Stones into Bread: The Keynesian Miracle
[Originally printed in Plain Talk, March 1948, and reprinted in Planning for Freedom ($10)]
The stock-in-trade of all Socialist authors is the idea that there is potential plenty and that the substitution of socialism for capitalism would make it possible to give to everybody “according to his needs.” Other authors want to bring about this paradise by a reform of the monetary and credit system. As they see it, all that is lacking is more money and credit. They consider that the rate of interest is a phenomenon artificially created by the man-made scarcity of the “means of payment.”
In hundreds, even thousands, of books and pamphlets they passionately blame the “orthodox” economists for their reluctance to admit that inflationist and expansionist doctrines are sound. All evils, they repeat again and again, are caused by the erroneous teachings of the “dismal science” of economics and the “credit monopoly” of the bankers and usurers. To unchain money from the fetters of “restrictionism,” to create free money (Freigeld, in the terminology of Silvio Gesell) and to grant cheap or even gratuitous credit, is the main plank in their political platform.
Such ideas appeal to the uninformed masses. And they are very popular with governments committed to a policy of increasing the quantity both of money in circulation and of deposits subject to check. However, the inflationist governments and parties have not been ready to admit openly their endorsement of the tenets of the inflationists. While most countries embarked upon inflation and on a policy of easy money, the literary champions of inflationism were still spurned as “monetary cranks.” Their doctrines were not taught at the universities.
John Maynard Keynes, late economic adviser to the British Government, is the new prophet of inflationism. The “Keynesian Revolution” consisted in the fact that he openly espoused the doctrines of Silvio Gesell. As the foremost of the British Gesellians, Lord Keynes adopted also the peculiar messianic jargon of inflationist literature and introduced it into official documents. Credit expansion, says the Paper of the British Experts of April 8, 1943, performs the “miracle . . . of turning a stone into bread.” The author of this document was, of course, Keynes. Great Britain has indeed traveled a long way to this statement from Hume’s and Mill’s views on miracles.
Keynes entered the political scene in 1920 with his book The Economic Consequences of the Peace. He tried to prove that the sums demanded for reparations were far in excess of what Germany could afford to pay and to “transfer.” The success of the book was overwhelming. The propaganda machine of the German nationalists, well-entrenched in every country, was busily representing Keynes as the world’s most eminent economist and Great Britain’s wisest statesman.
Yet it would be a mistake to blame Keynes for the suicidal foreign policy that Great Britain followed in the interwar period. Other forces, especially the adoption of the Marxian doctrine of imperialism and “capitalist warmongering,” were of incomparably greater importance in the rise of appeasement. With the exception of a small number of keen-sighted men, all Britons supported the policy which finally made it possible for the Nazis to start the second World War.
A highly gifted French economist, Etienne Mantoux, has analyzed Keynes’ famous book point for point. The result of his very careful and conscientious study is devastating for Keynes the economist and statistician, as well as Keynes the statesman. The friends of Keynes are at a loss to find any substantial rejoinder. The only argument that his friend and biographer, Professor E. A. G. Robinson, could advance is that this powerful indictment of Keynes’ position came “as might have been expected, from a Frenchman.” (Economic Journal, Vol. LVII, p. 23.) As if the disastrous effects of appeasement and defeatism had not affected Great Britain also!
Etienne Mantoux, son of the famous historian, Paul Mantoux, was the most distinguished of the younger French economists. He had already made valuable contributions to economic theory—among them a keen critique of Keynes’ General Theory, published in 1937 in the Revue d’Economic Politique—before he began his The Carthaginian Peace or the Economic Consequences of Mr. Keynes (Oxford University Press, 1946). He did not live to see his book published. As an officer in the French forces he was killed on active service during the last days of the war. His premature death was a heavy blow to France, which is today badly in need of sound and courageous economists.
It would be a mistake, also, to blame Keynes for the faults and failures of contemporary British economic and financial policies. When he began to write, Britain had long since abandoned the principle of laissez-faire. That was the achievement of such men as Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin and, especially, of the Fabians. Those born in the eighties of the nineteenth century and later were merely epigones of the university and parlor Socialists of the late Victorian period. They were no critics of the ruling system, as their predecessors had been, but apologists of government and pressure group policies whose inadequacy, futility and perniciousness became more and more evident.
Professor Seymour E. Harris has just published a stout volume of collected essays by various academic and bureaucratic authors dealing with Keynes’ doctrines as developed in his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, published in 1936. The title of the volume is The New Economics, Keynes’ Influence on Theory and Public Policy (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1947). Whether Keynesianism has a fair claim to the appellation “new economics” or whether it is not, rather, a rehash of often-refuted mercantilist fallacies, and of the syllogisms of the innumerable authors who wanted to make everybody prosperous by fiat money, is unimportant. What matters is not whether a doctrine is new, but whether it is sound.
The remarkable thing about this symposium is that it does not even attempt to refute the substantiated objections raised against Keynes by serious economists. The editor seems to be unable to conceive that any honest and uncorrupted man could disagree with Keynes. As he sees it, opposition to Keynes comes from “the vested interests of scholars in the older theory” and “the preponderant influence of press, radio, finance and subsidized research.” In his eyes, non-Keynesians are just a bunch of bribed sycophants, unworthy of attention. Professor Harris thus adopts the methods of the Marxians and the Nazis, who preferred to smear their critics and to question their motives instead of refuting their theses.
A few of the contributions are written in dignified language and are reserved, even critical, in their appraisal of Keynes’ achievements. Others are simply dithyrambic outbursts. Thus Professor Paul E. Samuelson tells us: “To have been born as an economist before 1936 was a boon—yes. But not to have been born too long before!” And he proceeds to quote Wordsworth:
“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!”
Descending from the lofty heights of Parnassus into the prosaic valleys of quantitative science. Professor Samuelson provides us with exact information about the susceptibility of economists to the Keynesian gospel of 1936. Those under the age of 35 fully grasped its meaning after some time; those beyond 50 turned out to be quite immune, while economists in-between were divided. After thus serving us a warmed-over version of Mussolini’s giovanezza theme, he offers more of the outworn slogans of fascism, e.g., the “wave of the future.” However, on this point another contributor, Mr. Paul M. Sweezy disagrees. In his eyes Keynes, tainted by “the shortcomings of bourgeois thought” as he was, is not the savior of mankind, but only the forerunner whose historical mission it is to prepare the British mind for the acceptance of pure Marxism and to make Great Britain ideologically ripe for full socialism.
In resorting to the method of innuendo and trying to make their adversaries suspect by referring to them in ambiguous terms allowing of various interpretations, the camp-followers of Lord Keynes are imitating their idol’s own procedures. For what many people have admiringly called Keynes’ “brilliance of style” and “mastery of language” were, in fact, cheap rhetorical tricks.
Ricardo, says Keynes, “conquered England as completely as the Holy Inquisition conquered Spain.” This is as vicious as any comparison could be. The Inquisition, aided by armed constables and executioners, beat the Spanish people into submission. Ricardo’s theories were accepted as correct by British intellectuals without any pressure or compulsion being exercised in their favor. But in comparing the two entirely different things, Keynes obliquely hints that there was something shameful in the success of Ricardo’s teachings and that those who disapprove of them are as heroic, noble and fearless champions of freedom as were those who fought the horrors of the Inquisition.
The most famous of Keynes’ aper?çus is: “Two pyramids, two masses for the dead, are twice as good as one; but not so two railways from London to York.” It is obvious that this sally, worthy of a character in a play by Oscar Wilde or Bernard Shaw, does not in any way prove the thesis that digging holes in the ground and paying for them out of savings “will increase the real national dividend of useful goods and services.” But it puts the adversary in the awkward position of either leaving an apparent argument unanswered or of employing the tools of logic and discursive reasoning against sparkling wit.
Another instance of Keynes’ technique is provided by his malicious description of the Paris Peace Conference. Keynes disagreed with Clemenceau’s ideas. Thus, he tried to ridicule his adversary by broadly expatiating upon his clothing and appearance which, it seems, did not meet with the standard set by London outfitters. It is hard to discover any connection with the German reparations problem in the fact that Clemenceau’s boots “were of thick black leather, very good, but of a country style, and sometimes fastened in front, curiously, by a buckle instead of laces.” After 15 million human beings had perished in the war, the foremost statesmen of the world were assembled to give mankind a new international order and lasting peace . . . and the British Empire’s financial expert was amused by the rustic style of the French Prime Minister’s footwear.
Fourteen years later there was another international conference. This time Keynes was not a subordinate adviser, as in 1919, but one of the main figures. Concerning this London World Economic Conference of 1933, Professor Robinson observes: “Many economists the world over will remember . . . the performance in 1933 at Covent Garden in honour of the Delegates of the World Economic Conference, which owed its conception and organization very much to Maynard Keynes.”
Those economists who were not in the service of one of the lamentably inept governments of 1933 and therefore were not Delegates and did not attend the delightful ballet evening, will remember the London Conference for other reasons. It marked the most spectacular failure in the history of international affairs of those policies of neo-Mercantilism which Keynes backed. Compared with this fiasco of 1933, the Paris Conference of 1919 appears to have been a highly successful affair. But Keynes did not publish any sarcastic comments on the coats, boots and gloves of the Delegates of 1933.
Although Keynes looked upon “the strange, unduly neglected prophet Silvio Gesell” as a forerunner, his own teachings differ considerably from those of Gesell. What Keynes borrowed from Gesell as well as from the host of other pro-inflation propagandists was not the content of their doctrine, but their practical conclusions and the tactics they applied to undermine their opponents’ prestige. These stratagems are:
- All adversaries, that is, all those who do not consider credit expansion as the panacea, are lumped together and called orthodox. It is implied that there are no differences between them.
- It is assumed that the evolution of economic science culminated in Alfred Marshall and ended with him. The findings of modern subjective economics are disregarded.
- All that economists from David Hume on down to our time have done to clarify the results of changes in the quantity of money and money-substitutes is simply ignored. Keynes never embarked upon the hopeless task of refuting these teachings by ratiocination.
In all these respects the contributors to the symposium adopt their master’s technique. Their critique aims at a body of doctrine created by their own illusions, which has no resemblance to the theories expounded by serious economists. They pass over in silence all that economists have said about the inevitable outcome of credit expansion. It seems as if they have never heard anything about the monetary theory of the trade cycle.
For a correct appraisal of the success which Keynes’ General Theory found in academic circles, one must consider the conditions prevailing in university economics during the period between the two world wars.
Among the men who occupied chairs of economics in the last few decades, there have been only a few genuine economists, i.e., men fully conversant with the theories developed by modern subjective economics. The ideas of the old classical economists, as well as those of the modern economists, were caricatured in the textbooks and in the classrooms; they were called such names as old-fashioned, orthodox, reactionary, bourgeois or Wall Street economics. The teachers prided themselves on having refuted for all time the abstract doctrines of Manchesterism and laissez-faire.
The antagonism between the two schools of thought had its practical focus in the treatment of the labor union problem. Those economists disparaged as orthodox taught that a permanent rise in wage rates for all people eager to earn wages is possible only to the extent that the per capita quota of capital invested and the productivity of labor increases. If—whether by government decree or by labor union pressure—minimum wage rates are fixed at a higher level than that at which the unhampered market would have fixed them, unemployment results as a permanent mass phenomenon.
Almost all professors of the fashionable universities sharply attacked this theory. As these self-styled “unorthodox” doctrinaires interpreted the economic history of the last two hundred years, the unprecedented rise in real wage rates and standards of living was caused by labor unionism and government pro-labor legislation. Labor unionism was, in their opinion, highly beneficial to the true interests of all wage-earners and of the whole nation. Only dishonest apologists of the manifestly unfair interests of callous exploiters could find fault with the violent acts of the unions, they maintained. The foremost concern of popular government, they said, should be to encourage the unions as much as possible and to give them all the assistance they needed to combat the intrigues of the employers and to fix wage rates higher and higher.
But as soon as the governments and legislatures had vested the unions with all the powers they needed to enforce their minimum wage rates, the consequences appeared which the “orthodox” economists had predicted; unemployment of a considerable part of the potential labor force was prolonged year after year.
The “unorthodox” doctrinaires were perplexed. The only argument they had advanced against the “orthodox” theory was the appeal to their own fallacious interpretation of experience. But now events developed precisely as the “abstract school” had predicted. There was confusion among the “unorthodox.”
It was at this moment that Keynes published his General Theory. What a comfort for the embarrassed “progressives”! Here, at last, they had something to oppose to the “orthodox” view. The cause of unemployment was not the inappropriate labor policies, but the shortcomings of the monetary and credit system. No need to worry any longer about the insufficiency of savings and capital accumulation and about deficits in the public household. On the contrary. The only method to do away with unemployment was to increase “effective demand” through public spending financed by credit expansion and inflation.
The policies which the General Theory recommended were precisely those which the “monetary cranks” had advanced long before and which most governments had espoused in the depression of 1929 and the following years. Some people believe that Keynes’ earlier writings played an important part in the process which converted the world’s most powerful governments to the doctrines of reckless spending, credit expansion and inflation. We may leave this minor issue undecided. At any rate it cannot be denied that the governments and peoples did not wait for the General Theory to embark upon these “Keynesian”—or more correctly, Gesellian, policies.
Keynes’ General Theory of 1936 did not inaugurate a new age of economic policies; rather it marked the end of a period. The policies which Keynes recommended were already then very close to the time when their inevitable consequences would be apparent and their continuation would be impossible. Even the most fanatical Keynesians do not dare to say that present-day England’s distress is an effect of too much saving and insufficient spending. The essence of the much glorified “progressive” economic policies of the last decades was to expropriate ever-increasing parts of the higher incomes and to employ the funds thus raised for financing public waste and for subsidizing the members of the most powerful pressure groups. In the eyes of the “unorthodox,” every kind of policy, however manifest its inadequacy may have been, was justified as a means of bringing about more equality. Now this process has reached its end. With the present tax rates and the methods applied in the control of prices, profits and interest rates, the system has liquidated itself. Even the confiscation of every penny earned above 1,000 pounds a year will not provide any perceptible increase to Great Britain’s public revenue. The most bigoted Fabians cannot fail to realize that henceforth funds for public spending must be taken from the same people who are supposed to profit from it. Great Britain has reached the limit both of monetary expansionism and of spending.
Conditions in this country are not essentially different. The Keynesian recipe to make wage rates soar no longer works. Credit expansion, on an unprecedented scale engineered by the New Deal, for a short time delayed the consequences of inappropriate labor policies. During this interval the Administration and the union bosses could boast of the “social gains” they had secured for the “common man.” But now the inevitable consequences of the increase in the quantity of money and deposits has become visible; prices are rising higher and higher. What is going on today in the United States is the final failure of Keynesianism.
There is no doubt that the American public is moving away from the Keynesian notions and slogans. Their prestige is dwindling. Only a few years ago politicians were naively discussing the extent of national income in dollars without taking into account the changes which government-made inflation had brought about in the dollar’s purchasing power. Demagogues specified the level to which they wanted to bring the national (dollar) income. Today this form of reasoning is no longer popular. At last the “common man” has learned that increasing the quantity of dollars does not make America richer. Professor Harris still praises the Roosevelt Administration for having raised dollar incomes. But such Keynesian consistency is found today only in classrooms.
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There are still teachers who tell their students that “an economy can lift itself by its own bootstraps” and that “we can spend our way into prosperity.” But the Keynesian miracle fails to materialize; the stones do not turn into bread. The panegyrics of the learned authors who cooperated in the production of the present volume merely confirm the editor’s introductory statement that “Keynes could awaken in his disciples an almost religious fervor for his economics, which could be affectively harnessed for the dissemination of the new economics.” And Professor Harris goes on to say, “Keynes indeed had the Revelation.”
There is no use in arguing with people who are driven by “an almost religious fervor” and believe that their master “had the Revelation.” It is one of the tasks of economics to analyze carefully each of the inflationist plans, those of Keynes and Gesell no less than those of their innumerable predecessors from John Law down to Major Douglas. Yet, no one should expect that any logical argument or any experiencecould ever shake the almost religious fervor of those who believe in salvation through spending and credit expansion.
Ludwig von Mises (1881–1973) wrote 25 books on economics, philosophy, and history. This essay is from Planning for Freedom, a collection that is available from the Mises Shop for $10 plus s&h. Comments on this essay can be posted on the blog.
 Cf. Lorie Tarshis, The Elements of Economics, New York 1947, p. 565.