Published by EH.NET (June 1, 2000)
David Laidler, Fabricating the Keynesian Revolution: Studies of the
Inter-war Literature on Money, the Cycle, and Unemployment. New York and
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, xvi + 380 pp. $74.95 (cloth) ISBN:
0-521-64173-X, $27.95 (paper) ISBN: 0-521-64596-4.
Reviewed for EH.NET by J. Daniel Hammond, Department of Economics, Wake Forest
David Laidler’s thesis is just as the title suggests. The Keynesian revolution
was a fabrication. By this Laidler means that the putative revolution was
neither uniquely Keynesian nor revolutionary. The most transforming development
of post-1936 economics was the synthesis embodied in the IS-LM model. The
model, while generally and properly associated with Keynes’s General
Theory and the “revolution” that followed, owed more to John Hicks, James
Meade, Roy Harrod, Brian Reddaway, and Alvin Hansen than to Keynes. Though the
General Theory contained an informal version of the model, the ideas
that the model was subsequently used to organize were themselves neither
particularly Keynesian nor novel.
If there was not a uniquely Keynesian revolution, why organize the book around
the idea of such an event? Obviously, one reason Laidler did so is because the
book is an exercise in myth debunking. The term “Keynesian revolution” is part
of the common parlance among economists, and carries the message that J. M.
Keynes fomented a revolution with the General Theory. No less a source
than Keynes testified to this. Laidler quotes Keynes from a 1935 letter to
George Bernard Shaw: “I believe myself to be writing a book on economic theory
which will largely revolutionise – not, I suppose, at once but in the course of
the next ten years – the way the world thinks about economic problems” (p. 3).
In the decade following publication of the General Theory there was
disagreement over the particulars of the revolution but little doubt that there
had been a revolution and that it was Keynesian.
However, Laidler’s message is also that something new and substantial was
fabricated from inter-war economics, for which Keynes and his followers were
largely responsible. This was a consensus on how to deal analytically and
practically with problems of macroeconomic instability. In this sense
“fabricate” means “to make” rather than “to make up.” The consensus was
embodied in the formal structure and interpretation of the IS-LM model. IS-LM
provided a convenient, easy-to-learn, and rich vehicle for organizing and
comparing ideas. Much of Laidler’s book is an account of the inter-war material
from which this consensus was made. Laidler shows how in the framing consensus
within the formal structure of the IS-LM model portions of inter-war economics
were preserved and portions were lost.
The book is organized around several themes in the inter-war literature. The
first theme is Wicksell’s influence on the divergent ideas in Austrian and
Swedish cycle theory. The second is the British literature of the period, with
Marshall’s heavy influence. The third theme is geographically based — the
diverse American inter-war literature including Irving Fisher’s quantity
theory, the needs-of-trade monetary policy view that was influential at the
Federal Reserve, empirical business cycle research, and underconsumptionism.
The fifth and central theme is Keynes’s General Theory and reactions to
it by older and younger economists. Laidler’s division of Keynes’s critics into
older and younger groups provides a clear view of what was new and what was
old, what was kept and what was shed, in the “Keynesian revolution.”
The IS-LM model was not just a formalization of the General Theory. It
was both more and less than this. It summarized, for instance, Wicksellian
inter-temporal coordination issues and Marshallian quantity theory ideas that
were not original to the General Theory. And it omitted key ideas from
the inter-war period that Keynes emphasized in his book, such as the roles of
uncertainty and expectations.
Fabricating the Keynesian Revolution is an effective complement to
Laidler’s The Golden Age of the Quantity Theory (Princeton University
Press, 1991). Between the two, he has provided an in-depth account of the
development of monetary and macroeconomic theory from 1870 through the 1930s.
The books share the same historiographic approach, detailed and nuanced tracing
of the development and interplay of ideas from their sources. One difference in
their content is that this book has less emphasis on the interaction of
institutions and ideas. But the two books share the same central theme, that
economic ideas evolve gradually and without so much drama as is often presumed.
The evolution of economic doctrine is complicated, with ideas being created,
being lost, and being found. Laidler provided a preview of this book’s thesis
in The Golden Age. So readers who are familiar with The Golden
Age will not be surprised by Fabricating the Keynesian Revolution.
They will, however, be amply rewarded for reading it.
Dan Hammond is author of Theory and Measurement: Causality Issues in Milton
Friedman’s Monetary Economics (Cambridge University Press, 1996).