On 5 June 1919, John Maynard Keynes wrote to the prime minister of Britain, David Lloyd George, “I ought to let you know that on Saturday I am slipping away from this scene of nightmare. I can do no more good here.” Thus ended Keynes’s role as the official representative of the British Treasury at the Paris Peace Conference. It liberated Keynes from complicity in the Treaty of Versailles (to be signed later that month), which he detested.
Why did Keynes dislike a treaty that ended the state of war between Germany and the Allied Powers (surely a good thing)?
From: The New Statesman, 4 June 2015. See http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/06/amartya-sen-economic-consequences-austerity for full article. ( have pulled out these extracts. in the hope of turning your attention to the full brilliant and oh so timely piece.
Keynes was not, of course, complaining about the end of the world war, nor about the need for a treaty to end it, but about the terms of the treaty – and in particular the suffering and the economic turmoil forced on the defeated enemy, the Germans, through imposed austerity. Austerity is a subject of much contemporary interest in Europe – I would like to add the word “unfortunately” somewhere in the sentence.
Actually, the book that Keynes wrote attacking the treaty, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, was very substantially about the economic consequences of “imposed austerity”. Germany had lost the battle already, and the treaty was about what the defeated enemy would be required to do, including what it should have to pay to the victors.
The terms of this Carthaginian peace, as Keynes saw it (recollecting the Roman treatment of the defeated Carthage following the Punic wars), included the imposition of an unrealistically huge burden of reparation on Germany – a task that Germany could not carry out without ruining its economy. As the terms also had the effect of fostering animosity between the victors and the vanquished and, in addition, would economically do no good to the rest of Europe, Keynes had nothing but contempt for the decision of the victorious four (Britain, France, Italy and the United States) to demand something from Germany that was hurtful for the vanquished and unhelpful for all.
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“Had the policy leaders of Europe (adherents of a peculiarly narrow view of financial priority) allowed more public discussion, rather than taking unilateral decisions in secluded financial corridors – encouraging no public discussion – it is possible that the policy errors could have been prevented, through the standard procedures of deliberation, scrutiny and critique. It is remarkable that this has not happened in the continent that gave the world the basic ideas of institutional democracy.
The big epistemic failure in missing the lessons of the past on revival, deficit reduction and economic growth is not only a matter of wrong turns taken by the financial leaders, including the European Central Bank, but also of the democratic deficit in Europe today. It is no consolation that most of the governments in the eurozone that deployed the strategy of austerity lost office in public elections that followed. Democracy should be about preventing mistakes through participatory deliberations, rather than about making heads roll after mistakes have been made. This is one of the reasons why John Stuart Mill saw democracy as “government by discussion” (a phrase coined, along Millian lines, by Walter Bagehot), and this demands discussion preceding public decisions, rather than following them.
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More than 200 years ago, Adam Smith specified with much clarity in The Wealth of Nations how to judge the good functioning of a well-run economy. Good political economy, Smith argued, has to have “two distinct objects”: “first, to provide a plentiful revenue or subsistence for the people, or more properly to enable them to provide such a revenue or subsistence for themselves; and secondly, to supply the state or commonwealth with a revenue sufficient for the publick services”.
The father of modern economics, and the pioneering champion of the market system, did not have any doubt why the role of the state fits integrally into the demands of a good society. Public reasoning over generations has increasingly vindicated and supported Adam Smith’s broad vision. There are good reasons to think that it would have done the same today had open and informed public dialogue been given a proper chance, rather than being ruled out by the alleged superiority of the judgements of financial leaders, with their breathtakingly narrow view of human society and a basic lack of interest in the demands of a deliberative democracy.
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Public knowledge and understanding are indeed central to the ability of a democratic government to make good policies. The Economic Consequences of the Peace ends by pointing to the connection between epistemology and politics, and arguing that we can make a difference to the world only by (in Keynes’s words) “setting in motion those forces of instruction and imagination which change opinion”. The last sentence in the book affirmed his hope: “To the formation of the general opinion of the future I dedicate this book.” In that dedication, there is enlightenment as well as optimism, both of which we strongly need today.
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This is an edited version of a lecture delivered by Amartya Sen at the Charleston Festival in Firle, East Sussex, on 23 May
Amartya Sen is professor of economics and philosophy at Harvard and won the 1998 Nobel Prize for economics. He is the inaugural winner of the Charleston-EFG John Maynard Keynes Prize and the author of many books, including “The Idea of Justice” (Penguin)