Machan on Keynes

by Don Boudreaux on September 30, 2009

in Economics

Writing in the Orange County Register, Chapman University philosopher Tibor Machan is none too impressed by John Maynard Keynes.

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{ 27 comments }

Justin P September 30, 2009 at 8:24 pm

And why should he be impressed with Keynes?

Anonymous September 30, 2009 at 9:10 pm

Because of the impressive awe-inspiring damage Keynes has wrought?

Justin P October 1, 2009 at 2:11 am

Isn’t he so awesome!!

Anonymous September 30, 2009 at 8:30 pm

“The world is not so governed from above that private and social interest always coincide.” – JMK

The collectivist fallacy. JMK was merely a product of his statist times–same as socialism, communism, fascism, and progressivism. An intellectual in world where the dominant intellectual thought was plagued by deadly contradictions.

Anonymous September 30, 2009 at 9:03 pm

I find it intriguing how Machan moved from quoting Keynes saying simply that we must engage Burke’s question of the appropriate powers of government without relying on “abstract grounds” to arguing that “what Keynes was eager to promote is the idea of the government’s unbridled authority”. How does that compute? Keynes says “we should talk about this” and Machan says “he thinks government should have unbridled authority”?

Same deal later when he’s discussing Keynes and Rawls, who share “the idea that men and women are pretty much helpless”. When someone uses equivocating language like “pretty much helpless”, but doesn’t quote Rawls or Keynes saying they’re helpless I think it should be a flashing neon light that they’re putting up a caricature.

Again, farther down, Machan says “it seems that for Keynes the sole avenue for self-improvement is to go to governments and seek their coercive support”. Really? “It seems” that “the sole avenue” is coercion? Again – we’re relying on Machen’s sense of Keynes… which is a very weak justification to rely on for a strong statement like the idea that Keynes recognizes a single avenue for improvement. Why would Machan rely on “it seems” for such a strong case that he’s making unless he can’t furnish any evidence for it?

I was planning on just reading the article and staying out of this Keynes fight. But this presentation of the argument is very flimsy. Machan clearly cares about classical liberalism. Keynes clearly qualifies classical liberalism in a way that bothers a lot of people. But the argument Machan presents here doesn’t seem like a very good way to present the classical liberal case (or I should say “a classical liberal case”).

Anonymous October 1, 2009 at 12:23 am

@danielkuehn –

I didn’t quite draw the same conclusion as you on the quotation. Keynes set up the dialog in the context so that the basic assumptions of classical economics are wrong, so we must revisit Burke’s argument from the position that man is inept and incapable. Keynes’ assumption is that because Burke is right Keynes is right and justifies Burke’s position using Keynes’ argument. Sound circular? It is.

Now, re-read what Keynes says in his statements. His basic premise is that natural rights do not exist and “more often individuals acting separately to promote their own ends are too ignorant or too weak to attain even these.”

In the context of a public versus private dynamic, Keynes is justifying the role of a totalitarian, or all powerful state based on the idea of the collective wisdom of the social unit – basically he is using the old mantra of two minds are more powerful than one. Keynes may not explicitly state he is advocating a “totalitarian” state, but the essence of his and Burke’s argument is that the state (social unit) ought be empowered to govern the rights of man if it is deemed in the interest of the greater social unit. What Keynes is doing is making a plea *for* the “tyranny of the majority” through the force of the state. The force of the state is the coercion that Machan speaks of.

In Machan’s defense, we do have to rely on his perception of Keynes. Keynes words are the only words we have to judge in this context. And it is Keynes who, to my knowledge, never substantively justified his position that Natural Rights do not exist (in all of his writings). From a philosophical sense, the hinge of the libertarian argument is that natural rights do exist. Insofar as Keynes never attempted to prove his position on natural rights other than to assert they do not exist, his justification of the tyranny of the majority is severely flawed.

Then again, Machan’s piece a column and not a dissertation on all of Keyne’s flaws. Given the venue, I think piece is just fine.

Gil October 1, 2009 at 1:43 am

Well Keynes was right there – ‘natural’ rights don’t exist.

Sam Grove October 1, 2009 at 2:07 am

Semantics issue and unstated premises issue.

By natural rights, we mean the logically deduced rights that should be accorded to individuals based upon man’s nature, for the purpose of promoting a harmonious social ordering.

We do not mean that there are some sort of mystically revealed set of rights that are given to men from some higher authority.

Gil October 1, 2009 at 5:37 am

Yeah right, ‘natural’ rights would exist in a perfect world where the lamb lays down with the lion. Obviously, in the real world the weak need some sort of enforcer to protect their rights when they get infringed upon. Uh oh! If the weak require the help of others then it’s no longer a negative natural right but a positive artificial duty upon others. Oh well.

Anonymous October 1, 2009 at 10:36 am

If this is the argument, then I agree with you completely. But already there’s some conflict on “what we mean”. vikingvista SEEMS to have a different perspective when he writes “Rights are not an idealization attributable to a “perfect” world, they are a recognition of the actual world.” So obviously there is some difference of opinion (although “recognition of the actual world” is a little vague… maybe it can be made to fit with what you’re saying).I think any right that we ascribed is best described as something that given our nature, humans decided that these things called “rights” are useful to preserve our own sense of dignity and worth, and promote a “harmonious social ordering”, as you say. They are only a part of “the actual world”, as vikingvista says, insofar as we brought them into the world and decided we want to act like they’re real.

Anonymous October 1, 2009 at 5:14 am

No. It’s just that he didn’t want to be restricted by them.

Anonymous October 1, 2009 at 10:29 am

Wow – really thoughtful response. Thanks. I do have a few thoughts.

- Where do you see this strong argument that “man is inept and incapable” that gives rise to this inconsistency with Burke. All I see is him saying that man can be inept and incapable – indeed that men individually are inept and incapable in important situations. The article (and your response) seem to take these “can be” statements that Keynes makes and turn them into “are always” statements. That doesn’t seem right to me.

- Yes – he does mention the wisdom of the social unit. But it’s important to note that he says “experience DOES NOT SHOW that individuals, when they make up a social unit, ARE ALWAYS LESS clear-sighted than when they act separately” – this isn’t saying “two minds ARE better than one”, it’s just saying “two minds CAN BE better than one”. He’s trying to overthrow an assumption in the discipline that the social unit can never be more clear sighted.

- Why does Keynes have to prove that natural rights don’t exist? If you’re asserting something exists isn’t the burden of proof on you? I’m a de facto supporter of natural rights, and I think practically speaking Keynes was too for the most part. But that’s just because natural rights are a nice thing we invented and as a rule of thumb they have good practical value. But do they actually exist? I’m with Keynes here – of course not. We created the concept of natural rights because they were useful. Even the greatest proponents of natural rights relied on the “self-evident” crutch. The existencce of natural rights has always just been asserted – I’m curious why you think Keynes can’t just assert their lack of existence.

- RE: “In Machan’s defense, we do have to rely on his perception of Keynes. Keynes words are the only words we have to judge in this context.” But the problem is, Machan’s “sense of Keynes” doesn’t even match up to the words he cites!!! I don’t expect it to be a dissertation, but you open to the opinion section of any major newspaper, and the op-eds there do a better job marshalling evidence to back up what they’re saying than this does. It was just poorly crafted in that sense.

Anonymous October 1, 2009 at 12:32 pm

Since I first read Keynes after an undergraduate indoctrination of his general theory as a lowly econ student, I could not help but conclude that he was a pompus elitist who was mortified by the thought that ordinary people could make their own choices that were inconsistent with his. His entire theory was based on the notion that an elite few (namely himself and possibly someone else) were somehow granted this great gift to know what was truly best for all of us. The unfortunate problem in exercising this gift was that the current economic thinking prevented him from imposing his will on the rest of us. Keynes recognized that only government could have the coercive power to force the “lessers” of society to accept his choices. No wonder the liberal elite like Keynes so much.

Justin P October 1, 2009 at 12:54 pm

Not only that, libs love him because his policies give the state much more control over everything. The only thing standing in his way, was the freedom of choice, so is it any wonder why Keynes admits that his economics is much better suited for a totalitarian regime?

Sam Grove October 1, 2009 at 1:55 pm

I’ll go on to assert that Keynesian economics is only applicable to a centrally managed economy and has no application to a genuinely free market.

Anonymous October 1, 2009 at 7:16 pm

My favorite IMF multipliers paper suggests that Keynesiac economics are most applicable to closed economies:

http://en.scientificcommons.org/34265622

If only our own keynesiacs would pack up and move to North Korea.

Anonymous October 1, 2009 at 7:12 am

I don’t understand why so many people are confused about natural rights.

“Rights would exist” makes no more sense than saying “gravity would exist”. Rights are not an idealization attributable to a “perfect” world, they are a recognition of the actual world. They are not wishful thinking, they are a mundane fact whether or not anybody violates, likes, hates, wants, or even notices them.Rights in and of themselves do not offer any kind of protection. They are not a physical force like gravity. There is no higher authority that punishes rights violators. They are readily ignored and violated. In fact, one must consciously choose to not violate them.”In the real world”, both the weak and strong must routinely defend their values through force–including putting a roof over their heads to defend against the elements, putting locks on their doors to defend against intruders, exerting themselves productively to obtain food, taking antibiotics to fend off an infection, slapping mosquitos to defend against bites, using weapons to defend against some wildlife, etc.The need and use of your enforcement of your values is actually the background upon which rights is useful. Rather than requiring enforcement in an otherwise peaceful world, rights introduce into a violent world an opportunity for peace. You can’t get the weather to agree not to hail on you, or mosquitos to agree not to bite you. But you often can get another subset of your environment–people–to agree not to interfere with your values.That voluntary noninterference agreement is a recognition of rights. The common nonconflicting set of those agreements stemming from a human’s natural means of survival forms the basis of natural rights.

The world is harsh. But recognizing rights provides an option that is particularly beneficial to “the weak”. The best thing about natural rights, is that there is widespread recognition of the benefits of recognizing rights, and little or no cost to doing so. To gain benefits of natural rights therefore does not “require the help of others”. Though, of course, institutions are commonly created to help do so.

Whether or not such institutions exist, of course, not everyone is going to agree to recognize your natural rights. Having to deal with those people as you would with any other nonagreeable brute element of nature may be a lost opportunity, but hardly a failing or abrogation of the concept of rights.

Sam Grove October 1, 2009 at 1:49 pm

I think the concept of rights developed in the market.
It is inherent in any living creature that anything he has invested effort to obtain is by his assessment, his possession.

In the wild, some other creature may expend effort in taking what another has obtained from nature.

We humans, OTH, having developed the capability of abstract thought, can create and recognize things like money, gods, rights, etc.

I think a sensible person realizes that the idea of rights is human artifice, but we also sensibly should realize that other individuals are not just “my” environment, but also self directed individuals with similar needs and motivations.

Perhaps the greatest development of human society is trade. By engaging in trade, we recognize that there is less risk and greater gains to be had by recognizing rights of possession, than in conquest.

Conquest is often a one shot deal, you kill the other and take what they possessed. but if they created that possession by directed endeavor, the conqueror has destroyed a source of wealth.

So after simple conquest, slavery became the next best thing.
Trouble is that slaves aren’t internally motivated to create more wealth and so require constant supervision. There are other problems as well with slavery, and I don’t wish to dwell there.

An improvement on slavery is serfdom where the serfs retain rights of possession in most of the fruits of their labors and the rest is allocated to their lords.

We have replaced lords with an entire political class and inculcated the serfs with an illusion of freedom by letting them vote for which master will collect their rents, and that’s as far as we have gotten in our social evolution.

Sam Grove October 1, 2009 at 2:01 pm

We call them natural rights because there is (to my thinking) a universal human nature, hence a concept of rights, to be applicable, to have utility in the world, must be developed in accordance with that nature.As these rights are developed in accordance with an aspect of nature, they are “natural”.

Anonymous October 1, 2009 at 2:08 pm

Like I said – my line of thinking is very much what you’re outlining here. I’d agree with this. However, I don’t think everybody interprets “natural” that way. Many people see it as if these rights are natural to us, not just that our nature gives rise to these ideas that we’ve called “rights”.

Sam Grove October 1, 2009 at 2:19 pm

And some think they don’t exist just because we’ve created them.
However, we do not create man’s nature.

Anonymous October 1, 2009 at 7:13 pm

“I think a sensible person realizes that the idea of rights is human artifice”

I couldn’t disagree more. The only objective rational idea of rights is a concept formed by the observation of certain facts of human nature, and a necessary deduction therefrom. When those facts exist, so do rights. It is not subject to (rational) interpretation or alteration, any more than other mundane observations.

I understand that the subjectivity and emotionalism naturally connected to values (which is the object of rights) are also projected, by some, onto rights, but that is conflation of the two.

It appears natural rights are simultaneously more and less than most people think they are.

Sam Grove October 1, 2009 at 7:59 pm

All “ideas” are human artifice, that is, we create them and they have no existence independent of us.

You are in fact stating what I said in a rather different manner. I agree that what we call natural rights are a necessary deduction from observed, and experienced, facts of human nature.

In fact, I think we can observe very similar facts of nature in other social creatures. Even birds have a certain regard for established territories of other birds (within a species).

As animals are not capable of abstract, at least not to the extent that humans do, we do not regard them as having rights as humans do. Well, at least most of us do not.

Anonymous October 1, 2009 at 8:35 pm

“All “ideas” are human artifice, that is, we create them and they have no existence independent of us.”I sure don’t want to get into another semantic-plagued debate on epistemology and ontology, but I would hope you could interpret that sentence correctly with regard to the idea you have of the keyboard you are currently looking at. That is, I hope you wouldn’t say that you created that keyboard. When you use words like “artifice” and “creation”, it is extremely misleading–assuming you have a rational understanding of epistemology.”what we call natural rights are a necessary deduction from observed, and experienced, facts of human nature.”Then we truly are in agreement.”we can observe very similar facts of nature in other social creatures”It is not clear to me that such behaviors reflect a level of choice required for rights–a choice manifest in a change in behavior reflecting a cognizance of the values of others. It is unclear to me that such creatures even have a notion of their own values.But it is quite clear to me that such creatures are incapable of agreeing to respect my values. So as matter of fact, rights cannot apply to them. That is not to say that I don’t personally hold those creatures in high value and therefore wish to protect them and keep other people from harming them, but that is technically not a matter of those creatures’ rights. It is a matter of rights among those capable of agreeing to behavioral changes–me and other people.

Sam Grove October 1, 2009 at 9:53 pm

I left out a word: As animals are not capable of abstract thought,…

Meaning that they are not capable of ascribing rights to themselves or to others.

As for keyboards, I have a very high level of confidence in the existence of the keyboard in front of me, but I have a total certainty of the existence of ideas as I am able to apprehend them directly within my mind as opposed to the indirect evidence I have of the existence of my keyboard.

Anonymous October 1, 2009 at 10:32 pm

“I have a very high level of confidence in the existence of the keyboard in front of me”

I think you might be missing a subtle but crucial point:

You should also have total certainty that something in the world is resulting your idea of the keyboard. That is, you should have total certainty that a “keyboard” is out there, but you may have some doubt as to the totality of what that means (e.g. is it a reflection, a picture, a chocolate shaped like a keyboard, a hallucination from a memory of a past keyboard, etc.).

I’m sure if you search your memories, you will find no recollection of your consciousness creating a keyboard idea whole cloth. The idea must’ve originated elsewhere. And this discovery should not surprise you. It should characterize most (I would say ultimately all) of your ideas.

Sam Grove October 1, 2009 at 11:00 pm

I knew about keyboards before I obtained one.

I’m afraid my ability to recall, although in some regards quite exceptional, is not complete.

You should also have total certainty that something in the world is resulting your idea of the keyboard.

Certainly! In addition to ideas, I’m am also totally certain that I experience and of what I experience, regardless of the cause of my experiencing.

That is, I am certain that there is existence apart from myself yet which I am a part of.

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