3IM10 via FlickrToday’s big economic brouhaha comes courtesy of historian Niall Ferguson, who reportedly told a group that John Maynard Keynes’ economic philosophies were informed by the fact that he was childless and gay, and thus not concerned about the ramifications of policy on future generations.
A lot of people have this idea that Keynes didn’t care about the future because of the famous line “In the long run we’re all dead,” which people take to mean that the only thing that matters is the short term.
But the full line is: “In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if, in tempestuous seasons, they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.”
In other words, he’s slamming economists for being sanguine about near-term troubles, merely because in the long term, stability and equilibrium will return.
It turns out, Keynes thought a lot about the long-term. In fact he was kind of infamous for it, imagining a world in which pretty much all of human needs would be solved and we’d be living a life of leisure.
The conclusion sums it up nicely. He envisions a world of needs being met, and encourages people to start preparing for this:
I look forward, therefore, in days not so very remote, to the greatest change which has ever occurred in the material environment of life for human beings in the aggregate. But, of course, it will all happen gradually, not as a catastrophe. Indeed, it has already begun. The course of affairs will simply be that there will be ever larger and larger classes and groups of people from whom problems of economic necessity have been practically removed. The critical difference will be realised when this condition has become so general that the nature of one’s duty to one’s neighbour is changed. For it will remain reasonable to be economically purposive for others after it has ceased to be reasonable for oneself. The pace at which we can reach our destination of economic bliss will be governed by four things-our power to control population, our determination to avoid wars and civil dissensions, our willingness to entrust to science the direction of those matters which are properly the concern of science, and the rate of accumulation as fixed by the margin between our production and our consumption; of which the last will easily look after itself, given the first three.
Meanwhile there will be no harm in making mild preparations for our destiny, in encouraging, and experimenting in, the arts of life as well as the activities of purpose. But, chiefly, do not let us overestimate the importance of the economic problem, or sacrifice to its supposed necessities other matters of greater and more permanent significance. It should be a matter for specialists-like dentistry. If economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people, on a level with dentists, that would be splendid!
Whethere we’ve achieved Keynes’ vision is hotly debatable. But there’s no debate that Keynes thought immensely about the long-term future, and wanted the world to be prepared for it.
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