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The Elgar Companion to John Maynard Keynes

Editor(s):Dimand, Robert W.
Hagemann, Harald
Reviewer(s):Bateman, Bradley W.

Published by EH.Net (February 2020)

Robert W. Dimand and Harald Hagemann, editors, The Elgar Companion to John Maynard Keynes. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2019. xxi + 648 pp. $250 (hardcover). ISBN: 978-1-84720-008-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Bradley W. Bateman, Randolph College.

 
Rarely does one read a reference work for pleasure. After all, would you take the Encyclopedia Britannica or the New Palgrave to the beach for your holiday? Not likely. And yet, there are reference books that one not only depends on, but enjoys. These might be surveys of the literature such as G.C. Peden’s little gem, Keynes, the Treasury, and British Economic Policy (1988); or they might be traditional multi-volume works like the Dictionary of National Biography. A good reference work can take many forms; but when you find a well-written and authoritative work that can help you in your research, you turn to it regularly and, yes, can even come to enjoy it.

If you have a shelf of books like this, you may want to add to it The Elgar Companion to John Maynard Keynes, edited by Robert Dimand (Brock University) and Harald Hagemann (University of Hohenheim). Dimand and Hagemann, two top historians of economics, have put together a comprehensive, one volume reference book on John Maynard Keynes. The Companion covers everything from Keynes’s parents to New Keynesian macroeconomics. And while there is a fair representation of young scholars among the contributors, the vast majority of the entries are written by well-established experts: John Davis on Ludwig Wittgenstein, Heinz Kurz on Piero Sraffa, Susan Howson on James Meade, and Bruce Littleboy on G.L.S. Shackle. The essays on Keynes’s great trilogy are, likewise, written by experts: Robert Dimand on A Tract on Monetary Reform, Ingo Barens on A Treatise on Money, and Robert Skidelsky on The General Theory.

Four of the best entries in the book are by D.E. Moggridge, the editor of Keynes’s Collected Writings. Moggridge is also an eminent economic historian and he is thus able to set the context authoritatively for Keynes’s work in his four essays: The India Office, World War I, Keynes and British financial policy in the inter-war years, and World War II. Keynes was, of course, deeply entwined in the debates about economic policy during his lifetime and Moggridge beautifully lays out the twists and turns in his career.

The Companion also contains unexpected gems such as Sherry Davis Kasper on “The End of Laissez-Faire” and Robert Dimand’s entry on Mabel Timlin.

The only uneven section of the Companion is the final one, Keynesianism in Various Countries. Many of the essays here are excellent and build on the literature in this field. For instance, the essay on Japan by Masazumi Wakatabe takes the reader far beyond the indeterminate conclusions of Eleanor Hadley (1989). Likewise, Piero Bini’s entry on Italy expands nicely upon the classic essay by Marcello de Cecco (1989). Harald Hagemann’s entry on Germany, Goulven Rubin’s on France, and Robert Dimand’s on Canada are indispensable for scholars who study how Keynes’s ideas were (or were not) spread in various countries. There is new material here for even the most seasoned scholar. These essays are definitive surveys of the literature.

But against these many excellent country studies are two that take a quite different tack: Geoff Tily on the U.K. and Mathew Forstater on the U.S.

In the case of the United States, the standard narrative in the literature lays out how countercyclical fiscal policy first came to be implemented in 1938 without any reference whatsoever to Keynes or The General Theory (Stein 1969, Backhouse and Bateman 2011). Forstater mentions none of this history and chooses instead to focus more on analytical debates about the evolution of the Keynesian model in the U.S. There is nothing wrong with this, per se, and eventually the Keynesian model(s) did become central to policy debate in the United States. But it is an unorthodox take on the history of “Keynesianism” in the U.S. since, in fact, Keynes is not present at the moment when many people assume he was taking center stage.

The question of Keynes’s role in the development of British economic policy is much larger, however, than the question of his role in the States. He was, after all, British and his central role in British economic policy debates shaped not only his own thinking but the course of his nation’s history. There is a huge literature in economic history on the question of Keynes’s influence in British policy making (Peden 1988, Peden 2005) and leading British historians have weighed in on the question of his influence(s) (e.g. Clarke 1988). However, none of that debate is even mentioned in Tily’s entry. Instead, he depends on tables of government expenditure and deficits and argues from these for the centrality of Keynes’s vision to 1930s British policy making (p. 570). His revisionist approach is certainly a legitimate method and Tily highlights several important facts about Keynes’s thinking that are often overlooked, such as Keynes’s preference for low interest rates over fiscal deficits; but as his results about Keynes’s success in the policy sphere differ quite notably from those in a well-established literature, he owes it to his reader to explain the differences. The method of argument is not necessarily wrong, but it is certainly incomplete.

By far, however, most entries in this Companion are authoritative, well-written, and useful. For instance, the pieces on Don Patinkin (Goulven Rubin), Axel Leijonhuvud (Hans-Michael Trautwein), and Hyman Minsky (L. Randall Wray) tell a compelling history of how Keynes’s ideas were extended and reshaped by others. They limn otherwise fading chapters in the history of twentieth century macroeconomics.

One might suppose that the likelihood of wanting to have this excellent reference volume in one’s library would depend on one’s proclivities in political economy: Free marketeers would not want it, while interventionists would. And that may be true for many historians of economics. But regardless of one’s own political economy it is a valuable tool and it should absolutely be in all university libraries where it will serve well the interests of all curious students of the discipline.

References

Roger Backhouse and Bradley Bateman. 2011. Capitalist Revolutionary: John Maynard Keynes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Peter Clarke. 1989. The Keynesian Revolution in the Making, 1924-1936. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marcello DeCecco. 1989. “Keynes and Italian Economics,” in Peter Hall, ed. The Political Power of Economic Ideas: Keynesianism across Nations. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Eleanor Hadley. 1989. “The Diffusion of Keynesian Ideas in Japan,” in Peter Hall, ed. The Political Power of Economic Ideas: Keynesianism across Nations. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

G.C. Peden. 1988. Keynes, the Treasury, and British Economic Policy. London: Macmillan.

G.C. Peden. 2005. Keynes and His Critics: Treasury Responses to the Keynesian Revolution, 1925-1946. London: British Academy.

Herbert Stein. 1969. The Fiscal Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

 
Bradley W. Bateman is Professor of Economics and President of Randolph College. He is the author of Keynes’s Uncertain Revolution (1996) and is most recently a co-editor of Liberalism and the Welfare State: Economists and Arguments for the Welfare State (2017).

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Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII