Keynes on Laissez-Faire
I read the Keynes quote below in Brad Delong’s Blog HERE and from that lead read: “As John Maynard Keynes shrilly stated back in 1926”: “Let us clear… the ground…. It is not true that individuals possess a prescriptive 'natural liberty' in their economic activities. There is no 'compact' conferring perpetual rights on those who Have or on those who Acquire. The world is not so governed from above that private and social interest always coincide. It is not so managed here below that in practice they coincide. It is not a correct deduction from the principles of economics that enlightened self-interest always operates in the public interest. Nor is it true that self-interest generally is enlightened… individuals… promot[ing] their own ends are too ignorant or too weak to attain even these. Experience does not show that… social unit[s] are always less clear-sighted than [individuals] act[ing] separately. We [must] therefore settle… on its merits… "determin[ing] what the State ought to take upon itself to direct by the public wisdom, and what it ought to leave, with as little interference as possible, to individual exertion".
My “Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes” are kept in France, so I was able to re-read “The End of Laissez-Faire” from Volume IX: “Essays in Persuasion” (pp 272-94. Macmillan).
The paragraph quoted by Brad Delong is fairly typical of the tone and language of the Essay. While Keynes’s main focus is on laissez-faire, it also strikes at the general proposition now widespread across the discipline, usually wrapped in the extreme neoclassical fable that:
[Adam] “Smith proclaimed the principle of the ‘Invisible Hand’; every individual in pursuing his own selfish good was led, as if by an invisible hand, to achieve the best good for all, so that any interference with free competition by government was almost certain to be injurious” (Samuelson, “Economics: an introductory analysis”, 5th edition, McGraw-Hill, p 39).
Keynes, rightly, points out that Adam Smith never used the words laissez-faire. And on the single occasion where he used the IH metaphor in Wealth Of Nations, it is a travesty to impute, let alone blatantly assert, that his words can be stretched to mean what Samuelson’s wild inference takes them to mean.
However, on this occasion I shall not develop that theme.
I want to return to laissez-faire, accepting how Keynes expresses his demolition of the popular idea that laissez faire has or ought to have traction in it. I completely agree. And before my libertarian friends jump on me, I should point out that the meaning drawn from the incident between the merchant, Legendre and the French Minister, Colbert, is not entirely innocent of a narrow self interest.
‘Laissez-nous faire’ is not advocated as a universal principle for merchants and their customers; it was a very partial principle for merchants only – “laissez-nous faire” cries Legendre (“leave us alone!”). And that is the point of my own libertarian reservations about the slogan itself and its origins.
French markets were highly regulated and supervised by government inspectors. Yes, I agree an abomination. This placed consumers at the mercy of the decisions of local magistrates. Freeing merchants from the administrative burdens of the inspectors could, indeed, be a tentative step forward but freeing merchants from interference from competing merchants puts consumers at the mercy of the intentions of the merchants, which, as experience shows, is a high-risk strategy and generally one that has woeful consequences. As it was, experience in England and Scotland had been deeply marked by the monopolizing consequences of merchant tradesmen free, under governments, through the dead-hand of the Guilds in towns where they held sway, and ruthlessly protected by the Apprenticeship Acts that virtually eliminated competition. No laissez-faire there!
Moreover, laissez-faire became the rallying cry for merchants and industrialists in the 19th century to rally support for resisting government legislation against the excessive hours in mills and mines and the employment of very young children and women. It was also the common slogan of the anti-corn law agitation aimed at lowering the wages of labourers under the guise of removing barriers to farm imports.
Neither of these laissez-faire campaigns were the disinterested motives of the beneficiaries. Mill owners preferred laissez-faire to protect themselves from interference in the arduous, unsafe employment conditions and long hours they imposed on the males, females and children whom they employed; Mine owners likewise employed women and children underground at lower wages than adult men. Both wrapped themselves in laissez-faire flags to wipe up the blood of their employees when they demanded their own freedoms and not those of their labourers or their customers.
On these issues I agree with Keynes.