Matthew Walther

John Maynard Keynes: transforming global economy while reading Virginia Woolf

In a review of Universal Man by Richard Davenport-Hines, Matthew Walther finds the great economist practically perfect in every way

To the 21st-century right, especially in the United States, John Maynard Keynes has become a much-hated figure whose name is synonymous with bogus spending on public works, insouciance in the face of mounting debt and, of course, homosexual promiscuity. It’s a virtue of Richard Davenport-Hines’s new biography that it makes clear how much this under-reads him.

So far from being the flippant old queer calumniated by Niall Ferguson, Keynes worried himself sick about inflation and was far more alarmed by budget deficits than George Osborne seems to be. He was essentially a Nonconformist Liberal for whom faith was impossible, and who saw liberalism as something needing saving from itself.

He was also, as Davenport-Hines reminds us, surely the best writer economics has ever produced: ‘the dark forces of time and ignorance’, ‘animal spirits’ that transcend mere ‘quantitative benefits multiplied by quantitative probabilities’; ‘It is better that a man should tyrannise over his bank balance than over his fellow citizens’; ‘Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist’.

His biographical sketches, though a bit mannered, are at their best worthy of Aubrey or Lytton Strachey:

How can I convey to the reader, who does not know [Lloyd George], any just impression of this extraordinary figure of our time, this syren, this goat-footed bard, this half-human visitor to our age from the hag-ridden magic and enchanted woods of Celtic antiquity? One catches in his company that flavour of final purposelessness, inner irresponsibility, existence outside or away from our Saxon good and evil, mixed with cunning, remorselessness, love of power….

All of this is, no doubt, well known to the readers of Robert Skidelsky’s massive volumes of biography. Everyone else will find this nicely medium-sized book organised as a series of seven not-quite-chronological sketches — ‘Altruist’, ‘Boy Prodigy’, ‘Official’, ‘Public Man’, ‘Lover’, ‘Connoisseur’, ‘Envoy’ — fascinating reading.

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