December 9, 2023

Keynes Was Not a Socialist

John Maynard Keynes is not just a popular but a revolutionary name in social science and especially economics. A British economist and professor at King’s College, Keynes was already popular in academia but what made him a legend was his book The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money that appeared after the Great Depression of the early 1930s. The timings were just perfect for Keynes. Those days’ people lost their faith in the market system but also understood that it is the market system that can grant liberty and avoid authoritarian regimes. In this Keynes’s ideas took a middle ground that was compatible with many people.

Keynes believed in government intervention and he did believe in market failure but he wasn’t a socialist. His alternative was never socialism or Marxism which he most probably disliked too. Orthodox Keynesianism had no issues with the classical microeconomics model that advocates a market system. But, what changed? The change was “Macroeconomics”. The man behind popularizing macroeconomics is none other than Keynes and his main concern was the “macro” level of the economy.

Macroeconomics doesn’t follow methodological individualism. It doesn’t see an economy based on individuals, markets, firms, or industries but rather sees the economy as one collective nation! In macroeconomics, there are ways looked to enhance employment and “aggregate” demand level. Irrespective of the situation, product type, and consumer preferences, what matters is the output to keep increasing, and for that expenditure or spending needs to increase. Here the priority is a nation, this isn’t socialism but is called nationalism.

Keynes wanted high spending in the economy (at least during recessions). More spending would increase employment and hence keep aggregate demand high too. Now, where should the money be spent? It doesn’t matter much because if it did then the solution of no problem would be to simply “spend” as nobody can foresee where would be the need to spend more. If the government was so capable of making spending or investment decisions, then there wouldn’t be a need for the market system. Let’s not forget how Keynes was also the one to suggest that to increase employment give people jobs digging mud and put it back. So, the matter of where the efficient spending is to be made was not a concern but simply the spending had to be done.

Now, it doesn’t matter whether those people are earning with no real output until they spend that money and at the macro level the numbers are favorable. An increase in spending will bring the boom to some sectors at the expense of others that will be affected by it. But, the spending would be successful if “aggregate” variables of the economy like output, demand, or employment increase and it won’t take into account how some sectors would be affected unfairly by it.

Keynesianism is economic nationalism and what Keynes tended to bring into the field of economics wasn’t something extraordinary or new too. Adam Smith in the 18th century was debating against similar thoughts with Mercantilists. So such kinds of thoughts seeing the economy from a national perspective prevailed way before Keynes too and rejecting such ideology lead to the existence of economics by Adam Smith who showed the importance of liberty, free trade, and the invisible hand of the market mechanism. James M Buchanan called such thinking an “organismic” notion of collectives which means collectives are organisms.

After Keynes overhyped popularity, Macroeconomics changed the discourse of analysis and policy suggestions. Over time more research has been based on the macro level and so have been policy suggestions. The increasing growth of macroeconomics lead to the propagation of fatal theory like the Phillips curve. It made one believe that with inflation the growth of output is good for the economy. But, fortunately, the inspiring independent works of Milton Friedman and Edward Phelps showed how the economy despite all these short-run alterations comes back to the “natural level”. The natural level means the level of economy determined by market forces or derived from microeconomic working.

But, it can’t be said that macroeconomics is completely useless too but probably the famous “Lucas critique” has quite in a way shown the limits macroeconomics and econometrics have. Hayek in his time was also one of the rarest names to oppose it. Every economy is built on a micro foundation that needs to be respected. My issue with macroeconomics has been that it has neglected the essence of consumer sovereignty by distracting scholars and students away from microeconomics. Though, mainstream microeconomics with restrictive assumptions has also done a great deal of harm in undermining the importance of consumer sovereignty. Austrian Economics exceptionally has respected and adhered to the concept but has forgotten or ignored to take it further and make more scientific discoveries which they could do in my opinion.

But despite that, the less importance of consumer sovereignty reality in the free market and the rise of macroeconomics go well together, and looking economy from a macro perspective has deprived us to see the essence of the market mechanism. Now, it seems like economics has become a field to give policy suggestions which is not wrong but why can’t it be based on microeconomics?

Politically speaking, nationalism gets very toxic and has many disadvantages. One of the leading figures to represent it in history is Hitler. But, it would be very unfair to put Keynes and Hitler on the same page. Keynes politically also believed in liberty what he expected from his theory was not something that truly turned out in reality. Keynes’s concerns about aggregate demand and market failure are still believed by economists but his technical economic theories are largely irrelevant for analysis today.

Even though many of his theories might be wrong but his intentions weren’t and it can not be denied that he was a brilliant mind which was acknowledged by his fierce academic rival F.A. Hayek too who was also his friend.

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The truth is that if we followed the basics of Keynesianism today, we would not be in the potentially precarious situation we now find ourselves in. Keynes understood that once the economy is moving again, and tax receipts increase, that at least some of the state interventions and spending by government must be reversed, and some debts paid down. We don’t even pretend to do this anymore.

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