My former colleague, Ed Conway, now of Sky, has put together a fascinating Tumblr of great John Maynard Keynes quotes. Since I have, for family reasons, something of a fondness for the great man, I thought I’d use this as an excuse to stick my favourite Keynesianism up here:
What an extraordinary episode in the economic progress of man that age was which came to an end in August 1914! The greater part of the population, it is true, worked hard and lived at a low standard of comfort, yet were, to all appearances, reasonably contented with this lot. But escape was possible, for any man of capacity or character at all exceeding the average, into the middle and upper classes, for whom life offered, at a low cost and with the least trouble, conveniences, comforts, and amenities beyond the compass of the richest and most powerful monarchs of other ages. The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep; he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, and share, without exertion or even trouble, in their prospective fruits and advantages; or he could decide to couple the security of his fortunes with the good faith of the townspeople of any substantial municipality in any continent that fancy or information might recommend. He could secure forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate without passport or other formality, could despatch his servant to the neighbouring office of a bank for such supply of the precious metals as might seem convenient, and could then proceed abroad to foreign quarters, without knowledge of their religion, language, or customs, bearing coined wealth upon his person, and would consider himself greatly aggrieved and much surprised at the least interference. But, most important of all, he regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement, and any deviation from it as aberrant, scandalous, and avoidable. The projects and politics of militarism and imperialism, of racial and cultural rivalries, of monopolies, restrictions, and exclusion, which were to play the serpent to this paradise, were little more than the amusements of his daily newspaper, and appeared to exercise almost no influence at all on the ordinary course of social and economic life, the internationalisation of which was nearly complete in practice.
Fascinating, isn’t it? The late Victorian and Edwardian eras were not unlike our own, in a way: free trade, great movement of people, extraordinary communication worldwide with the new technologies of telephone and telegraph (the “Victorian internet”, as it’s been called). It’s also a slightly chilling reminder of how complacent someone in a peaceful, happy society can be: “he regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement, and any deviation from it as aberrant, scandalous, and avoidable”.
Now, obviously, I don’t think we’re actually on the brink of war, and I suspect that, as Steven Pinker says, the great 20th-century wars were a statistical outlier, not an inevitability or the start of a new age of horror. But it’s hard not to get a little chill when you read that, isn’t it.