Books to Reread: John Maynard Keynes: Essays in Persuasion

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Books to Reread: John Maynard Keynes (1931): Essays in Persuasion: "Here are collected the croakings of twelve years—the croakings of a Cassandra who could never influence the course of events in time...

...The volume might have been entitled "Essays in Prophecy and Persuasion," for the Prophecy, unfortunately, has been more successful than the Persuasion. But it was in a spirit of persuasion that most of these essays were written, in an attempt to influence opinion. They were regarded at the time, many of them, as extreme and reckless utterances. But I think that the reader, looking through them to-day, will admit that this was because they often ran directly counter to the overwhelming weight of contemporary sentiment and opinion, and not because of their character in themselves.

On the contrary, I feel—reading them again, though I am a prejudiced witness—that they contain more understatement than overstatement, as judged by after-events. That this should be their tendency, is a natural consequence of the circumstances in which they were written. For I wrote many of these essays painfully conscious that a cloud of witnesses would rise up against me and very few in my support, and that I must, therefore, be at great pains to say nothing which I could not substantiate. I was constantly on my guard—as I well remember, looking back—to be as moderate as my convictions and the argument would permit.

All this applies to the first three of the five books into which these essays naturally group themselves, rather than to the last two; that is to say, to the three great controversies of the past decade, into which I plunged myself without reserve,—the Treaty of Peace and the War Debts, the Policy of Deflation, and the Return to the Gold Standard, of which the last two, and indeed in some respects all three, were closely interconnected. In these essays the author was in a hurry, desperately anxious to convince his audience in time.

But in the last two books time's chariots make a less disturbing noise. The author is looking into the more distant future, and is ruminating matters which need a slow course of evolution to determine them. He is more free to be leisurely and philosophical.

And here emerges more clearly what is in truth his central thesis throughout,—the profound conviction that the Economic Problem, as one may call it for short, the problem of want and poverty and the economic struggle between classes and nations, is nothing but a frightful muddle, a transitory and an unnecessary muddle. For the Western World already has the resources and the technique, if we could create the organisation to use them, capable of reducing the Economic Problem, which now absorbs our moral and material energies, to a position of secondary importance.

Thus the author of these essays, for all his croakings, still hopes and believes that the day is not far off when the Economic Problem will take the back seat where it belongs, and that the arena of the heart and head will be occupied, or re-occupied, by our real problems—the problems of life and of human relations, of creation and behaviour and religion. And it happens that there is a subtle reason drawn from economic analysis why, in this case, faith may work. For if we consistently act on the optimistic hypothesis, this hypothesis will tend to be realised; whilst by acting on the pessimistic hypothesis we can keep ourselves for ever in the pit of want...