Sunday, June 5, marked 128 years since the birth of economist John Maynard Keynes. Like any good libertarian, I refused to acknowledge it. Then I stumbled across this quote attributed to him, “Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone.”
It’s hard to overlook the poor grammar, and I am sure Keynes was not in fact promoting capitalism. Nonetheless, free-market proponents should recognize that Keynes deserves short-term credit, though not long-run praise, for a crafty distortion.
Adam Smith expounds on self-interest in his book “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.” He writes: “In spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose … be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they [the rich] divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society.”
Apparently, Keynes forgot to read Smith’s entire book. Smith pointedly distinguishes between wickedness and selfishness. A major theme of Smith’s book is that in order for a free-market society to work, morality is necessary. Wickedness is a lack of morality, which degrades a society, while selfishness is merely caring for ones’ own needs ahead of others. A society of wicked people is different from a society of self-interested individuals.
If Smith had a chance to wish Keynes a happy birthday, he could heartily congratulate him on being partly right since, as Keynes is thought to have said, “It is better to be roughly right than precisely wrong.”
Happy Birthday, John Maynard Keynes. While celebrating his life and dissenting with his erroneous claims concerning capitalism, we concede that his death did validate his undisputed claim, “In the long run we are all dead.”