Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Essence of Keynes

"Let us clear from the ground the metaphysical or general principles upon which, from time to time, laissez-faire has been founded. It is not true that individuals possess a prescriptive ‘natural liberty’ in their economic activities. There is no ‘compact’ conferring perpetual rights on those who Have or on those who Acquire. The world is not so governed from above that private and social interest always coincide. It is not so managed here below that in practice they coincide. It is not a correct deduction from the principles of economics that enlightened self-interest always operates in the public interest. Nor is it true that self-interest generally is enlightened; more often individuals acting separately to promote their own ends are too ignorant or too weak to attain even these. Experience does not show that individuals, when they make up a social unit, are always less clear-sighted than when they act separately. We cannot therefore settle on abstract grounds, but must handle on its merits in detail what Burke termed: "one of the finest problems in legislation, namely, to determine what the State ought to take upon itself to direct by the public wisdom, and what it ought to leave, with as little interference as possible, to individual exertion..."

This quote provides a good perspective on the economist most reviled by those who have never read him. Keynes was a pragmatist who understood the problems inherent in a society in which private interests were not balanced with the public interest. It is important to figure out the proper role of each in terms of the practical problems that we face. In other words, the doctrine of private supremacy is an ideological approach that can impede social progress. He was totally opposed to the notions of a corporatist or a statist society. Of course, his belief that the public interest might be served by the state was heresy to economic fundamentalists who preferred a society without a counterbalancing role for the state. Most forms of fundamentalism are primarily an impediment to careful thought about how to deal with social issues. They are an alternative to the use of mind.

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