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John Maynard Keynes' biographical essay about Alfred Marshall

While at Kings College, Cambridge, Maynard Keynes was a student of the economist Alfred Marshall and a friend of his wife Mary Paley (about whom Marshall came to a puzzling conclusion late in life). The following are a few selections from Keynes' essay with comments about them. (Note.--I had to return this book to Interlibrary loan before I could finish with it, and I have now no way to verify if my summaries of what Keynes wrote are exactly correct.)

"Alfred Marshall, 1842-1924"

Keynes' Essays in Biography (1951) was reprinted in Essays and Sketches in Biography (1956), which includes his memoir "My Early Beliefs"; the page numbers below are from the second book.

The use or place of mathematics in Economics

Marshall's mathematical and diagrammatic exercises in Economic Theory were of such a character in their grasp, comprehensiveness, and scientific accuracy ... that we may justly claim him as the founder of modern diagrammatic economics ... which all of us use as an inspirer of, and a check on, our intuitions and as a shorthand record of our results, but which generally falls into the background as we penetrate further into the recess of the subject. (p. 54)

I believe the following to be a quote from Marshall himself, but I also believe that Keynes agreed with it.

The chief use of pure mathematics in economic questions seems to be in helping a person to write down quickly, shortly and exactly, some of his thoughts for his own use....[Keynes' ellipsis] It seems doubtful whether anyone spends his time well in reading lengthy translations of economic doctrines in the mathematics, that have not been made by himself. ([Endnotes to the Marshall essay] p. 328n55)

James Jeans called mathematics the language of God; and it seems that although a physicist might say that, an economist would not -- that is, that economic activity does not obey mathematical laws, or at least it does not always: God speaks another language here. (I wonder if I am reading Keynes correctly.)

... Marshall had a characteristic habit in all his writings of reserving for footnotes what was most novel or important in what he had to say ... (p. 66)

I think I once read that Keynes did this too, and it was called the Cambridge style. The following is from Marshall's Inaugural Lecture at Cambridge.

Economics is not a theoretical science -- There is no "pure economics" as there is pure mathematics

While attributing high and transcendent universality to the central scheme of economic reasoning, I do not assign any universality to economic dogmas. It is not a body of concrete truth, but an engine for the discovery of truth. (p. 68)

An economist needs to know the actual world he is attempting to describe the pattern of economic life of. (And that world will change from time to time.) The publication of Marshall's books was delayed by Marshall's demand on himself to first fully gather empirical evidence, which included his meeting working men and businessmen, in order to test his economic ideas (or "intuitions", a word Keynes often uses but whose meaning is unclear to me) against reality.

Keynes, however, thought Marshall's delaying publication to be wrong. Keynes favored the publication of pamphlets on particular subjects, sharing the state of their author's researches with other economists. Marshall had always shared his ideas with his students and so his ideas were made known by them many years before Marshall's book was published. Keynes doubted that economists should any longer try to write a work such as Adam Smith had written.

Economists must ... write always sub specie temporis, and achieve immortality by accident, if at all. (p. 70)

Comment: in Wittgenstein's case, none of the students who attended his lectures wrote anything of importance, despite his sharing his ideas with them, before the posthumous publication of his Philosophical Investigations. But neither have they done afterwards. One can either simply repeat what a philosopher has said, if one understands it oneself, which Wittgenstein's students did not, or absorb his ideas in your own way and develop your own philosophy. But the latter of course is an act of genius; thus e.g. Russell's ideas and Wittgenstein, and Marshall's ideas and Keynes.

Economics is value-laden

[Marshall once said] "If I had to live my life over again I should have devoted it to psychology. Economics has too little to do with ideals. If I said much about them I should not be read by businessmen." (p. 71)

Question: what was being called 'psychology' at Cambridge in Marshall's time? At that time, if I recall aright, Economics was classified as one of the Moral Sciences as was Philosophy; so that I think 'moral' here means something like 'concerning the life of man', of which ethics is a part; so that 'Moral' does not = 'ethical' here.

Comment: But if, as I believe it is, Economics is moral-value-laden, it is not necessary for an economist to be explicit about what his ideals are; for these will show themselves in many ways in his writings.

Economics, like all the social sciences [the subject matter of which is human life], is moral-value-laden. Because although one can objectively describe the way to achieve a particular objective, one must also decide whether that objective is a moral good; e.g. which will it better serve, working men or wealth-accumulating capitalists and the propertied class? Different societies are so arranged as to benefit different groups. For example, in Britain there is a National Health Service which is free at point of need, which immensely benefits the poor and working class; on the other hand, in the United States there is nothing whatever like that and apparently there is little popular desire for it either [The politicians and press, which are both the tools of businessmen, use all their propaganda skills to ensure that], and this disadvantages the poor and working lower-class, who either go without medical care until they are very ill indeed or go deeply into debt to pay for it. All this is not a question of economic necessity but only of moral-values [the ethical ideal, or its absence, of human solidarity]. Human beings can make many different economic arrangements work -- if they want to.

Every social scientific system, given its subject matter, but most clearly in psychology and economics, can be expected to embody value-judgments -- judgments about how we should live our life. Because, given its subject matter, can such a system be purely descriptive? (Of course I don't know.)

According to an Associated Press report of 12 June 2010, on that date "during a Vatican audience" Pope Benedict XVI said to "representatives of the European Council's Development Bank":

Economy and finance "are no more than tools, means" to safeguard human "capital, the only capital worth saving" ...

But what Schweitzer wrote in November 1934 regarding to the position of Christianity in Europe following the First World War has not changed.

... in the war religion lost its purity, and lost its authority. It joined forces with the spirit of the world. The one victim of defeat was religion. And that religion was defeated is apparent in our time. For it lifts up its voice but only to protest. It cannot command. The spirit of the age does not listen. It goes its own way. (Albert Schweitzer, Religion in Modern Civilization; reprinted in Seaver (1947), p. 335)

Authority is instead derived from philosophers-manque like economist Milton Friedman, who used to quote "You can't serve two masters", but never said which two masters Jesus was talking about -- namely, God and money (Luke 16.13; in Matthew this is part of the Sermon on the Mount); but Friedman, knowing better than Jesus, chose instead freedom and equality as mutually exclusive goals, but his examples were absurd: if we wanted equality then all women should have exactly the same legs as Marlene Dietrich, he said. He called President Kennedy's "Don't ask what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country" utterly wrong (as if Kennedy had said 'government' rather than 'country' when he tried to inspire young Americans with an ideal of public service): your place in life is not to serve your community but only yourself ... a notion which was echoed by another philosophically illiterate preacher, Margaret Thatcher, when she said that society doesn't exist. Well it certainly does not exist in the same sense of the word 'exist' as an individual human being does, but that is a mere matter of logic of language (Wittgenstein: "He doesn't even understand philosophy -- how can he understand [this]!"). To conclude from the different senses of the word 'exist' that therefore the individual has no responsibility to the community is, of course, illogical -- i.e. it does not follow. And it destroys young people's sense of community. What must be the state of a country be when a disciple of Ann Rand like Alan Greenspan is allowed to play god of its economic life.

... his parents voted Tory -- until Margaret Thatcher made her speech to the general assembly of the church of Scotland in which she seemed to suggest that there was no such thing as society. Darling remembers his father coming home and "sitting there and saying he'd voted Conservative all his life, but he thought the central strand of his conservatism was that while people could do well, they had a duty to help people who hadn't done well -- and now he'd been told that wasn't right. And he said, 'That's it'." (Interview of Alistair Darling, former Labour chancellor of the exchequer, in the Guardian newspaper, 11 June 2010)

What must it mean when a man like Ronald Reagan is twice selected by the majority of voters to lead their country, Reagan the master of "the politics of envy" -- oh, not envy of the rich, but envy of the poor; Reagan, whose own family had been on Relief during the Great Depression, but who attacked mythical "welfare queens driving Cadillacs" (Had his own mother been one of these); he encouraged mean-spiritedness among the ignorant by telling them that they were paying high taxes to support the poor [i.e. the black American poor] and the labor unionists: you are not the wage-slaves, debt-slaves and tax-slaves of the 10% who possess 90% of the country's wealth, but of poor people living in slum palaces. And the greatest threat to your "freedom" is -- Medicare. The difference between L. B. J and Reagan: President Johnson wanted to make war against poverty. Reagan wanted to make war on the poor. Johnson wanted to help the weak and disadvantaged. Reagan wanted to punish them.

When Republicans and Tories speak of "cutting the size of government", what they mean is cutting government help for the disadvantaged in society and for the poor.

Once there were leaders who spoke of "Four Freedoms", one of which was "freedom from want" (F. D. R.), or whose social policy was "I want for every American family what my mother wanted for me" (L. B. J.). When economists advocate policies, whatever they advocate is value-laden: it is not only a question of what we can do, but also of what we want to do, of what our social objective is.

When asked whether he was a socialist, F. D. R. answered, "I am a Christian and a Democrat, and that's always been enough for me." L. B. J. was also a New Deal Democrat. But if we look at political parties they seem inevitably to go through three stages of development, the last of which sees them replacing the ideal which they were created to promote with themselves. This is what has happened to both America's Democratic Party and to Britain's Labour Party. (The Communist Party of China has simply become China's new ruling class: it exists for nothing more than to perpetuate its own power.)

What we should not need to have learned is that allowing the so-called free market (money) to be our master rather than our sense of responsibility towards one another as human beings (God ["Love God with thy whole soul and thy neighbor as thyself" (Luke 10.25-37)]) creates a society of appalling inequality, and there is very little freedom where there is wage-slavery (Capitalism does not require either freedom of speech or freedom of conscience: see the example of Singapore). Keynes pointed out long ago that "enlightened self-interest" does not balance out selfishness with altruism, greed with generosity. There is no such thing as business ethics because ethics does not come after anything. It always comes before everything, because, being in this like gods [Gen. 3.5], man knows good and evil.

What James Burke said about the United States applies to Tory-Conservative ideology as well: "It offered everything to the strong, nothing to the weak." Anyone who does not know that there are countless able-bodied human beings who cannot take responsibility for themselves, or believes that the average child born in America's slums, where there are neither good schools nor jobs, can lift himself out of poverty by his own efforts, knows nothing about the real world. The refusal of the rulers of a country to help such people reflects not the rulers' possibilities but the rulers' values. (As in Krylov's fable: "In the eyes of the strong, it is the weak who are at fault.")

Prison is the U.S.A's solution to poverty and mental illness. It is the measure of its state, that the U.S. has the largest prison population of any country on earth.

Those who would ignore Lazarus at their gate (Luke 16.19-25), offering him only platitudes about thrift and hard work, have their reward, but it comes at a very high price, at the price of their common humanity, at the price of the judgment. (("You are going to die someday too."))

Economics should be thought of as the science (or technique) of the possible. It begins with social goals (This is what we want to accomplish), and then seeks strategies for accomplishing, to whatever extent is possible, those goals. The other half of economics is, of course, the science (i.e. the making scientific models) of the actual. Something like this is correct, I think.

For the Athenians 'democratic government' was simply what they called the things they tried to do together as a community of citizens. What that expression means now is hard to say: there are of course still governments, but they are nothing the Athenians would have recognized as democratic.

The truth is that there is only one way to change government policy in the United States of America. Shall I tell you what it is? Then I shall: Buy a legislator. Buy lots of legislators. Millions of people talking on the Internet certainly won't change it.

The social sciences are not 'sciences' if our model of science is the natural sciences, physics, chemistry, biology. (Medicine is a social science.) Although their conclusions have a partial base in the evidence of experience, that is not their only basis, for they are also based on a moral-value world-picture (a view about "no small matter, but how we should live" (Plato, Gorgias)), which physics, chemistry, biology are not. It often happens that men of exceptional intelligence commit "the fallacy of the artisans" (Plato, Apology 22d-e): because they know one thing, they also suppose that they know things that they do not know or understand. And thus the social scientist as philosopher-manque.

Reaction by the press to Marshall's book

He [Marshall] used to tell the following story of his early life: "About the time that I first resolved to make as thorough a study as I could of Political Economy (the word Economics was not then invented) ..." (p. 72)

The journalists could not distinguish the precise contributions and innovations which [Marshall's the Principles of Economics, 1890] contributed to science; but they discerned with remarkable quickness that it ushered in a new age of economic thought. "It is a great thing," said the Pall Mall Gazette, "to have a Professor at one of our old Universities devoting the work of his life to recasting the science of Political Economy as the Science of Social Perfectibility." The New Political Economy had arrived, and the Old Political Economy, the dismal science, "which treated the individual man as a purely selfish and acquisitive animal, and the State as a mere conglomeration of such animals," had passed away. (p. 75)

[Keynes footnote] Not that Old P. E. was really thus, but this was the journalists' way of expressing the effect which Marshall's outlook made on them. (p. 330-331 n88)

Of course now the Old Political Economy has returned with a vengeance. But it only matters to economists what the "Old P. E. was really"; to our social life it only matters what policy-makers understood it to be. And what they understand it to be now, which is that for post-Keynesian Economics there is no right and wrong: "Life is a commercial transaction" (Dostoyevsky), "one reptile will devour another" (idem.), every man for himself and devil take the hindmost: other human beings exist only to be exploited (That is the essence of free market capitalism): The smart buy cheap and sell dear; the ignorant do just the opposite, and the smart have no responsibility towards the ignorant. Regardless of its rhetoric, that is the spirit of its doctrine; the master it serves is clearly money. (When Keynes called himself an "immoralist" he simply meant that his life was not guided by a set of moral rules -- not that he did not have ideals and that those ideals served as his standard of right and wrong.)

Note.--At this point the book had to be returned to the library the local public library borrowed it from.


"Mary Paley Marshall, 1850-1944"

In spite of his early sympathies and what he was gaining all the time from his wife's discernment of mind Marshall came increasingly to the conclusion that there was nothing useful to be made of women's intellects. When the great trial of strength came in 1896 over the proposal to grant women's degrees he abandoned the friends of a lifetime ... and took the other side. (p. 303)

Mrs. Alfred Marshall had herself been a lecturer in Economics at a woman's college at Cambridge University and had co-authored Marshall's first book. What Keynes does not say is why Marshall came to the conclusion "that there was nothing useful to be made of women's intellects" (nor what 'useful' means here), which is the only interesting question. If it was based on a lifetime's experience and if it was in fact a reversal of his earlier views, then it would not be what we call a prejudice.

Drury wrote that when people talk about "intelligence", we must, like Pierre Janet, always remember the dictionary (The Danger of Words (1973), p. 35), of just how many words human beings have invented in order to characterize intelligence. (What they have done in this way is to define our word 'intelligence', but what they chose to include in their definition is telling in this case -- it shows us their felt need based on experience. The categories human beings have invented or that have evolved as part of our natural history, for it is not plausible that it has been a self-conscious evolution, are not all of this type.)


Further Readings

Maynard Keynes also wrote biographical essays about the mathematician Frank Ramsey, 1903-1930 and the scientist-magician Isaac Newton, 1642-1727, as well as his own philosophical memoir "My Early Beliefs", from all three of which I have taken selections and made comments.


More about Ronald Reagan

When he was running for governor of California Reagan said that he would send "the welfare bums back to work" (Was he referring to his own father) and set political tests for the appointment of professors; he attacked the philosophy department of the University of California, Berkeley, and told the state university system that in order to pay for itself it should sell its rare book collection. When he was elected governor Reagan set California on the way to charging students tuition, the cost of which began to balloon across the country after he became U.S. president in 1980. What does it mean to a country when its Congress renames the airport in Washington, D.C., after such a person? (The aircraft carrier named after Reagan must surely be a Potemkin ship, because that's what its eponym ever was: an actor, a facade.)

When Reagan uttered the expression 'Trust, but verify', that was an example of a meaningless slogan. For 'to trust' means 'to accept without verification'. If what was meant was 'Be willing to agree, but demand that verification be an essential part of agreement', then that is what should have been said. But Reagan's treatment of language was always demagogic.


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