My history hero: David Cannadine chooses John Maynard Keynes

Historian Sir David Cannadine chooses John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), an economist whose ideas were hugely influential in Britain and Europe in the years between the two world wars. He is best known for his book The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936), which is often regarded as founding modern macroeconomics...
 
This article was first published in the July 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine 
 
 
John Maynard Keynes, pictured in 1929. (Corbis)
When did you first hear about John Maynard Keynes?
 
It was in the late 1960s, when I was studying economics at my grammar school in Birmingham. And then when I went to Cambridge as an undergraduate in 1969, most of the people in the economics faculty there were protégés of Keynes. So although I never knew him, when I first got to hear about him he hadn’t been dead all that long, and his ideas and his influences and his protégés were very much alive.
 
What kind of person was Keynes?
 
We know that he was immensely clever, and that he knew that he was immensely clever. I suppose he interests me because he was a type of person whose ideas and force of argument, and force of personality, gave him an extraordinary degree of public, political and ultimately international influence, given that he was never more than a fellow of a Cambridge college. He was never a professor, for example, yet – and I say this with admiration and embarrassment – he had far more influence than many people to whom that label can be attached.
 
What made him a hero?
 
Keynes thought that economics was not a matter of arid statistics and algebra, but a kind of humane discipline, the aim of which was to enable more people to enjoy the good life. He had a very strong sense of its social and humanistic value. He also had a remarkable range of gifts: he was a brilliant academic, mathematician and economist, helped fund the Arts Council, and was a major figure in the revival of Covent Garden. The range of talents, and of accomplishments, was just extraordinary. 
 
What was his finest hour?
 
It’s very difficult to choose, because there were so many. But I suppose The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money must rank. He is, by any conceivable yardstick, one of the 10 greatest economists of all time, and I suppose that is the work on which that evaluation most importantly rests.
 
Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?
 
He clearly had enormous charm, when he chose to exercise it, but he could be unbelievably scornful and dismissive of people who were not as clever as he was – which meant, of course, most of the human race. 
 
Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?
 
I’d love to feel that there were, but I’m afraid there aren’t! I certainly think that he’s an interesting and exemplary figure because he felt that, although he was an academic – or perhaps because he was an academic – he ought to try to play some part in the broader public life of his country. And while I can only claim to have played a very, very, very minor part, nevertheless I do think that historians – like economists – have an obligation to engage with the public.
 
How relevant do you think his ideas are to the current global economic crisis?
 
When I was growing up and studying economics in the late 1960s, Keynes was hugely fashionable, but from the late 1970s through to the early 2000s he became much less so. However, in certain quarters he’s actually recommended again today. There are some who argue that he was right in the 1930s to say that government should have spent its way out of recession, and there are some economists, such as Paul Krugman and Joe Stiglitz, who argue that we should be doing the same now.
 
If you could meet Keynes, what would you ask him?
 
I would ask him what he thought we should be doing about the current economic crisis. I think that would be enough to be going on with!
 
Sir David Cannadine is dodge professor of history at Princeton University. He was talking to Matt Elton.
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