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Twitterstorm delong: December 15, 2011

Daniel Kuehn Reads Keynes's The Economic Consequences of the Peace

DK:

Facts & other stubborn things: Speaking of Keynes's deep humanity...: Brad DeLong links to my discussion and highlights in particular many observations about how Keynes was not the man portrayed in the Keynes v. Hayek videos. That inspires me to post something Keynes wrote in The Economic Consequences of the Peace that is one of the more powerful pieces of prose I've read recently:

The following is by a writer in the Vossische Zeitung, June 5, 1919, who accompanied the Hoover Mission to the Erzgebirge:

I visited large country districts where 90 per cent of all the children were ricketty and where children of three years are only beginning to walk.... Accompany me to a school in the Erzgebirge. You think it is a kindergarten for the little ones. No, these are children of seven and eight years. Tiny faces, with large dull eyes, overshadowed by huge puffed, ricketty foreheads, their small arms just skin and bone, and above the crooked legs with their dislocated joints the swollen, pointed stomachs of the hunger œdema.... 'You see this child here,' the physician in charge explained; 'it consumed an incredible amount of bread, and yet did not get any stronger. I found out that it hid all the bread it received underneath its straw mattress. The fear of hunger was so deeply rooted in the child that it collected stores instead of eating the food: a misguided animal instinct made the dread of hunger worse than the actual pangs.'"

Yet there are many persons apparently in whose opinion justice requires that such beings should pay tribute until they are forty or fifty years of age in relief of the British taxpayer."

It's not often that I have to put down a book and not continue reading because it just requires too much effort from me to keep reading, but a couple weeks ago, when I first read that passage, happened to be one of those times. When you read Keynes, you realize you are reading a man of profound humanity and spirit. Human life is hard and wracked with coercion on all sides. Sometimes collectively the right thing to do, and the liberal thing to do is seek out the option that minimizes those coercions. Sometimes that involves errecting an apparatus of coercion, like the state, to make sure that gets done. A coercive world puts real people in terrible situations. People who just accept that coercion passively - rejecting a countervailing coercion from the state as being always and everywhere illiberal - are fooling themselves if they think they are standing valiantly opposed to coercion. The task before a real classical liberal is immeasurably harder than that of consistently saying "no" to any democratic action. There was a time when democratic problem solving was central to the classical liberal vision. For a lot of people today it's considered antithetical. The task in front of a classical liberal is hard. The world is a very coercive place, and the task of a classical liberal is to minimize that coercion, not to pretend that anyone who breaths the word "democracy" is abandoning liberty. We used to consider people who thought like that "tories" or "royalists" or "reactionaries" - not classical liberals. I'm not willing to go that far quite yet. But I do wish democratic humanitarianism was taken more seriously than it is.

By the way - is anyone aware of Murray Rothbard's reaction to the incidents that Keynes described above? Google it. It's a fascinating read. Gene Callahan will get a kick out of it if he's not aware of it already.

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