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John Maynard Keynes

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John Maynard Keynes.
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John Maynard Keynes, Baron Keynes (1883–1946) was a British economic theorist whose work dominated pre- and post-World War II economic theory, during which it reached its maximum expression.

Keynesianism is in contrast with the Austrian school of Friedrich August von Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, and the Chicago/monetarist schools associated with Milton Friedman, both of which advocate for an unrestrained free market and came to be dominant in the 1980s with the rise of supply side economics.

Economic theory[edit]

Broadly speaking, Keynesian economics calls for higher marginal tax rates during "boom" periods, both to dampen economic extravagance and to build up a "nest egg," or "rainy day fund," and to then use those funds for public spending during "bust" periods, in order to buffer the working and middle classes from the disasters wrought by the "masters of the universe" and their money games.[1]

Because of his focus on tax reductions for the poor and middle class, and an increase in government spending on infrastructure, conservative economists consider him akin to a socialist and/or Satan, but in reality he was not an advocate for the abolition of private property, but of a "subtle" control of it and effectively how to save the market from the outcomes of its own excesses.[note 1] In his personal politics, Keynes wasn't a socialist either, eschewing the Labour Party in favour of the pro-capitalist Liberal Party. However, because the application of his theory has become strongly associated with the social democratic[note 2] "welfare state", hardcore wingnuts are bound to use the "communist" label at all times though it's misguided at best. Libertarians may prefer the softer-sounding "statist".

More "intellectual" right-wingers have a more sophisticated strawman to attack Keynes with — to them, the word "Keynesian" means "Spend shitloads of money for no reason and never stop!" It should be noted that this could possibly be applied to Keynesian economists, highlighting the differences between Keynes' economics and Keynesian economics,[2] yet even then most Keynesian theorists ask for a return to balanced budgets (i.e. cutting spending) after a return to sustained growth (some conservatives appear to have a problem with this).

The idea that the economy is driven by aggregate demand rebutted the then orthodox Say's Law. Free market-oriented economists argued that the market will always return to equilibrium and reach employment in the long run and that the government should do nothing lest it lengthen the natural return to equilibrium or enact programs that would lead to socialism. Keynes' reply to this was essentially "In the long run, we are all dead."[note 3] Keynes simply argued that too much savings at one time would create the paradox of thrift — money hoarding by everyone at the same time due to low consumer confidence became a negative feedback loop and made recessions even worse.

Political life[edit]

Keynes was known for his uncanny prescience. He attended the 1919 Paris Peace Conference as a member of the British treasury and estimated that the reparations imposed on Germany by the French and the British were on the order of ten times what it could ever hope to pay. He warned that the reparations would cause Germany's economy to collapse and possibly lead to political upheaval not just in Germany, but the entirety of Europe. He was roundly ignored, and then guess what happened?

Keynes was in correspondence with Franklin Delano Roosevelt as well around the time his General Theory was published. In 1937, America's GDP had reached pre-crash levels, though unemployment was still lagging. FDR had actually run in 1932 as a fiscal conservative, blasting Hoover for his spending. While FDR's first term was marked by a pragmatic approach that broke from any fiscal conservatism, he became sympathetic to conservative calls for austerity measures. (Sound familiar?) Keynes warned him that though the economy had recovered to a great degree, it was too fragile to shift gears just yet. FDR ignored him and raised taxes and cut spending to balance the budget while having the Fed run a contractionary policy. This resulted in the Roosevelt Recession of 1937-1938, which led to FDR reversing his policies and instituting "The Third New Deal" (the first two taking place in his first term), and whaddya' know, the economy started to turn around again.

Keynes also debated openly in written correspondence with Hayek, which has been immortalized in a music video rap battle.[3] His record was tarnished to some degree by the buttloads of money he lost in stocks in 1929, but he later became even richer playing the market during the Depression.[4] Anyway, the idea that to be credible you must at no point in time lose money while gambling on the stock market is somewhat strange.

Toward the end of World War II, he argued in favor of a world central bank and currency. Although no one knows what would have happened if his plan had won out over Harry Dexter White's, his criticisms of the White Plan (which led to the World Bank) came to bear, giving us further evidence that Keynes was receiving inside information from a time traveler.

Although Keynes' ideas lost ground during the latter half of the century with the rise of Friedman, the Chicago school, stagflation, and Reaganomics, the situation from 2008(-... who knows when) has already been dubbed "The Keynesian Resurgence" due to a renewed interest in revisiting Keynes' work while putting serious dents in the credibility of the more panglossian versions of (neo)liberal economics.[note 4]

He died in 1946, pronouncing these last words: "I only wish I had drunk more champagne."[5]

Misrepresentation of Say's Law[edit]

Keynes popularized a misrepresentation of Say's Law that has entered popular discourse. Jean-Baptiste Say's original formulation meant that the total demand in an economy would never fall below or exceed supply. This was then reformulated as "supply creates its own demand" by James Mill, though Keynes is most often associated with this re-statement of Say's Law.[6]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. His book The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money was written during the Great Depression, after all.
  2. Like Keynes, Social Democrats have generally advocated a "controlled" or "social" market economy (at least since WWII) and Keynesian economics were popular among pretty much all non-communist European governments, whether left or right, between roughly 1945 and 1979.
  3. Libertarians often take this out of context to mean that Keynes was denigrating the idea of saving money, which is a misinterpretation at best and a quote mine at worst.
  4. Though the picture presented by 2008-2015 has been quite schizophrenic with the early bailouts and stimulus packages being very Keynesian, but they were immediately followed by a focus on neoliberal-/conservative-style austerity measures and clamours about the level of public debt.