Robert Skidelsky, Baron Skidelsky

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Robert Jacob Alexander, Baron Skidelsky, FBA (born 25 April 1939), is a British economic historian.


John Maynard Keynes: 1883-1946: Economist, Philosopher, Statesman (2003)[edit]

  • I could never take seriously the standard view that historians should take ideas as give, and confine themselves to their effects; or even worse, the Marxist-cum-Freudian view that ideas have no independent effects, but are themselves the effects of economic or psychological causes. If one accepts that ideas shape events, then a historian has to be able to describe the ideas or doctrines relevant to his topic as accurately as can a theologian, a philosopher, or an economist. If that requires a specialised training, so be it. Any account of Keynes's influence that failed to engage with his 'theology' would be seriously incomplete as history.
    • Introduction
  • A work of genius is a complex object and there is light to be shed about what went into the making of it. Even in the case of scientific and mathematical achievement we can say a great deal about the existing state of knowledge, the problems it failed to address, why those problems were or had become interesting, the particular capacities which the solver brought to their solution. At the other extreme is a work of art which seems to have much more immediate roots in the personal life of the artist or writer. In between is the area in which Keynes worked, which was partly scientific, partly artistic. This gives a wide justification for a biographical approach. As I put it in the introduction to my first volume: 'If underlying Keynesian theory was Keynes's vision of his age, knowledge of his state of mind and the circumstances which formed it is essential, not only in order to understand how he came to see the world as he did, but also in order to pass judgement on the theory itself.'
    • Introduction
  • Born in 1883 and dying in 1946, the bulk of Keynes's professional life was framed by two world wars. At the beginning, he was an Edwardian optimist, convinced that automatic progress was steadily enlarging opportunities for more and more people to live the 'good life', as identified by his mentor, G. E. Moore, and his friends of the Bloomsbury Group. He ended his life bequeathing the world a theory, policies and two international institutions (the International Monetary Fund and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development) designed to strengthen the foundations of free economy, so as to make it possible again for people to indulge the hopes with which he had grown up. In between, there was catastrophe and retrogression, starting in Europe and spreading to most of the rest of the world.
    • Introduction
  • Keynes's economic philosophy is thus made up of three interdependent parts: his technical macroeconomics, his embattled political philosophy and his ultimate ethical purpose.
    • Introduction
  • Maynard Keynes was born into a certain civilisation at a particular moment of history, and was one of its foremost products. He inherited both its aspirations and its tensions. He grew up in the shadow of its great figures, notably Henry Sidgwick and Alfred Marshall, the teachers and colleagues of is father. His style of thought and way of life both bear Cambridge's unmistakable imprint.
    • Ch. 2. Cambridge Civilisation: Sidgwick and Marshall
  • Through Marshall's life and work the Victorian demand for authoritative social doctrine found one of its most important expressions in the Cambridge School of Economics. Maynard Keynes's relationship to that tradition is one of the central themes of this biography. That relationship was never unproblematic, because Marshall's achievement was incomplete. He had shown how the existing moral code could be made to serve society rather than God. But there was nothing in his work to show how it could be altered so as to make it possible for individuals to lead happier or more civilised lives. Marshall himself seems not to have felt any pressure to do so. But Sidgwick had, as had many other thinking Victorians. It was the reorganisation of personal life rather than the reorganisation of society which seemed the urgent problem for the next generation, especially once the soc ail and economic clouds of the 1880s and 1890s had given way to the bright sunlight of the Edwardian age.
    • Ch. 2. Cambridge Civilisation: Sidgwick and Marshall
  • Keynes was one of those rare persons who can both think and act at the highest level. His life falls into cycles or phases, in which the emphasis shifts from one to the other. These shifts were related to what was happening in the world. At some times, particularly during the two world wars, there was a greater demand for Keynes's practical genius, and a greater satisfaction to be had from exercising it. But the cycles can also be seen in terms of action and reaction. Periods of great intellectual effort demand their release in practical activity, while practical activity prompts, sooner or later, a yearning for the cloister. Before 1914, Keynes's desire for the cloister was uppermost, partly because he was at this period most under the immediate influence of Moore's philosophy, partly because the nature of his sexual relations fitted private life better than public life ― a point of considerable importance even today, but more so then, when homosexual acts were illegal, and the danger of blackmail much greater.
    • Ch. 11. An Indian Summer
  • The Economic Consequences of the Peace has a claim to be regarded as Keynes's best book. In none of his others did he succeed so well in bringing all his gifts to bear on the subject in hand. Although the heart of the book was a lucid account of the reparation problem, the book was no mere technical treatise. The torrid mise-en-scène at Paris is vividly recreated; the failings of Clemenceau, Wilson and Lloyd George are displayed with cruel precision. The writing is angry, scornful and, rarely for Keynes, passionate: never again were his denunciations of bungling and lying, or his moral indignation, to ring so loud and clear. Giving shape to the whole is a brooding sense of menace; a sense of the impending downfall of a civilisation; of the mindless mob waiting to usurp the collapsing inheritance; of the futility and frivolity of statesmanship. The result is a personal statement unique in twentieth-century literature. Keynes was staking the claim of the economist to be Prince. All other forms of rule were bankrupt. The economist's vision of welfare, conjoined to a new standard of technical excellence, were the last barriers to chaos, madness and retrogression.
    • Ch. 16. Civilsation under Threat
  • What started Keynes on the road to the Keynesian Revolution was the incomplete British recovery from the depression of 1920 to 1922.
    • Ch. 21. Monetary Reform
  • It was his sense of the precariousness of capitalist civilisation which drew Keynes to monetary policy. Instability in the value of money was undermining the social contract on which capitalism was based.
    • Ch. 23. Keynes's Middle Way
  • Keynes's politics of the Middle Way in the 1920s can be interpreted in two senses. It can be seen as an expression of an Aristotelian sense of balance, with both nineteenth-century individualism and twentieth-century communism being viewed as excesses of their virtues. Or Keynes can be seen as a prophet of individualism on the defensive. The institutions of society had become like rocks which required the most skillful circumnavigation if the ship of state were not to be smashed up. There was no margin left for stupidity, silliness or obsolete ideas in government. Only the most generous and disinterested spirit, equipped with high intelligence and scientific policies, could save the social order from shipwreck.
    • Ch. 23. Keynes's Middle Way
  • Keynes was an applied economist who turned to inventing theory because the theory he had inherited could not properly explain what was happening.
    • Ch. 27. Portraits of an Unusual Economist
  • Keynes displayed an awesome array of talents, without being preeminent in any. He was not a genius in the sense of being a Divine Fool as was Mozart or Wittgenstein ― extraordinary at one thing, babyish in everything else. He was a wonderful all-rounder, with a superbly efficient thinking machine. At Eton he had excelled at mathematics and classics, and throughout his life he effortlessly bridged the two cultures. He was not a remarkable mathematician. Nor was he a great philosopher. As a historian he was an inspired amateur. He had a theory of politics, but it never saved him from the charge of being politically naive. Keynes was great in the combination of his gifts. His achievement was to align economics with changes taking place in ethics, in culture, in politics and in society ― in a word, with the twentieth-century spirit. But, like Jevons, his qualities never quite jelled. That, rather than too great a haste, is why he failed to produce a work of art, although his writings are full of artistry. His best stylistic achievements were in his shorter pieces ― notably his biographical essays. In his big books he was the pamphleteer trying to rein in his imagination, school himself to the demands of a formal treatise. He had powerful intuitions of logical and historical relationships, but was not at his happiest in sustained argument. Like Marshall, his concentration came in short bursts. His temperament was too restless, his mind too constantly active, and bursting out with ideas and plans, for thinking in solitude.
    • Ch. 27. Portraits of an Unusual Economist
  • The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money is a work of enduring fascination. It is simple and subtle, obscure and profound. It offered a systematic way of thinking not just about the behaviour of contemporary economies, but about the pitfalls in the quest for greater wealth at all times. It combined a vision of the future with a rigorous demonstration of the possibility of underemployment equilibrium. Although young economists of speculative bent were drawn to it as a storehouse of suggestive ideas, it was its practical usefulness which chiefly attracted them in a world poised between decaying democracy and rampaging dictatorship.
    At its core is a 'theory of output and employment as a whole', to distinguish it from the orthodox theory of what causes 'the rewards and distribution between different uses of a given quantity of resources' to be what they are. Keynes was the first economist to visualise the economy as an aggregate quantity of output resulting from an aggregate stream of expenditure. This new way of seeing the architecture of an economy is the General Theory's most enduring legacy.
    • Ch. 30. Firing at the Moon
  • Like Odysseus, Keynes was a successful, not a tragic, hero. He heard the beautiful singing of the Sirens, but took precautions against being shipwrecked, keeping to the course for which his talents and the state of the world predestined him. Artfully, he strove for the best of all worlds, in his life and his work, and miraculously, came close to achieving it.
    • Ch. 43. The Light is Gone

John Maynard Keynes: The Return of the Master (2009)[edit]

  • History, politics, sociology, psychology and anthropology are suggestive, not conclusive, disciplines: they cannot prove (or more importantly disprove) any hypothesis. Economics should aim to be more like them and less like physics and maths. That is why I was drawn to Keynes: he was a man of many parts. I have heard economists say he was a brilliant thinker, but a bad theorist. They objected to his 'ad hoc' theorizing - inventing bits of theory to explain unusual events, rather than building up his theory from secure micro-foundations. His wife called him 'more than an economist'. I am less than an economist, but perhaps this makes me better able to appreciate his greatness.
    • Preface
  • Keynes had a political objective. Unless governments took steps to stabilize market economies at full employment, much of the undoubted benefit of markets would be lost and political space would be opened up for extremists who would offer to solve the economic problem by abolishing markets, peace and liberty. This in a nutshell was the Keynesian 'political economy'. Keynes offers an immensely fruitful way of making sense of the slump now in progress, for suggesting policies to get us out of the slump, for ensuring, as far as is humanly possible, that we don't continue to fall into pits like the present one, and for understanding the human condition. These are the things which make Keynes fresh today.
    • Introduction
  • All epoch-defining events are the result of conjunctures - the correlation of normally unconnected happenings which jolts humanity out of its existing rut and sets it on a new course.
    • Ch. 1 : What Went Wrong?
  • To understand the crisis we need to get beyond the blame game. For at the root of the crisis was not failures of character or competence, but a failure of ideas.
    • Ch. 1 : What Went Wrong?
  • The reason why economics has given such a poor account of the origins of the crisis is that there is something essentially incompatible between the economist's view of individual rationality and systemic collapse. Without adding qualifications which strain their logic, economists cannot readily get from their picture of the the individual maximizing his utilities to booms and slumps and the persistence of depressions.
    • Ch. 2 : The Present State of Economics
  • The question remains: to what extent were the successes and failures of the golden age the result of Keynesian theory, however bastardized? The quick answer is: to a much greater extent in the former than in the latter. Keynesianism provided an analytical framework for organizing policy choices. It also provided ad hoc rationalizations for what governments wanted to do for other reasons. At the rhetorical level, these were important. They created the expectation that full employment would be maintained by policy. This reinforced the favourable background for business investment. To a more limited extent, Keynesian policy as practised in the 1 9 6os brought the golden age into crisis: but there were more profound reasons relating to the drift of social policy (sometimes called the 'revolution in entitlements'), the role of the United States in the world, and the weakness of the Bretton Woods system of international institutions. So the old coach did make a difference.
    • Ch. 5 : The Keynesian Revolution: Success or Failure?
  • Having said this, it is easy to see that he might have been deluding himself. He envisaged a modern capitalist economy governed by a Platonic ideal, and gentlemanly codes of behaviour. But once the capitalist genie is let out of the bottle it cannot be pressed into the service of a pre-modern ethics of the good life and pre-modern codes of behaviour. The good life in the classical sense presupposes that human desire has some ultimate end, or telos, whereas modern economic theory and life presuppose that it is insatiable. As regards behaviour, he took for granted a class-based system of values which economic progress was undermining. These were contradictions which Keynes never fully faced.
    • Ch. 6 : Keynes and the Ethics of Capitalism
  • Keynes's idea was very simple. Monetary and fiscal policy should have a single goal, jointly pursued, of maintaining a full employment level aggregate demand.
    • Ch. 8 : Keynes for Today
  • Keynes is not just for the foxhole, but for the emerging world order.
    • Ch. 8 : Keynes for Today

Quotes about Skidelsky[edit]

  • Let me start with a commercial: Robert Skidelsky’s John Maynard Keynes: Hopes Betrayed, John Maynard Keynes: The Economist as Saviour, and John Maynard Keynes: Fighting for Britain are an extraordinarily wonderful set of biographies—everyone, I think, should read them: you should read a 2000 page biography of somebody at least once, and Keynes is at least as good a subject as anyone and better than almost everyone, and Skidelsky is a truly exceptional biographer.
  • Skidelsky's beautifully structured narrative paints a picture of a man seeking to fashion the intellectual and practical tools to rescue the market economy from its own vices.
  • Every economist should read Robert Skidelsky's biography of John May­nard Keynes (he's completed two volumes out of three projected)-even the numerous macroeconomists under age 40 who have not cracked The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money and think them­selves wiser because they have not. Skidelsky's opus is a great bedtime read, reminding you of what a sensationally good economist Keynes was, because he was more. And it makes you think about where economics is going.
    • Deirdre N. McCloskey, "Keynes Was a Sophist, and a Good Thing, Too" (1996)

External links[edit]