John Maynard Keynes 1883-1946 by Robert Skidelsky

This biography of Keynes was of absorbing interest. However, like most biographies it has reflected many aspects of the author. This work has the subtitle of ‘Economist, Philosopher, Statesman.’ Undoubtedly, Keynes was many things. However, it was his remarkable contribution to political economy which stands out. The great emphasis which Lord Skidelsky has put on the non-economic elements of Keynes arguably has its roots in disciplinary competence. As a historian, Skidelsky has concentrated much of his efforts on the philosophy, personality, context and political activity of Keynes.

The approach which has been taken is therefore not always generous enough to Keynesian thinking. Skidelsky has been at times too ready to accept the tendentious arguments of its critics like Milton Friedman. Further, the deficits in thinking have surfaced in misjudgements about other giants of political economy. For example, Adam Smith was criticised for leaving “no scope for benevolent standards.” Smith was the author of a text called ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’ and he criticised a trend in contemporary consumerism:

“How many people ruin themselves by laying out money on trinkets of frivolous utility? What pleases these lovers of toys is not so much the utility, as the aptness of the machines which are fitted to promote it. All their pockets are stuffed with little conveniences.”

Other gaps in knowledge and sympathy might mean that the text may not survive as an authoritative biography of Keynes. Whether such a controversial figure as Keynes could ever be captured in the definitive way attempted by Skidelsky remains an open question.

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