“John Maynard Keynes: Where’s The Genius?! (Part 1)” is the first part of my conversation with Benn Steil. Dr. Steil is senior fellow and director of international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is “The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order”:
1) ILANA MERCER: Congratulations on a beautifully written book, so carefully researched, with both archival and secondary material. Followers of the Austrian School of economics, as I believe we both are, have a reflexive disdain for John Maynard Keynes. Nevertheless, the portrait you drew of him was powerful and persuasive. For example, it is easy to sympathize with Keynes’ frustration with the American mind—so prosaic and anti-intellectual—during the critical Bretton-Woods negotiations. There is much to admire too about Keynes’ “unrelenting nationalism.” I had never before thought of Keynes as an English patriot, first. You, a Hayekian thinker, managed to humanize J. M. Keynes. How did that happen?
BENN STEIL: Thanks Ilana. I’m a great admirer of Hayek’s writing, as you know, but I’ve never been one to wear the Austrian (or any other) label. More importantly, “The Battle of Bretton Woods” is in large measure a parallel biography of Keynes and Harry Dexter White, and no biographer succeeds in engaging readers of any stripe without empathy towards his subjects. In the case of Keynes, I may not sympathize with his economics in the way that his greatest biographer, Robert Skidelsky, does, but I found it not in the least bit difficult to admire him as a gifted public intellectual and to warm to him as a human being, with all his obvious flaws and foibles. One aspect of Keynes that I tried to bring out is how fundamental his English upbringing and nationalism were to shaping both his economic and political thinking. He was a defective diplomat, no doubt, but he took to the role with ease and enthusiasm.
2) MERCER: My mistake. You were awarded the 2010 Hayek Book Prize, so I presumed you favored Austrian economics. But back to Keynes. As you reveal, he “never bothered with a [doctorate]; he hadn’t even a degree in economics,” and “he formally studied economics for a brief period” only. (page 61) His election to “a life fellowship at Kings College, Cambridge, at twenty-six” seemed to rely on familial membership in Britain’s intellectual peerage. Yet, as you contend, he amalgamated the qualities of “mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher” “with a genius that no economist has ever matched.” (page 62) Guide the perplexed, please.
STEIL: It’s important to understand that in Keynes’s day, …”
Read the rest of the conversation, “John Maynard Keynes: Where’s The Genius?! (Part 1),” on WND. Stay tuned for the conclusion, next week, of the Steil-Mercer conversation about Keynes.
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UPDATE (8/15): I forewarned Benn Steil, who is the nicest gentleman—and, unlike J. M. Keynes, a jolly good sport—that our readers are hard-core. If only these readers used respectful language, but there is nothing I can do about the conduct of others.
It has to be obvious from my questions to Dr. Steil (part 2 is still to come) that I have the utmost respect for his scholarship and that I enjoyed what was an impressively researched, beautifully written book. I am not one of those tinny ideologues who’d rather miss out on an important intellectual contribution just because it doesn’t comport 100% with my philosophy. I’m too curious for that.
Benn Steil and I began communicating when I penned an irate blog about a negative review of his book in The Times Literary Supplement.