Over dinner in 1937, Keynes gave the Galton Lecture, discussing with his audience the subject of ‘Some economic implications of a declining population’, and worrying about the ways in which a declining or stagnating population may have given rise to new economic problems of unemployment. He seemed content with his self-presentation as a ‘Malthusian pessimist’, but rejected the traditional Malthusian ‘bogey of an overcrowded earth’ as a real problem.1 What though does that mean when we consider that Keynes had been thinking about Malthus as a biographical, intellectual, and putatively contemporary presence since early May 1914 in a talk at Oxford University? Or then again eight years later in 1922 at a talk to the Political Economy Club in Cambridge University, before finally writing up his ideas most fulsomely as a chapter of the celebrated Essays in biography, well before his Galton Lecture?2
By the 1937 dinner, he was able quite easily to appropriate his idiosyncratic sense of what Malthus was about, into the range of various positions he had come to hold over the course of these years. Indeed, if there is a general commitment that unites the different versions of Malthus that Keynes engaged with, it is probably as a resource for thinking about how new forms of politics and economics were going to have to deal with very old problems of economic inequality, relative to continuously evolving challenges to do with resources, population and unemployment:
to ensure equilibrium conditions of prosperity over a period of years it will be essential either that we alter our institutions and the distribution of wealth in a way which causes a smaller proportion of our income to be saved, or that we reduce the rate of interest sufficiently to make profitable very large changes in technique or in the direction of consumption which involve a much larger use of capital in proportion to output.3
Keynes began his talk by saying that the future he was thinking his way into would not be exactly like the past. It never could be. But, he added, we are routinely too constrained, imaginatively, locally, culturally, intellectually, to do otherwise than assume that things will be like they were going forward. This is because the local view, if it has any stability over time, is the only one that we can reliably assume to be normal and conventional. The paradoxical qualities of this judgement were the brief compass of what had been embellished in his writing about ‘convention’ and ‘uncertainty’ just a year before, in The general theory of employment, interest and money (1936), in seeking out the possibilities of domestic equilibrium under conditions of prosperity but not full employment. Such a perspective pushed straightforwardly towards the possibility of state intervention to deal with underemployment, manage interest rates, and create the right inducements for investment.4
When applied to financial markets and the issue of macroeconomic confidence, Keynes argued that speculation about future returns on investment cannot, at least at the level of statistical probability, have any reasonable or solid grounds. Assuming or predicting success going forward is, in effect, a speculative gamble involving risk, but risk that has no real foundation because the future is actually a realm of uncertainty. What speculators and investors effectively hedge their risks against, given this uncertainty, can only be the behaviour of other speculators. These sorts of herd-like ‘animal instincts’ are critical to the continued commitment to speculation, because banking on a view of people and their prejudices or extant beliefs being stable over a period of time is the bedrock of capitalist speculation. It requires ‘spontaneous optimism’ rather than ‘mathematical expectation’.5
The history of probability, with which Keynes was so engaged in his own Treatise on probability (1921), had long distinguished between ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ forms.6 And by the middle of the 1930s, he sensed its real-world implications for policy. The importance of subjective probabilities helped to explain the ways in which one sort of rational, or classificatory, response to radical uncertainty about the future was a sort of ‘world-making’ exercise, underpinned by what we now routinely call ‘historical epistemology’.7 This explains market activity as the attempt to transform uncertainty into a form of risk, which generates stability through convention over time.8 As models transform markets, markets transform people and their behaviour too.9
Because conventional confidence and stability constitute real effects on worldly assumptions and calculations, Keynes factored them into his exploration of inflation and its consequences over time. Much of his analysis up to and including General theory seems to have been conditioned by his experience of the extreme nature of wartime financing that fixed the truly exceptional quality of post-war inflation, but which had a longer lineage in thinking about hyperinflation and the debauching of currency from the French Revolution onwards.10 Lessons learned here were always conditioned by overlapping generational perspectives, and Keynes knew that picking sides in contemporary battles about such things meant picking sides in an historical struggle about ideas and their relevance given current economic conditions. Malthus had done the same when thinking about currency depreciation, the Irish question, and the history of political economy in his own time.11 Keynes did so after the First World War, quoting reports of an interview with Lenin in The economic consequences of the peace (1919) that the best way to undermine capitalism was to ‘debauch’ the currency, and noting that the demand for reparations was creating inflationary pressures that were, ironically, exactly the sort of policy the Bolsheviks would aim to pursue.12
The main point of these opening remarks is twofold. First, to show that Keynes's generational engagement with the work of Thomas Malthus intersects with the development of several of the most important themes in his political and economic writings, which is to say that Keynes's Malthusian moments constitute a complex series of overlapping interpretations, redescriptions, and reiterations of particular claims in changing contexts over twenty-five years. Second, and relatedly, the argument that runs through my article is that Keynes chose to present very pointed and partial readings of different aspects of Malthus and his legacy across the period from 1914 to 1937. What follows is an attempt to track these different contours and contexts, in light of the latest research and thinking about Keynes's work.
In part, such shifting engagements came about because Keynes wanted to show how ideas from the past can be made present in the here and now in different ways, depending on the problems you are trying to understand. Malthus was, in this sense, a classic illustration of the relationship between ideas and practice that Keynes outlined at the end of The general theory. Equally, his visions of what Malthus had to teach modern political economists about the search for, and the threats to, prosperity and stability was in constant dialogue with his own sense of what an economic perspective could offer to the analysis of modern politics. Across the quarter century of his thinking about Malthus, we can see how Keynes shifted tack. At the outset, he finds a sort of optimism in thinking that Malthus's pessimistic claims about population need not be the sole fate of modern political economy. By the end of this period, Keynes pays more attention to Malthus's Principles of political economy rather than his analysis of population, taking from it a sort of anti-utopian pessimism about ever fully overcoming resource conflicts. He nevertheless sought throughout different ways to use Malthus's vague concept of ‘effective demand’ to frame what he saw as the unceasing importance of experimentation and adaptation in the pursuit of stability and prosperity. Only this could offset the modern problem of unemployment.
Keynes's Malthusian moments might even be seen as a triptych. First, during the war years, his vision was planetary and general, concerning population pressures. Second, after the war and into the twenties, it became more obviously international and European, and by the thirties, it was increasingly domestic in focus, suggesting that the Malthusian dynamics affecting modern polities could only be shackled at the level of individual nation-states organized for prosperity.13 Modern political economies, according to Keynes, faced two major Malthusian ‘devils’ that might hasten the demise of temporarily stable and conventional regimes of growth in Europe. First, the classic Malthusian devil, of exponential population growth relative to arithmetic increase in subsistence, meaning diminishing returns from agriculture and its negative effects. Second, unemployment, particularly in the aftermath of war. Malthus had certainly been right to focus on the first problem following the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, and Keynes had long been interested in this aspect of Malthus's general theory. Additionally, by reading through the debate between Malthus and Ricardo as to the question of whether general unemployment was a technical impossibility, and siding with Malthus that there was something intrinsically problematic with that thought, Keynes moved to show that failures of ‘effective demand’ would require us to see the centrality of the second problem as intimately bound up with the first.
By 1937, however, Keynes seemed to think that the problem of population, or rather the challenge of overpopulation, was under control, and that unemployment was the principal problem facing modern states. John Toye, who has done the most to rehabilitate and contextualize Keynes's occasional pieces on population and thereby his shifting relationship to Malthus, suggests in fact that this was a dramatic change of heart, requiring him to recant his earlier neo-Malthusian positions on population and war. By the later 1930s, well into the Great Depression, Keynes both narrowed his focus from the international to the domestic, and also revived his early thinking about the benevolent ‘stationary state’ which had temporarily ‘chained’ the Malthusian devil between 1870 and 1900 and made possible nineteenth-century expansion and peace. It was, once more, a viable contemporary option if only the problem of unemployment (particularly what he termed ‘involuntary’ unemployment) could be solved. This was the motivational idea behind his famous essay ‘Economic possibilities for our grandchildren’ (1930).14 And as Toye suggests, this first required a radical recasting of his prior thinking about the relationship between Malthus, population, and economic stability since 1914, towards which my discussion now turns.15
Keynes's interest in population as both problem and principle pre-dated the original 1914 manuscript of his Oxford talk, and related forcefully to his concern with Mendelian eugenics. Part of his thinking about statistics, heredity, and probability also derived from his working out of issues in Karl Pearson's studies of heredity within populations. Pearson had wondered whether or not degeneration in children was a result of hereditary or environmental factors. Keynes defended the latter view, Pearson more obviously the former. As David Singerman has suggested, the connection between quality and quantity of population that was part and parcel of Keynes's engagement with eugenics sprang first from his own academic interest in probability and probabilistic reasoning in the face of either risk or uncertainty. As well as the early work of Pearson, Keynes found inspiration for his thinking about collective action based on rational expectations and something like the herd-instinct or ‘wisdom’ of the crowd, in his critical appraisal of statistical biometry in William Bateson's studies of heredity and colour blindness. Out of a series of studies related to a broader concern and recent investigative history of sexology and heredity including work by Havelock Ellis, Bateson's work operationalized a series of predictive claims based on statistical frequency. Keynes's critique, however, was that probabilistic reasoning was a sounder basis for interpretative judgement than statistical frequency.16 This was due to the ‘vagueness’ of the data on the one hand, which routinely lacked context, and the lack of an appropriate directionality that might relate a social ethics to probability and uncertainty.
In a note from 1912 in the Economic Journal Keynes utilized a very broad interpretation of national statistics and developed his contextualized and probabilistic reasoning into public policy propositions, claiming that although Britain was obtaining roughly the same value from its exports as it had in 1900, the cost of imports was now ‘appreciably higher’ thanks to the law of diminishing returns for raw products.17 Then again in 1914 he built upon these concerns to look at the wider social ecology behind questions of population and the global economic environment. These were, in turn, issues that had long structured debates around the politics of evolution, spontaneous generation, and Malthusianism in nineteenth-century Britain.18 And as Piers Hale shows, the publication of Benjamin Kidd's Social evolution (1894) with its claim about the evolutionary benefits of religion for social solidarity was what had first outraged Pearson. Kidd had used biological theories of evolution and degeneration derived from Friedrich Weisman, in order to downplay what Pearson saw as the rational and adaptive advantages of scientific socialism, advantages he thought showed a fruitful alignment of Darwinian competition with evolutionary adaptation.19
Keynes seemed less interested in these implications, though, than by the issues raised by a local colleague, Henry Sidgwick, about the relationship between modern utilitarianism and the political-economic effects of evolutionary adaptation. Sidgwick held that the mechanism of sympathetic recognition of the needs of others might have a natural basis, which could then be historically or conjecturally interpreted, but that this alone did not resolve the fundamental conflict between self-interest and collective welfare.20 Keynes agreed, and wondered about the trade-offs between general welfare and self-interest alongside population growth, rather than focusing on claims of race-degeneration.
Keynes's specific discussion of European population growth and European success during an age of expansion and globalization between roughly 1870 and 1900 was concerned with how and why prosperity was stalling, and whether this was because population growth rates were slowing. When combined with concerns about domestic security, Keynes suggested that Britain was becoming increasingly dependent on imports for foodstuffs, and that if it was forced to increase its manufacturing exports in response then this might have a downward effect on prices, negating the advantages accruing to the industrial sector. The combination rendered continued prosperity precarious, but was a modern inversion of Malthus's thinking about the long-run primacy of agrarian stability over industrial development.
For example, in 1913–14, having recently visited Egypt and become an established civil servant and government adviser on India and currency questions, it is unsurprising that in the first iteration of ‘Population’ Keynes affirmed the pertinence of Malthus's question. He claimed that three-quarters of the world have always lived under the spectre of Malthusian checks to overpopulation and lack of resources, perennial victims of famine, pestilence, and war. Birth control, a viable option in the West, was nonetheless not countenanced in the colonies by Keynes, who instead first wanted to affirm the importance of a transition towards industrial society and better education, before the sorts of policy options open to ‘advanced liberalism’ could be discussed. At the same time, he repeated the claim that at this precise moment, Europe was in danger of falling into its own Malthusian trap, as its previous half-century of supplying cheap food within its own boundaries to sustain its rising population now found itself at a moment where population growth rates were declining, and food was increasingly imported, and more cheaply, from overseas countries with still rapidly expanding populations.
Under these circumstances, it was irrational but understandable for individual nations to pursue courses that were domestically selfish and internationally abrasive, though whether one could assume that the operations of an ‘invisible hand’ might transform such self-interest into common benefit by now was a very debatable point for economic theorists. Instead, Keynes sought to pursue a strategy wherein the primacy of domestic policy might trump any overheated sense of national positioning, perhaps seeking recourse to the kind of analysis of patriotic emulation that was such a feature of Adam Smith's political economy, and which was designed to show the folly of direct military competition and confrontation for domestic stability and profitability. From Malthus, though, Keynes had begun to think about how ‘effective demand’ might be choked off through the attempt to accumulate wealth too rapidly, analogous to his own famous ‘paradox of thrift’.21 He sought instead a political economy of moderation and balance under conditions of uncertainty and managed disequilibrium. War naturally undid the search for balance, disrupting both accumulation and investment as well as transforming local demographics and patterns of consumption at the same time as it allowed for military-technological development as well as administrative centralization. Keynes focused on the former set of claims first, rather than the latter, even though the latter were the proximate cause of the sort of ideological brittleness in post-war politics that he would soon come to find immensely troubling in the search for stability amid reconstruction.22
At this moment, Keynes's Malthusian pessimism turned more directly to domestic monetary policy and the international constraint and context of a peg between sterling and the dollar, through the gold standard more generally. He noted that the ‘stability of the value of our monetary standard is largely supported on the broad back of ignorance’, because governments seemed obsessed with hoarding large reserves with little sense of why they wanted them.23 As he suggested, the only point of a reserve is to use it. To that end, in fact, he noted that ‘the path of true monetary policy is a very narrow one’ and that neither ‘mercantilists’ nor ‘inflationists’ could be right about the quantity theory of money.24 The crisis occasioned by the American-inspired run on sterling provoked by Wilson and the weakness of treasury secretary William McAdoo in late 1916 showed to Keynes very clearly, in fact, that being beholden to the demands of a dominant partner in terms of the policy of the peg was a very dangerous position to be in, even if the terms of engagement shifted once more when the US entered the war in April 1917.25
He argued similarly in the later A treatise on money (1930), particularly the second and ‘applied’ part, by disaggregating the divergences between long-run equilibrium and short-run fluctuation as they affected the tension between a natural desire for short-run national independence and a bounded international system. Management ‘presents great difficulties’, because if interest rates are set outside the domestic economy, it will be impossible to reach investment equilibrium at home. When allied to structural transformations in the credit and lending capacities of close allies (such as France and the United States in this case), Keynes thought the wisest policy was always to retain as much domestic flexibility for manoeuvre as was possible. That flexibility was now under threat.26 He saw the limiting constraints that an international and rigid financial restriction would have, even one which might once have been to British advantage (namely the gold standard). In fact he claimed that the likeliest strategy following such a peg would be conflict and competition, not co-operation. Instead, Keynes wanted domestic autonomy to determine nationally different rates of interest within broader limits, which he thought was the right trigger to induce appropriate levels of investment, which would then produce optimal levels of employment and avoid sovereignty-eroding problems of inflation.27 Just as he reiterated in his General theory, uncertainty about future interest rates leads individuals to move towards a ‘liquidity preference’ in the face of a need to have cash for transactions, as a precautionary hedge against uncertainty about asset values. This they can use speculatively on the markets.28 The management of interest rates therefore becomes a key tool of governments or banks related to the psychological management of expectations as much as to an attempt to govern inflationary mechanics of the money supply, and is a prompt to induce investment that will help cure involuntary unemployment.29
Alongside these concerns with monetary policy and indebtedness, the brittleness of wartime and post-war politics and the malignant machinations of domestic Realpolitik, Keynes nevertheless began to pursue the idea that after the ‘exceptional’ boom of the late Victorian period and the hiatus of nationalist war, society might now be moving back towards something like a stationary state between population, subsistence, and developmental capacity. Whether pre-war economic prosperity could revive in the wake of the First World War was, unsurprisingly, the question that would dominate his thinking after Versailles and into the 1920s. And his debates with colleagues like Beveridge and Pigou, both at this moment, and then again in the 1930s and 1940s, were almost replicas of earlier debates between Malthus and Ricardo about whether unemployment was possible, or would automatically be adjusted out under conditions of dynamic equilibrium.30 Nevertheless, as Keynes began to re-engage with Malthus once more, his move towards international and then national solutions to Malthusian problems was indicative of the continued closing down of economic possibilities he thought distinctive of the contemporary world.
We can see the development of Keynes's thinking through his role as editor of a year-long Manchester Guardian Commercial series of supplements on post-war reconstruction. Here, Keynes penned an essay entitled ‘An economist's view of population’ in Section 6 of the series, the 17 August 1922 edition. There he noted, as had Malthus, that the ‘interruption to prosperity’ occasioned by continental war opened up a pressing problem space within which to ask the question of whether a return to pre-war prosperity was either likely or possible.31 The nineteenth-century background had seen prosperity evolve as part of a much wider sort of ‘affair of acceleration’ dependent upon ‘perpetual expansion’. Now, war had depleted trade and occasioned unsustainable levels of unemployment, though one might reasonably expect that situation to ameliorate itself. What was more problematic, he thought, was that despite wartime losses the British population was still higher in 1922 than it had been in 1911.32 Whether or not control by ‘civilized’ men of their own destiny under such circumstances was even possible would become the most pressing political question, he thought, but the imagery he chose to accompany his text was of so-called ‘Malthus Island’, a rocky outcrop off the coast of Northumberland colonized perfectly rationally by the guillemots. Maximizing the use of space such that if one more egg was laid, it would of necessity roll off into the sea, produced as a stabilizing check upon the capacity of the space to support its brooding population. The metaphor and the imagery was jejune, but to the point, perhaps also illustrating Keynes's awareness of the new animal ecology of Charles Elton and Alexander Carr Saunders, which could be readily reconfigured into human and political ecology.33
Nonetheless, Keynes then commissioned Benedetto Croce to follow up with a ‘philosopher's’ view of population, in which he accused even the most self-confessedly hardheaded statesmen like Clemenceau of moral hypocrisy over questions of population control and regulation on the one hand, and laissez-faire on the other.34 Finally, Guglielmo Ferrero offered an historians’ perspective in which he claimed that all overarching theories of population were fancifully utopian, because ‘the multiplication of the human species’ is only a ‘transitory historical phenomenon’ conditioned by absolutely historicist understandings of what constitutes progress. He continued the thought, to say that those who believed the present to be an obvious harbinger of the future, that population will necessarily increase continuously and that in doing so there is an ascent to some sort of ‘utopia’ or ‘perfection’, were beholden merely to a chimerical fantasy. Should population growth decline in Europe because its ‘fecundity’ ceased to evolve, he thought, it would signal the need to return to ‘forms of civilization’ that flourished before the French Revolution. This would not mean a return to ‘barbarism’, however, but just another revolution in the turbid ebb and flow of human misery.35
Having also commissioned Harold Wright in 1923 to write, in a series of Cambridge Economic Handbooks he was editing, an essay on the history and theory of population in economic and political argument, Keynes reprinted as his short preface to the book the article he had drafted in the Manchester Guardian supplement on population. In a world once again ravaged by war, tariffs, food shortages, unemployment, and population uncertainties, Malthus was entirely relevant.36 And as Wright suggested, having summarized the origins and claims of Malthus's doctrine about the mechanics through which the conflict between geometric and arithmetic ratios of population to subsistence came about, the return to Malthus in the early 1920s looked like another case of ‘the wheel of things’ turning full circle.37 Immediately following this, when speaking of a return to Malthus, Wright cited Keynes's judgement on the rise, entrapment, and revival of the Malthusian ‘devil’ in Economic consequences of the peace. This, Wright argued, foreshadowed not only the troubling twentieth-century dilemma between population and subsistence, but also between population control and the management of expectations about growth and a continued, high standard of living particularly in the densely aggregated populations of Europe.38 And as Keynes wrote in the aftermath of Versailles: ‘If we are to take a long view the most serious aspect of the situation arises from the population problem. Germany, in common with most other European countries, will suffer a degradation of the standards of life if she allows her population to expand further.’39 Recognizing continuous growth as the basic presupposition of stable, modern political economy provided both grounds for optimism, but also necessitated governmental caution in the face of either promoting unrealistic demands, or through inattention, provoking otherwise preventable systemic shocks.40 But in Keynes's version of this history, whether or not domestic political leaders were up to the task of managing these complex interconnections was a long-running question that prompted his wonderings about their capacities across the generational shift from the Great War to the 1930s. What seems obvious, though, is that those whom Keynes commissioned to write and reflect upon the question of population after Versailles were selected in some ways because their views fitted neatly into Keynes's sense of himself as something of a Malthusian pessimist, to the extent that such a term could attach itself to Malthus's first iteration of his Essay. That is to say, an anti-utopian and anti-socialist sort of ‘pessimism’.
In the first Essay, Malthus had talked of needing first to find ‘just philosophical grounds’ for his claims, as the necessary prerequisite for moving through the dichotomy between theory and practice or experience, as outlined by Kant and pressed hard by Edmund Burke. Malthus's thinking was already therefore enmeshed in an argument about the status of theory, and that concern stayed with Keynes throughout his own life. As a young man (ironically just like Woodrow Wilson, whose politics he would come to satirize so mercilessly), Keynes, and Malthus too, had been affected by the force of Burke's Christian constitutionalism, and his sense of the generational interplay of ideas and experience that connects the past to the present and beyond.41 In Keynes's hands, the power of words and ideas, or what we might also think of as the linguistic element that gives practical force to the history of economic thought, very clearly structures not only what economics is understood to be, but also its sense of possibility at the same time.42
If Wright's was a sympathetic updating of positions Keynes supported, it came amid a growing controversy between Cambridge and the London School of Economics (LSE) over heritage and tradition in the history of political economy, personified in the dispute over the nature of unemployment between Beveridge and Keynes. Professionally, Keynes's attempt to corral Malthus as the ‘first Cambridge economist’ was pointedly opposed to the Marshallian tradition that Pigou had inherited in Cambridge, and to which Keynes remained subject as a junior lecturer, at least until his reputation outgrew that of his academic seniors. The LSE had no such troublesome history, as Edwin Cannan and Lionel Robbins would attest in their own histories of economic thought.43 The divergent approaches to political economy between Keynes, in Cambridge, and William Beveridge at the LSE found focus in their disagreements over unemployment as the newest Malthusian dilemma facing Britain in the early 1920s. The learned journals ran a series of articles in their pages where the two men argued, and which were reprised and reprinted in The Nation and Athenaeum. It built upon a disagreement that had been ongoing since Keynes first fixed the end to a period of great prosperity in Europe on Malthusian lines, around 1900, but now Keynes argued that any proposal to redistribute resources without reference to population issues made contemporary ‘socialist’ diagnoses based on ‘ethical’ presuppositions, such as those pursued by Beveridge (and elsewhere, Pigou), of limited use.44
Keynes, like Beveridge, thought unemployment could come from many sources, but his concern with population growth, import-dependency, and overseas financial investment signalled an early path towards what some have seen as his ‘investment nationalism’ in response to the crises facing liberalism in the 1920s. Here, he pushed for the redeployment of overseas financial investment into domestic employment strategies.45 Unemployment had a force related to population that once again made it a foundational political question for the future. In his General theory, he would focus almost exclusively on what he called ‘involuntary’ unemployment. But in the immediate post-war years, he framed the issue around the classical problem of whether threats to domestic populations based on growth rates would prompt policy responses that provoked international competition and therefore potential conflict, making ‘the problem of population not merely an economist's problem, but in the near future the greatest of all political questions’.46 Beveridge explicitly rejected Keynes's idea of a turning point in 1900, arguing instead that European standards of living were increasing and that the price of corn was falling. This hardly suggested impending starvation, even if the population was rising.47 Beveridge's practical experience of successful rationing and food regulation at the Ministry of Food during the First World War gave his critique a particular gravitas.48
Keynes's reply was to shift the terrain and blame Beveridge for contributing to ignorance about birth control (he worried about declining fertility in Europe through contraception) and population regulation. By return, Beveridge further rubbished Keynes's statistics, while Keynes's terse responses became publicly focused on questions of birth control and eugenics, precisely not the points that he had first chosen to emphasize. Keynes had, rather, wanted to fix attention on the ‘general’ conditions that merely suggested possible conclusions, rather than get bogged down in the detail, which is exactly what he thought Malthus had also been up to. Nevertheless, being called out on the specifics clearly rankled, so he changed his rhetorical tactics.49 But relative to the more general conditions he was concerned with, Keynes's work on refashioning 1920s liberal policies looked to halt unemployment through something like an early British New Deal, with public works programmes paid for by a National Investment Board. Here, he was moving midway between laissez-faire and protectionism, advocating state spending to reduce unemployment. Going beyond the mainstream, however, brought him into conflict with the standard ‘Treasury View’ that state spending could rarely increase employment at all.50
At this point, Keynes pressed what had already become a famous line through his own thinking about Malthus, but he presaged a thought that has certainly been relevant to the recent scholarly revival of interest in the ‘New Worlds’ of Malthus. And he did so in terms almost wholly synonymous with Malthus's own presentation of the problem in his own Essay:51 ‘With Europe's present prospects, and with the growing tendency of the New World to keep its advantages to itself, we are not entitled to rely on so great an advance [as there had been in nineteenth-century territorial acquisitions and imperial trade benefits] in our own opportunities.’52 Both knowledge about, and the practical colonial exploitation of, the New World remained relevant to the continued success of the Old World. And Keynes made the connection between the seemingly open possibilities of expansion present in the nineteenth century, which fostered German growth most spectacularly, and the general success of nationalist developments which had in turn set in train a series of events that closed off similar options in the twentieth century. As Alison Bashford has written, when seen from the perspective of population and ecology, the early twentieth-century geopolitical fix that sought to explain the world as an interconnected and dynamic system of states was predicated on the fact that as a territorial space, the globe was ‘closed’, and this impacted directly on the calculations of those nations and states within it.53 This was, in turn, acutely noted by contemporary German ‘nationalist’ writers, most explicitly Max Weber when writing about the geopolitical limits that would check the rise of constitutional liberalism in Russia during the Revolution of 1905, for example. The relatively recent past locked in developmental tendencies that foreclosed certain options going forward.54
Some, including Malthus originally, had looked to Scandinavian histories of government and economy as a way of locating alternative possibilities to his dilemma of population relative to subsistence, focusing on what we might now think of calling managed capitalism in the face of such worldly closures.55 Unsurprisingly, later Keynesian-inspired sources for managed models of capitalism, and the domestic Scandinavian welfare economics that had developed independently of his work, also sought usefulness in similar counter-histories and possibilities through the twentieth century.56 In the case of figures like Knut Wicksell, for instance, an elaboration of Ricardo's critique of Malthus would produce a new account of the ‘cumulative process’ of inflation, one which would in turn influence Keynes's thinking about interest, unemployment, and money. As Keynes already well knew, the pathways and transitions of ideas into practice, whether by economists or others, was very seldom straight and clear.
Indeed, scholars concerned with the cultural foundations of the evolutionary relationship between economic ideas and economic prosperity have also long known of such ironies of reputation and importance when it comes to Malthus especially. As Joel Mokyr points out in his recent book on the subject, the Chinese scholar Hung Liang-Chi (1764–1809) published an essay on population covering much the same ground as Malthus, and in the same year as Malthus published the first edition of his own Essay, but this so-called ‘Chinese Malthus’ found little cultural resonance for his own thinking. He thus has no obvious or mainstream disciplinary reputation in the wider ‘marketplace of ideas’ around Malthus and his legacy.57 One might equally recall the intervention of the American writer and envoy Alexander Everett, who, after meeting Malthus in England, published his own work, New ideas on population, with remarks on the theories of Malthus and Godwin (1823). He argued against the idea that institutional reform was irrelevant to halting the tendencies towards inequality that were irrevocable in Malthus's eyes, but also emphasized the difference that different national contexts make.58 America, he wrote, really was different. Its space and population growth did not fit a pessimistically Malthusian prediction. Instead, it offered new hope for the future, where space and agrarian abundance might solve the Malthusian dilemma (or at least for those white settlers who pushed Westward into new territories, expropriating space and indigenous populations on their way), even though in general terms it was impossible to think that the human race could increase its population exponentially. Yet all this is simply to repeat precisely what Malthus himself had argued.59
From Keynes's perspective, therefore, the ‘open’ nineteenth century that had quickly become ‘normal’ to ‘right thinking’ people ordering their worldly goods over the phone from their London homes had also, since the turn of the century, become increasingly ‘closed’. In fact, that closure was signified most obviously by the tragedy of a global war between competing nationalisms and nationalities. This had implications for population through the obvious fatalities of the conflict and declining birth rates, but it also raised the more general spectre as to the ‘quality’ of domestic population again. Some conceptual slippage between the quality of a population and the quality of its standards of living was clearly apparent in his contemporary writing when he asked: ‘Is not a country over populated when its standards are lower than they would be if its numbers were less?’60
In 1922 in Cambridge, and again in 1923, during local election campaigns, Keynes had certainly seemed ready to propose the desirability of contraception to control birth rates. This clearly raised hackles among various of his liberal colleagues, but also put him, in the view of some (particularly female) members of his audiences, at the ‘forefront’ of new social thinking. He would curate these speeches into the powerful self-assessment of 1925, ‘Am I a Liberal?’, at precisely the time when he was best known as a polemicist and public moralist, rather than an academic economist.61 This was a move which both tacked back to the more paternalistic elements in John Stuart Mill's liberal writings, and moved new liberalism forward into decidedly new territory in the 1920s. Unsurprisingly, eugenics and social reform had long been part and parcel of both liberal, and increasingly social democratic, ideologies, but Keynes once more parsed the argument about population and the quality of domestic stock in terms of the transition from the open nineteenth to the closed twentieth century.62 Population increase led to unemployment, and during the interwar years it seemed like the best way to offset this trap was not primarily to extend markets abroad, but to engage in more targeted investment at home, matching the growth of ‘national equipment’ with national stock.63 By 1927, he openly and outwardly advocated birth control to the Malthusian Society, in ways rather similar to the sort of arguments that had been popularized at the World Population Conference in that year through the labours of Margaret Sanger among others, and about which the British journal The Spectator reported that Malthus's question remained in essence unchanged. Each country would, they claimed, have to find their own solutions, for neither migration nor market expansion would work on their own.64
But if Keynes's account of adequately relating theory to practice, or experience, or (in the pointed language of heredity) of ‘generations’, those life cycles of ideas in practice for Keynes of around ten to fifteen years, he had to change his mind about the centrality of Malthus's importance from the Great War to the General theory. Explaining the nature of that change has been the focus of most historians of economics. One aspect they routinely avoid discussing when considering the relationship between Keynes and Malthus, however, is the opposition between the ‘open’ and ‘closed’ economy. This, in Keynes's mind, was the framework through which to consider new modes of economic nationalism and their possible futures in 1933, precisely the moment at which he completed his most detailed assessment of Malthus's ideas in context.
In a provocative rejoinder to the rise of Oswald Moseley's black shirts in England, and Stalinist totalitarianism in Russia, Keynes felt compelled to write a short but powerful essay on the idea of ‘National self-sufficiency’ in the early 1930s.65 In this piece, he wrote again of the self-confident belief of nineteenth-century free-trade ideology, particularly in England, that it alone was the cause of international peace between nations. Today, however, ‘we are not, many of us, content with it as a working political theory’.66 International competition hardly seemed conducive to peace in the aftermath of war and inflation, and in fact, it might well be likely to produce the opposite. Indeed, the logic of profitability conflicted with national or domestic responsibility, as shown through the rise of the joint-stock company and international capital flight, and were the sorts of issues that underpinned his earlier thoughts about the end of laissez-faire. Equally, to those who countered that this produced a need for immediate nationalization and self-sufficiency, Keynes offered caution once more, modelled on the sort of pragmatic support for aspects of the corn laws and protectionism found in Malthus.67
A trend towards self-sufficiency was noticeable, Keynes thought, and indeed he supported it. But his general worry, like Malthus before him, concerned the immediacy of such experimentation at the level of practical arrangements. The experimental life (surely a straightforward elaboration of a commitment held since the statement of his early beliefs in and around Bloomsbury and Cambridge) needed free, open, and constant criticism. It was endangered both by those who sought to fix novelty in aspic, or to remove all contrary views. That included those who pursued immediate reform without due regard for consequences, for they were merely political ideologists, and more explicitly, embodiments of a certain sort of Stalinism. This chimed with Keynes's increasingly ambivalent assessment of the Soviet socialist experiment after the Bolshevik revolution. Rather crudely and cruelly, he suggested that mass starvation and famine amid an increasingly fraught atmosphere of civil war would bring about the restoration of a different sort of natural equilibrium between man and the natural environment, as the fallout from pre-war population increase posed yet more threats to Russia's economic future. Unsurprisingly, the Russian response to Keynes's analysis was, as he reprised it, to refer him back to Marx's critique of Malthus. There, overpopulation was just a problem of capitalism, and post-capitalist forms of political organization simply would not suffer from such irrationalities.
However, Keynes also wrote that capitalism, the ‘decadent international but individualistic capitalism, in the hands of which we found ourselves after the War, is not a success. It is not intelligent, it is not beautiful, it is not just, it is not virtuous – and it doesn't deliver the goods.’ Then, as now, ‘when we wonder what to put in its place, we are perplexed’.68 Keynes held out no hope for an idealized equilibrium, in the manner of the classical economists. Neither did he express an outmoded belief in the pacific tendencies of laissez-faire capitalism, nor did he wish to apply a utilitarian metric to the calculation of non-economic public goods such as the natural environment or the arts. Keynes instead supported the gradual but ‘deliberate movement towards greater national self-sufficiency and economic isolation’ but only ‘in so far as it can be accomplished without excessive economic cost’.69 To be sure, there were dangers in the move towards self-sufficiency, and here the jibe is specifically against the ideologues; silliness, haste, and intolerance are the three risks of too hasty a sense of what is required.70 Instead, we should seek to take the measure of the problems of post-war reconstruction and the search for new forms of experimental stability within territorial boundaries, as a continual work in progress. Even when declaiming a form of economic nationalism that might, in true Keynesian fashion, seek to save capitalism (not the capitalists) from itself (while they can go to the wall), the search for an open-minded pragmatic policy position is entirely within his grasp.
This, of course, was what he thought to be the true legacy of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century approaches to political economy, focused around large-scale transformations and local or national responses, such as those applied by Malthus. Indeed, Malthus proposed various forms of protectionism in the wake of war with France, taxing imports and offering bounties for the export of corn. This was a temporary expedient under conditions of national emergency, but also a structural response to the perceived logic of long-term trends, namely that exporting countries will eventually develop their own industrial sectors and cut their exports to Britain.71 Malthus's ‘agrarian bias’ against industrialism as ‘progress’ was clearly present here, but his rejection of laissez-faire as uniformly the best principle was of most interest to Keynes's thinking.72 For Malthus, international trade through agriculture can result in declining profits, leading industry to develop thanks to the law of diminishing returns. When this happens, those countries who had focused on manufactures beforehand and imported their food will be in a very precarious position indeed. As he continued in the 1817 edition of his text, ‘a purely commercial state must be undersold and driven out of the markets by those who possess the advantage of land’.73 Modern economists find the argument structurally unsound, but Keynes followed through on the related thought that population was one of the major pivots around which the dynamic effects of international trade could dethrone domestic prosperity. He also seems to have been taken with the idea that the Malthus–Ricardo–Mill argument about the tendency towards a stationary state given the constraints of population and limited resources was germane once more in the early twentieth century.74 Had such broad-gauge analyses been victorious in economic argument, rather than the forms of disciplinary professionalism that followed the rejection of Malthus's focus on aggregate and effective demand, then the shape of contemporary political economy might have looked quite different. Or so Keynes suggested.
The institutional setting that framed his critique of modern political economy notwithstanding, seeking to understand and shape ‘public opinion’ through an understanding of its history was a necessary prerequisite for any hope of enlightened self-understanding and development.75 Therefore, at the same time as he wrote about the hesitating first steps towards national self-sufficiency that might serve to bolster the domestic equilibrium that was his principal focus, he was changing his own mind about what he had valued in the past.76 He thought that the original sense of his autobiographically composed reflections making up ‘My early beliefs’ (1938) were filtered through nineteenth-century commonplaces about international peace that was supposed to follow from economic internationalism and free trade or laissez-faire. But just as he came to see, in the aftermath of the First World War, that those early beliefs had been too ‘shallow’ and focused only on the sorts of issues that appealed to like-minded friends, so too did he continue in the early 1930s to think that the initial connections he had drawn between imperialism and war on the one hand, and internationalism and peace on the other, had been overdrawn.
For example, when polemicizing against Lloyd George and Versailles in Economic consequences he had also drawn a sharp contrast between the sort of free-trade union he proposed among reconstructed polities, and what he saw as the simultaneously closed but aggressively imperialist security project of Mitteleuropa that had been most famously reprised by Friedrich Naumann.77 In his essay on ‘National self-sufficiency’, Keynes had instead suggested that such forms of ‘economic imperialism’ straightforwardly led to conflict. It was an argument that sounded oddly similar to the sort of analysis of imperialism and war that could be found, in different forms, from radical British social criticism such as that offered by John Hobson, or more polemically still, given what he was also writing about in terms of the contemporary Russian experience, the famous account of imperialism and capitalism outlined by Lenin.78
The practical experience of the war as a failure of economic internationalism, even if certain forms of economic internationalism through finance and loans had first of all made an Allied victory possible, told against its plausibility as a strategy going forward. Laissez-faire could not adequately combine economic growth, institutional legitimacy and serve a progressive, democratic public opinion, or balance domestic prosperity and stability. The lecture on self-sufficiency, after all, was delivered in Dublin on 19 April 1933, and its local resonances were hardly lost on Keynes. The distance between ownership and control and the rampant income inequality that the war had helped to break down, if only temporarily, was something with pointed lineage in Irish history. The history of absentee landlordism, internal colonialism, and domestic poverty at the expense of hefty profits for the land owners, remained a real and open sore.79 Malthus too had been well apprised of such connections in his own occasional writings on Ireland.80 And if experience had shown that distance, as opposed to proximity, was a source of conflict, then the obvious inference to draw was to ‘sympathize, therefore, with those who would minimize, rather than with those who would maximize, economic entanglements between nations’, particularly at the level of finance.81
This was a continuation of the worry presented in Economic consequences, whereby reparations, debts, financial instruments, and above all the distance between debtors and creditors, prompted political and increasingly violent forms of recriminations. The difference in Keynes's presentation now, though, was that in Economic consequences, he had predicated his ambivalence towards draconian reparations on the economic interdependence that was the guarantee of stability and growth in Europe. Now, economic interdependence was seen as a problem that maximizing self-sufficiency might well counter, and in so doing, avert some of the principal causes of war. His earlier counsel of free trade as the antithesis of malignant forms of nationalism and national jealousy now needed to be rethought in the wake of the prospect of renewed conflict in Europe, just as surely as his abandoning of free trade was a signal component of the General theory.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the final iteration of Keynes's continued interest in Malthus also came in 1933, through revision of his 1922 article for Essays in biography. Keynes had been discussing with James Bonar the new edition of his Malthus biography, and this was the moment in which he returned to Malthus as a forerunner of ‘effective demand’. He thus simultaneously revived the subject of Malthus's dispute between Ricardo, first highlighted in Ricardo's Notes on Malthus, as well as finagling him into position as the ‘first’ Cambridge economist.82 Not only did Malthus's thinking about effective demand cohere with Keynes's desire for continued experimentation, it also focused on the structural and macroeconomic limits to domestic politics. Population continued to be one of these limits. It would become part of Keynes's attempt to reject what he saw as the unhelpful assumptions of those who followed Ricardo in thinking about full employment and a natural equilibrium between supply and demand through instantaneous price adjustment. He looked instead to focus on ‘effective demand’ as the pivotal moment where aggregate demand and aggregate supply could intersect.
Part of his purpose here was to include the assumptions and expectations of entrepreneurs as a factor in the construction of both aggregate supply and demand, a dynamic, fluctuating, and crucially uncertain process made up of two components, namely how much a community is expected to spend on consumption and also how much it should devote to new investments.83 From this position, there is no guarantee of natural equilibrium or full employment without other forms of intervention, particularly given the divergence between our propensity to consume (related to objective criteria such as wage levels, public and private debts, inflation, as well as subjective factors such as uncertainty, risk, saving for the proverbial rainy day, and so on) or to invest (actions which are governed by the marginal efficiency of capital and the interest rate as seen through the eyes of the speculator).84 For Keynes, reprising Malthus, it was obvious that ‘economics is a very dangerous science’ and he continued to uphold the importance of both moderation and experimentation in economic policy given such risk and uncertainty.85
Intriguingly, Keynes's critique of Stalinist policy and political economy, mixed with his Malthusian pessimism, seemed to combine neatly both his broad liberal rationalism and his anti-socialism. But connecting those two component parts of his mature beliefs together suggests a certain sort of intellectual genealogy of the history of modern political economy that most writers who have focused on the relationship between Keynes's and Malthus's ideas have failed to register. For the various stages of debate about Keynes's interest in Malthus among historians of economic thought routinely take the following form. In the 1940s, one view was that Malthus's interest in unproductive consumption and post-war public works programmes looked Keynesian, such that Malthus's ‘effective demand’ for the ‘necessaries’ of life (triangulated by wealth, population, and fertility), was really a problem of savings. Keynes then added the question of investment to deal with unemployment, and both were seen to focus on the psychological dispositions and structural forces combining to limit human agency.86
In the 1950s, this view was criticized by Paul Lambert, claiming that Keynes applied Malthus's ideas in his Treatise on money, such that Keynes's General theory, as an elaboration of the Treatise of money, in fact corresponds to his interest in Malthus's thinking quite exactly, and therefore that the key intersection between the two economists comes in 1930. For Lambert, Keynesianism really therefore was the triumph of Malthus. Elsewhere, Bernard Corry countered that seeing Malthus as precursor to Keynes was akin to what historians of political thought were coming to think of as mythical sorts of prolepsis and influence-hunting.87 In the 1960s, Samuel Hollander focused on the differences between their accounts of investment. Malthus looked at aggregate income earned from the transfer of unproductive to productive labour, which allowed for greater production of commodities. Keynes's focus on investment allowed for the purchase of capital goods.88 In the 1970s, Keynes was less present in such debates among historians of economic thought, though he remained something of a hidden interlocutor in expansive philosophical debates about population ethics in Anglo-American philosophy.89 Finally, in the 1980s, Robert Rutherford revisited the argument. He claimed that Keynes's Theory of money was not the only route back to Malthus, but the General theory instead formed the appropriate context for thinking about the connections between what Malthus thought of as ‘parsimony’ (i.e. turning revenue into capital) and what Keynes thought of as investment. William Guthrie also turned his attention to this problem in a paper called the ‘Selective rediscovery of economic ideas’.90 Therein, he offered a chronology, though it was one that missed out all the wartime debates about population, heredity, and quality, by focusing solely on supply side problems for the economy.
What none of these perspectives take into account is that Keynes's discussions of Malthus on population and political economy are grounded in various attempts to go beyond the utilitarian mechanics of marginalism on the one hand, and the large-scale arguments of historicism, idealism, and socialism on the other, to pursue the possibility of domestic stability and prosperity.91 Rehabilitating Malthus for modern political economy therefore required some quite delicate surgery, because on each side of these alternative historical ledgers, Malthus constituted both a bogey figure as well as a necessary foil. For historians of the development of socialist political economy, reconsidering earlier debates that had rejected ‘poverty’, misery, and the very category of the poor such as could be found in Condorcet, Paine, and Godwin, Malthus was recognized as a crucial foil. Early socialist writers drew support instead from figures like Smith and Hume who argued for the necessity of higher wages for labourers in a productive economy to help cultivate a political economy of imitation and emulation. This could help to unify individual self-interest, national patriotism, and international competition, in a cycle of unplanned but collectively beneficial moral and economic uplift.92 Malthus was part of the Old World for rejecting such a strategy in their view, a retrograde figure ripe for rejection, someone who hypostasized and naturalized a problem that in fact both had a history and a solution.
Yet Malthus saw himself very directly as following on the tradition of political economy that Smith in particular had done so much to set out. He clearly thought institutions could help to ameliorate, if not abolish, poverty, and because Keynes went back to Malthus (and thereby also to Smith) to avoid the errors as he hyperbolically portrayed them of nineteenth-century British political economy, there is good reason to see Keynes as updating a really rather old and ‘original’ tradition of political economy indeed.93 Moreover, as his leading editor has maintained, the compositional history of Malthus's work from the first version of the Essay to the Principles of political economy (1815) reveals a consistency typically ignored, so that ‘chronologically the Essay preceded the Principles but logically it is part of the Principles’.94
This future-oriented reading of internationalism and free trade as the logical solution to the corruption and indolence of elites (merchants, statesmen, the hereditarily wealthy) in the so-called ancien régime, was halted by Malthus's early critique of the rationalistic optimism of Godwin and his satire of Wollstonecraft, and by his attempt to recalibrate the lessons of Rousseau for modern population to show the impossibility of human perfectibility either in theory or practice.95 The progress of mind and reason was mere appearance, when the basic criteria for growth stemmed from bodily and subsistence-related needs. And these were determined by the driving force of a Christian God, in whose judgement idleness and stupor were the sinful and prideful causes of failure. Unedifying appetites and aversions were the simpler causes of human agency for those Malthus understood as the always-to-be-with-us ‘laboring poor’, rather than any noble-sounding dreams of reason. Human development could only be prompted and moved by the natural compulsion to survive, which was an instinct implanted by divine nature and governed through the basic inequality between subsistence and population.96
This seemed so in the ‘organic’ and still resolutely local economy that Malthus saw all around him and which, as Tony Wrigley and Donald Winch have done so much to remind us, was the context from which his early ideas about population sprang when looking at the villages and towns of England, in comparison with ideological doctrines of commerce and commercial sociability. This constrained the theoretical as well as practical possibilities of going beyond ‘natural’ limits to growth.97 These were drawn from the commonplace that a ‘rise in numbers caused pressure on resources and tended to depress living standards’, the response to which was either to mix prudence with ‘prevention’ (such as delaying or avoiding marriage) or to succumb to the ‘positive’ check mortality provided.98 While for Keynes, birth control was entirely appropriate as one way around this sort of dilemma, for Malthus it was not, given the crucial combination of natural theology and commercial sociability arguments that lay behind his early rejection of the arguments of Godwin and Condorcet.99 But the general similarity of argument by analogy between the two men remains striking – for both, individual moral responsibility and the absence of dependence was crucial. So too was a reconstruction of the language of theory in economics.100
The challenge required concerted, rational, and creative solutions on the part of economists and policy-makers ranging from speculative federal models of political association to eugenics. It was eminently possible to be part of a broad spectrum of cosmopolitan Malthusianism configured around the activities of different nation-states and nationalities.101 So much so that American writers like Everett, as noted earlier, thought they could dissolve the apparent dilemmas of Malthus's rejection of the possibility of institutional amelioration and the limits to population growth, by showing the options in non-English contexts for large-scale republicanism through representative institutions, agrarian reform, and spatial abundance. But Malthus had said this already in the second edition of his Essay.102 In any event, civil war soon seemed to give the lie to the capacity of institutional reform to deal with the struggle for both space and divided populations. Elsewhere, by the end of the nineteenth century and after long intellectual debates about the nature and capacity for social adaptation to environmental changes filtered through Lamarck, later alignments of Darwin and Malthus became as problematic for socialists as much as liberals.103 How could competition and creativity align with both evolution and a pessimism, or at least scepticism, about moving too far in one or other direction towards either individualism or socialism. This, in fact, was the central conundrum facing the sort of utilitarian political economy outlined by Henry Sidgwick.104
What Keynes sought in response was a sense of where one might still be able to find ‘common purpose’ beyond war and conflict in an age of reconstruction. What could function to unify populations when the old religions were even more ‘moth eaten’ than ever, when the optimism of the older Enlightenment philosophers was done, and when ‘our new Spinoza’ (he was referring to Wittgenstein) offered only ‘frozen comfort’. Communism was ‘discredited by events’, socialism ‘in its old-fashioned interpretation, no longer interests the world’, and capitalism ‘has lost its self-confidence’. Without common purpose, only depravity and individualism could be victorious, a distortion of the benefits of free trade when individualism was misappropriated as the bedrock of laissez-faire.105 And common purpose as the search for common benefit could only come through domestic political stability, full employment, and increasing prosperity. Population and unemployment remained a challenge to all these goods.
With the General theory, Keynes returned to these dilemmas in his closed, domestic model. If the underutilization of resources was a perpetual threat to capitalism in general, the possibilities of a declining population might lead once again to what was known as a ‘stationary state’, a situation which would of necessity require a rebalancing of income inequalities in particular if domestic peace and concord was to be maintained, given the correlate decrease in production and wages.106 This concern was part of Keynes's wider reversion to a problem that had been a staple of eighteenth-century political economy arguments about the so-called ‘jealousy of trade’, as well as to his thinking about the desirability of such a stationary state. If full employment was the best solution to the competitive conflicts that arose from the search for extra markets and expansion, then a more slowly growing population made it increasingly difficult to offset the fact that population inequalities were themselves one of the principal causes of conflict and war. Keynes was, here, updating a very general idea about the economic roots of military and political conflicts found in Smith, Hume, and Rousseau.107 At the same time, of course, by connecting ideas in this way, he was reiterating his conviction that the major questions of political economy had been pushed off course with both Ricardo, and then Marx, during the nineteenth century.
Part of Keynes's project in General theory, with reference to ‘effective demand’, was to reset the trajectories for modern economic analysis and to ‘revolutionize’ how we think about political economy. By doing so with reference to the crucial question of whether commerce and capitalism was more likely to lead to peace or war, he nevertheless made the revolution take shape with reference to a by now rather old-fashioned question.108 The concluding notes to General theory did, after all, revive the heterodox challenges of writers about economics from Malthus to Mandeville, and more recently from Gessel to Hobson, even if none had adequately shown the interplay, as Keynes saw it, between the need to lower interest rates, induce investment, and try to match consumption and market-based individualism with a social philosophy that prioritized the role of the state in order to maintain the possibility of domestic full employment. It was at this point that the Malthus whom Keynes valorized more than the pessimistic diagnostician of population became the historically informed teacher of the Principles of political economy (1815), and who appeared directly after the traumas of the continental blockade and the eventual defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. This Malthus was the epitome of Keynes's focus on the need to adapt and renew ‘effective demand’ as the prerequisite for stability and prosperity.109 Malthus's awareness of the irregular movement of economic cycles under the pressure of post-war reconstruction and food shortages seemed a more promising guide to the possible future of British political economy than the technical diagnosis of unemployment as simply the maladjustment between prices, wages, and demand, as Ricardo had suggested. His Christian political economy that lent itself to ready support for conservative poor law reform was less interesting for Keynes.110 He thought the really important question was how to sustain ‘economic motivation’ moving forward after disaster.111
Keynes found precursors of this practical need in the notes on mercantilism that made up his conclusion to the General theory.112 Yet it was really with Malthus that the combined problem of population and employment found its relevance in the contemporary world, offering a challenge to the sort of liberalism that Keynes was trying to revive. He was a peculiar sort of modern liberal, particularly in terms of his connection to the economic strategies of the modern Liberal party.113 Prioritizing the life of the mind, predicting economic progress and the forthcoming benefits of a less beleaguered workforce in the future, Keynes was certainly a liberal crusader of the intelligentsia, one who, as Richard Toye has claimed, sought to curate an approach to liberal politics as a way of life, an attitude to a particular sort of human problem rather than a fixed or stipulative set of rubrics of political economy in the abstract. It was, certainly, an attitude much more in tune with Asquith and his coterie, rather than Lloyd George, in and around the First World War. But it bore little resemblance to any mainstream Liberal party position, and would easily change direction as contemporary political culture itself transformed.114 Equally, his preference for investment-led optimization strategies with a statist direction cut a swathe through both contemporary liberal free-trade arguments on one side, and Marxist-catastrophist or under-consumptionist arguments on the other. His defence of the power of investment and investors was presented as a psychological ‘law’, and this too underpinned his sense of what else might make up ‘effective demand’.115 As Keynes well knew, there is never any certainty about the ways in which tactics and ethics might align with structures and ideologies in the face of the modern inflationary pressures lying behind the production of ‘effective demand’.116 But in other respects, particularly concerning the nature of the relationship between population and the quality of national stock, he was at the forefront of a more widespread set of ‘liberal’ interests about how certain sorts of attitudes and dispositions might be bred out, quite literally, of a supine political class unable to take the sorts of rational decisions that the problems of unemployment and overpopulation implied.117
Both before and after the war, he claimed that in all probability the world had gone beyond the point at which increased population would lead to rising living standards and prosperity, so that first of all, it was reasonable to conclude that lowering the birth rate was sound policy. He asked the further question, however, as to whether it might be possible to ‘reverse-engineer’ Malthus in order to find ways to prevent, or in more recent parlance to ‘nudge’, the unhealthy not to breed. This course of action was geared towards a concern with quality as much as with quantity, even if the latter had to come before the former, and Keynes was expansive about what this implied.118 For just as heredity and statistical frequency was a poor guide to probabilistic conjectures involving future physiological traits, so too was heredity and statistical frequency a poor guide to stable and high-quality political leadership. Where hereditary wealth and political leadership had gone together and provided a certain sort of route to power for the capitalist ruling class, their leadership was, in Keynes's judgement, both weak and stupid. The virulence with which he attacked capitalism and capitalists was palpable, and he even went so far as to say, alongside Malthus once more, that perhaps war in this case might even be ‘hygienic’ for liberalism, if it meant the dissolution of an unhealthy and weak cadre of leaders.119
The quality of the political stock, or leadership, was pretty low, he thought, when considering the declining population rate in 1937. He saw a path around this in the probabilistic calculus that a form of eugenic management might foster the reproduction of the right sort of people, those who could, as he had thought about a decade earlier in his little piece ‘Economic possibilities for our grandchildren’, deal sanely and successfully with a future life of leisure that might follow the infamous ‘end’ of laissez-faire with a stationary state in place. Once the high-capitalists had been either euthanized, or sent off to the psychoanalysts for re-education, a well-ordered population might find equilibrium as much through its quality as its well-calibrated quantity, and that high-quality population would in time come to see the power of Keynes's ideas about domestic stability and the good life. It might, finally, lay the free-trade internationalist commonplaces of the nineteenth century to rest.120 That, at least, was his hope, just as it might be thought to have been part of Malthus's hope too, when he suggested that ‘it is physically possible for a small number of very rich proprietors and capitalists to create a very large demand; but practically, it has always been found that the excessive wealth of the few is never equivalent, in effective demand, to the more moderate wealth of the many’. What mattered were the proportions, or what Keynes would refer to as ‘orders of magnitude’.
Although there might be good reasons for reducing the proportionate inequalities between persons by abolishing private property or redistributing income, the view of both Malthus and Keynes was that by so doing, dangerous and unintended consequences might result. Both because of the ever-present variable of population outlined in his first Essay, and the fact that moral restraint could be institutionally targeted, directed, and historically explored as outlined in his second Essay, Malthus recognized the awkward trade-offs between egalitarian property rights and the promise of a better quality of life.121 As he suggested, ‘although therefore a more equal distribution of landed property might be better than that which actually prevails, it might not be wise to abolish the law of primogeniture’ for other reasons.122
As John Pullen has recently emphasized, Malthus knew that such inequality could lead to economic depression, and that redistribution could be a remedy for it. But the ‘proportions’ had to be carefully weighed. If they were not, agrarian depression might easily lead to political tyranny.123 Similarly, although Keynes sought to manage the malign effects of modern industrial capitalism in ways that could bring about domestic stability, and although he rhetorically and infamously hoped for the euthanasia of the rentier, he too thought that the abolition of certain sorts of inequalities might lead to still greater problems. Both were concerned with the idea of a balance between competition and stability, discerning any available ‘optimum’ amid the uncertainties of competition and empirical changes brought about in the real world.124 This in part explains why for a generation he had himself been interested in and sought to revive parts of the lost worlds of Thomas ‘Population’ Malthus for a modern age both very different and distant from Malthus's own, but still uncertain of how to deal with what eighteenth-century political economists had already discerned as potentially insurmountable tensions between domestic welfare, international competition, and institutional democracy. Though rhetorically redescribed today as paradoxes of modern globalization, such Old World problems remain very much our own.125