necessary to debate the subtelties of what justifies a man in promoting his gospel by force," in other words. By promoting his gospel by force, this man removes himself from the scope of reasoned discourse.

Finally, I love the line "we lack more than usual a coherent scheme of progress, a tangible ideal". It captures the mood of the interwar period very well, and I'm afraid it also captures our current mood.


  1. I was recently in Northern Bengal in the deep Communist heartlands of India and I saw an interesting sight in Bagdogra.

    There was a restauarant (with quite decent food), which had a sign that said Worker's Cooperative Society Restaurant Pvt Ltd. You could see that the people waiting at the tables, making the food, and delivering the food were the exact same people and they were also the ones who owned and managed the place and looked up finances at the end of the day. All of them looked like they were above the age of 50.

    I took two things from this experience:

    1) If working people wanted to build their ideal society with work commonly divided, and ownership and labour not separated, they could do it. All they have to do is pool in their resources and build their enterprise. It's that simple.

    2) Despite the fact that they all have this choice, many workers have willingly chosen NOT to do so, and are quite comfortable with the capitalist system where decision-making and strategizing is left to owners of capital, while they merely get their wages at the day's end.

    Indeed, the waiters at capitalist restaurants in New Delhi are better paid than these waiters in Bengal, and we would be ridiculous to believe the former are wage slaves.

    The point of this post?

    That men like Trotsky have taken a purely paternalistic approach to working people, by assuming that they know what is best for working class people without being working class people themselves.

    Whatever working class people want, they will advance through their own initiative and their own interests. They don't have to be told what they should think or what they should want. Indeed Labour Parties in Britain, Canada, Austra,lia, and New Zealand were not started by Marxists or Proudhonian anarchists. (The 19th century Australian Labour Party, in fact, was fiercely determined to protect interests of capital against foreign competition, because they saw capital as the source of their jobs. Working people abroad and across the world be damned!)

  2. Yet Keynes aligned himself with ideas like eugenics and he repeatedly talked about a future when people just weren't greedy, or seeking profit anymore. Suffice it to say Keynes wasn't all that consistent in his thoughts; he definitely knew what he considered was best for everyone else and was not shy in telling people about it. No "experiments in living" for Keynes in other words.

  3. Gary, Keynes had a wide variety of ideas, and he dismissed them just as well. His wrongful thoughts may have been rejected later in life as youthful idealism was replaced by older sobriety.

    I myself had strong ideas about the misery of the poor and like George Bernard Shaw, as a 12 year old I thought they should be put out of that misery. Social engineering thoughts occur in many people now and then, and it's a matter of when we reject them.

    Despicable thoughts do not make us despicable human beings.

  4. The eugenics point is one I oughta look into more, because as I've agreed in the past - it was there. Gary's last two sentences are wrong, but the eugenics is there.

    The eugenics, though, is not of the sort that Prateek describes - "putting them out of their misery". A lot of it was just planned application of birth control and that sort of thing - some sterilization. There were some that actually advocated forced sterilization, but I wasn't under the impression Keynes was one of those. And all of this emerged out of a concern about population control. So it's not especially pleasant, but I don't expect it's the monstrosity some people make it out to be either. We promote birth control in Africa today to (1.) control large families so families have a better chance at success, (2.) improve health and hygiene, and we (3.) target poor families. Nobody sees this as a monstrosity, and this current movement is closer to what the (non-Aryanism) eugenics movement was about back then. They didn't talk as PC as we do at the time. They weren't in Africa - they were in the poor parts of England. That all makes it look less seemly. But it is more akin to the "population policy" of today than it is to the eugenics of the Nazis. This isn't to say there weren't eugenicists motivated by ideas about racial purity - there certainly were. But the thrust of the movement was really about population control and hygiene and health - and in a society with racists in it, it's obviously going to be tinged with racism.

  5. "...some sterilization."

    Wow. Not just "some sterilization" - tens of thousands of people were forcibly sterilized in the U.S. alone as a result of the eugenics movement. Keynes was in favor of it, though for tactical reasons he and his fellow advocates switched to advocating voluntary eugenics because the British population would not put up with forced sterilization. The record is clear on that. He also lauded eugenics thusly:

    "Galton’s eccentric, sceptical, observing, flashing, cavalry-leader type of mind led him eventually to become the founder of the most important, significant and, I would add, genuine branch of sociology which exists, namely eugenics." - John Maynard Keynes. Eugenics Review. 1946

    Galton was, amongst other things, known for claiming that photography could be used as a means to divine "criminal faces." Galton also favored forced sterilization, though for some reason he is often viewed as simply an advocate of voluntary sterilization.

    "We promote birth control in Africa today to (1.) control large families so families have a better chance at success, (2.) improve health and hygiene, and we (3.) target poor families."

    There is a significant difference between giving people access to something and forcibly performing an operation on them. The latter is indeed a monstrosity.

    "But the thrust of the movement was really about population control and hygiene and health..."

    That is non-sense on stilts. The thrust of the program was to further human evolution in the way that was desired by the members of the various eugenics societies, etc. This is stated over and over again the congresses, etc. on the subject and by the members themselves. There are mountains of primary documents on this subject which point exactly where I say the direction of these groups was headed.

    My last two sentences are spot on. Sorry to attack your hero in this way, but honestly, the guy needs to be unmasked for the bastard that he was.

  6. This all reminds of the following statement in Slyvia Nasar's "A Beautiful Mind" (one of the best biographies of the 20th century).

    Speaking about von Neumann she states that:

    "Quite possibly his conviction reflected his generation's distrust ... of unfettered individualism. Though von Neumann hardly shared the liberal views of Einstein, Bertrand Russell, and the British economist John Maynard Keynes, he shared something of their belief that actions that might be reasonable from the point of view of the individual could product social chaos. Like them he embraced the then-popular solution to political conflict in the age of nuclear weapons: world government."

    I really cannot think of a more radical departure from classical liberalism than world government; it puts one in the company of such civilization by the sword advocates as Hugo de Grotius (though ironically Grotius is often seen as an advocate of limiting war, his system enhances his use - as he foresaw - by allowing war in all manner of circumstances never generally acknowledged before - to defend a universal moral order).

  7. I'm not talking about forcible sterilization in the U.S. Gary. I never mentioned the U.S.. The U.S. situation was considerably more heinous to the extent that even Hitler admired and took courage in it.

    I was not under the impression Keynes was an advocate of forced sterilization. If you have evidence to the contrary, by all means share it. I think you'd know what my thoughts on would be on that.

    Until that point, most of what you written here is more of the slander that you've had a really bad habit of posting lately.

  8. How does world government depart from classical liberalism and how does it imply any association with civilization by the sword?

    Certainly the world governance aspirations of Russell, Einstein, and Keynes of all people have nothing to do with and are diametrically opposed to "civlization by the sword". Others - maybe. I don't know how von Neumann thought about it. But the examples Nasar lists certainly bear no resemblance to it.

  9. I mean really Gary - to take two of the most prominent pacifists (not Keynes, in this case) and tie them all in with that is really, really sloppy.

  10. Einstein and Russell were both inconsistent at best re: their pacifism.

    When you argue for a universal law enforced by a single state you are asking for ongoing warfare; it is one of the two commonly discussed contradictions regarding world government (the other being that in order to have it one must have conditions necessary that will mean world government is necessary). What's sloppy is that you don't know this.

    "I was not under the impression Keynes was an advocate of forced sterilization."

    He was not an advocate of such publicly in Britain because it was not part of the possible politics at the time; instead British eugenicists shifted gears and advocated voluntary sterilization. Of course, that by itself is problematic at best given the state of genetic knowledge at the time - they were way outside of their depth and it illustrates their class biases and arrogance.

    Pray reveal, what does Keynes mean by this in "The End of Laissez Faire" then?

    "The time has already come when each country needs a considered national policy about what size of population, whether larger or smaller than at present or the same, is most expedient. And having settled this policy, we must take steps to carry it into operation. The time may arrive a little later when the community as a whole must pay attention to the innate quality as well as to the mere numbers of its future members."

    Real real liberals do not make such statements - ever.


    Admittedly he did have a wide variety of ideas, and he held a bunch of contradictory ideas and held to a bunch of anti-liberal ideas - as illustrated by his never wavering notion that the state ought to be involved in centrally planning human population size.

  11. Daniel,

    My opposition to Keynes and his anti-liberal ideology aren't anything new. And it is not the first or the last time I will use said quote by Keynes.

    And I should have done a real preview ...

    The contradiction is that a world government would be unnecessary because the conditions required for it obviate the need for it if those conditions ever came into being.

  12. Daniel,

    BTW, if you don't like mountains you are welcome to say all you want to say about such on my blog. :)

  13. on eugenics and a consistent liberal worldview: mises ftw

  14. one of the most satisfying things about libertarianism is its relative consistency. even if keynes was against forced selective people breeding (hard to know) he was very much for a coercive economy. mises said the same thing about coercion the same regardless of the field: no!

  15. Libertarianism is relatively consistent according to its own logic, but I'd hardly call that consistency. Libertarians are quite coercive when it comes to rights to self-governance. They are quite coercive when it comes to the imposition of a status quo delineation of rights. But as I said, they have an internal consistency. How do they achieve that internal consistency? By defining "coercion" such that they are internally consistent. That is not especially impressive to me.

  16. Gary -
    re: "He was not an advocate of such publicly in Britain because it was not part of the possible politics at the time"

    How do you know this? It is true that voluntary sterilization in general was advocated much more often than forced sterilization. Wikipedia says its for political expediency... that's the only place I've heard why voluntary was prefered over forced. I hope you are basing the claim for why they had that preference on more than that. But even if that is established, what could possibly justify you in thinking political expedience as a justification had anything to do with Keynes's position?

    re: "Real real liberals do not make such statements - ever."

    Concern with population is an interesting and unusual preoccupation of the early 20th century that I don't share, but there was nothing illiberal about this claim. Illiberality may come in in how it is approached, perhaps.

    On mountains - I am a fan, but that's a little besides the point. That's an opinion. What's been notable is the accusations you've been making that aren't framed as subjective.

  17. "How do you know this?"

    I've read about it in numerous secondary sources.

    There is nothing illiberal in the notion that you need a centralized plan regarding the number of people within the artificial borders of a nation-state? That is no government's business, and it is certainly illiberal for the state to delve into such matters (as numerous real liberals at the time remarked).

    Besides that all you are doing is asking for trouble for allowing such an inquiry to take place; nothing but nightmares ahead when the government undertakes such a task in other words. Keynes was either illiberal or a fool.

  18. Anyway, I'll leave off talking about Keynes here. Suffice it to say we disagree and we're apparently not going to see eye to eye on the matter.

  19. The podcaster at School Sucks pegs your thinking perfectly. one almost has to sit through years of government indoctrination to consider democracy self-governance.
    1)put piece of paper with name of candidate or prop in a box.
    2)win by some tiny percentage
    3)get bread and circusses from me at gunpoint.
    4)good baby!! you just governed yourself!!


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