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Rothbard dishes the dirt on Keynes

In a posting at Libertarian Home, Richard Carey quotes the late, great Murray Rothbard criticising Keynes. (And while I’m linking to Carey, see also this recent piece about libertarianism by Carey, which is very fine.)

Better yet, Carey also supplies, as a mere comment added later to the Rothbard posting, a recording of a talk by Rothbard, in which Rothbard also lays into Keynes, way back in April 1989. The talk begins with these words:

First of all I want to launch a pre-emptive strike against any critics who might accuse this talk of being ad hominem. The ad hominem fallacy is that instead of attacking the doctrine of a person you attack the person, and that is fallacious because that doesn’t refute the argument. I’ve never been in favour of that. I’ve always been in favour of refuting the doctrine and then going on to attack the person.

And the talk ends (and yes I did listen also to everything in between) with these words.

To sum up Keynes: arrogant, sadistic, power besotted bully, a deliberate and systemic liar, intellectually irresponsible, an opponent of principle, in favour of short-term hedonism and a nihilistic opponent of bourgeois morality in all of its areas, a hater of thrift and savings, someone who wanted to liquidate and exterminate the creditor class, an imperialist, an anti-semite and a fascist. Outside of that, I guess he was a great guy.

Good knockabout stuff, then, and I greatly enjoyed it, despite the occasional pauses where Rothbard rootles around in his papers for his next bit of dirt. The performance lasts about forty minutes.

But be clear that this is Rothbard in attack dog mode, not Rothbard the magisterial expounder of Austrianism. He surveys Keynes’s career and character, and he does whatever is the opposite of cherry picking. With regard to Keynes’s “will to power” and general belligerence towards anyone he disapproved of, I got more than a whiff of the feeling that it takes one to know one, so to speak. Rothbard had plenty of will to power himself, even if he never got a fraction as much of it as Keynes had from the start. In addition to his great theoretical works, Rothbard spent much of his life flailing about trying to build rather unconvincing political alliances, so that he could get some power, but it never worked.

But give Rothbard time. Keynes wielded huge power in the short run, the short run being, as Rothard explains, the thing that Keynes cared about far more than he did about the long run. But I think it is at least reasonable to hope that in the longer run, say in about a hundred years time, Rothbard may be held in far higher esteem than Keynes. For Keynes also did more than his fair share of flailing, in his failed attempts at serious thinking about economics. If, in the long run, Keynes eventually becomes famous only for being utterly wrong, it would be the perfect posthumous punishment for him.

If, on the other hand, Keynes is still held in high esteem in centuries to come, then heaven help the human species. We are in for very bad times.

Besides which, I think that Rothbard is basically spot on, not only about the character and career of Keynes, but about the need for at least some of us to get nasty about such things. One of the signs that the Cold War was ending was when anti-Marxists started getting serious about what an immoral piece of shit Karl Marx was. Marx did not “mean well”. He yearned for social catastrophe of a sort that he knew would kill millions. He was not just wrong in the intellectual sense, he was wrong morally. He promised his Grand Theory of Everything, failed to produce it, but pretended for the rest of his life that he had produced it. This was not just a great mistake and a great folly. It was morally wrong, because intellectually corrupt. It was a Big Lie.

Similar things can be said of Keynes, and Rothbard says them. Good for him.

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10 comments to Rothbard dishes the dirt on Keynes

  • If, on the other hand, Keynes is still held in high esteem in centuries to come, then heaven help the human species. We are in for very bad times.

    It’s not that Keynes was any damn good, but rather that the politicians use Keynes as a basis for pissing away money like a drunken admiral.

    By and large these people have never read Keynes, or even if they have they’ve never understood him.

    Keynes has become an agnostic saint to all those collectivists who want ever increasing tax and spend until nobody has any money left and we are all left at the mercy of the state.

    Keynes is a symptom, collectivism is the root problem.

  • Alsadius

    I’m just going to point out, it’s been almost a century since Keynes did his thing. The General Theory is almost 80. If the long run is what will discredit him, well, the long run’s here. And, much as it might irritate me, Keynes is with us to stay.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    The first point at which people should have known something was wrong was when governments first started spending more than their tax revenue every single year. And yet people acted as if everything was fine and dandy.

    The second point at which the problems should have been obvious was when national debts across the globe became larger than their respective nations would ever be able to pass off. And yet, still people did nothing.

    The third and final point at which people will have the opportunity to realise their mistake is when interest repayments alone consume so much of the tax revenue, say 50%, that there is nothing left for things people actually want. I think they’ll sit up and take notice then. I don’t think we’re far off this point in several Western nations.

    Although other than announcing “Screw it, I’m not paying this….”, I’m not sure there is anything that could really be done by that stage.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Frankly, I don’t much care about intentions: whether Marx or Keynes meant well or not, makes little difference to me.
    It’s when folk Marxists or folk Keynesians start claiming that Marx or Keynes meant well, that I get outraged. Even Karl Popper managed to outrage me by claiming that Marx meant well!
    (OTOH I met a few continental Marxists who, as far as I can remember, refreshingly dismissed all talk of “good intentions”: it’s all about the objective laws of history for them.)

  • Paul Marks

    John Galt.

    Actually the polticians have heard of Keynes – his ideas are the basis of the economics they studied in school and university, and (if they did not study economics – although Cameron and co did) the basis of what their advisers studied. And the media creatures also.

    They argue over who resembles Keynes the most – with Mr Osbourne saying he does, and Mr Balls saying that he does.

    It is much like French Revolutionaries argueing over who most resembled Rousseau.

    As Edmund Burke said “in truth they all resemble him” -both in support of his absurd ideas, and in their bad moral character.

    Barack Obama is somewhat different – as he comes from the Marxist tradition.

    However, for 60 years or so (since the Italian Marxist P. Straffa) Marxists have been working Keynesianism into their system.

    Not because they believe it will bring long term prosperty – but because they (quite correctly) believe it will bring DESTRUCTION.

    Young Barack would have been taught all about that at his Cloward and Piven conferences back in his Columbia days.

    By the way…..

    The latest book on Keynes “Where Keynes Went Wrong” (by Hunter Lewis) is very good.

  • nemesis

    I had a conversation with a Conservative canvasser at the last election. He told me he was studying Economics at University. I asked whether he was learning Keynes or Hayek – he just looked at me blankly, not having heard of either. Heaven knows what they do study these days – probably just ‘how to save the planet’.

  • Alsadius

    Nemesis, as a former econ student, I can tell you that they tend not to use a lot of names in their classes. I might have heard Smith mentioned in passing a couple times, and some of the more modern famous-for-a-single-topic types got mentioned in connection with their theory(e.g., we did a fair bit on Solow’s growth theories in 4th year). But other than that, it’s mostly presented as a fait accompli of equations, not as a historical study of alternatives.

    That said, most of what’s actually presented would probably be fairly unobjectionable here. There’s enough discussions of the virtues of free trade and internalizing externalities, and of the inherent destructiveness of the Phillips Curve approach to inflation to warm any libertarian’s heart. And the only real occasions I can think of where government and taxation was treated positively was in the context of things like anti-congestion road tolls. My econ courses probably averaged somewhere around Friedman, all told, even if Friedman’s name wasn’t mentioned more than once.

  • Alisa

    Alsadius: that’s interesting. Do you have an idea if that is/was the norm in other economics departments throughout the West?

  • nemesis

    Interesting indeed Alsadius. My brother-in-law studied economics in the early 60s UK and Keynes theory was the accepted norm. Stumbling across ‘Road to Serfdom’ was a real eye-opener to him.

  • Paul Marks

    Yes – students are not taught “the theory of Keynes” they are taught “macro economics”.

    That is why, for example, the Economist magazine people (Paul gets on one of his hobby horses) think they are presented objective fact – when they are really presenting theory (and utterly false theory).