On the first Keynesian texts but when will there be the last?

In the discussion thread on introductory texts on economics from the 1890s to the 1950s, in which I discussed Clay’s Economics, the issue has swung round to what is a story frequently told on the left, how political pressure from the right killed off the supposedly great first Keynesian text, Loris Tarshis’s The Elements of Economics. To which I contributed the following:

This note is in regard to Lorie Tarshis’s first “Keynesian” text in the US, his Elements of Economics, which supposedly was killed off by an attack from William F. Buckley, thereby clearing the way for Samuelson to take the field with his own more cautiously written Keynesian tract. This story about Buckley and Tashis is an old established myth. In fact, Buckley went after Samuelson just as much as Tarshis. This is the start of Buckley’s assessment, which in some eyes might even look quite prescient:

“Marx himself, in the course of his lifetime, envisaged two broad lines of action that could be adopted to destroy the bourgeoisie: one was violent revolution; the other, a slow increase of state power, through extended social services, taxation, and regulation, to a point where a smooth transition could be effected from an individualist to a collectivist society. The Communists have come to scorn the latter method, but it is nevertheless evident that the prescience of their most systematic and inspiring philosopher has not been thereby vitiated.

“It is a revolution of the second type, one that advocates a slow but relentless transfer of power from the individual to the state, that has roots in the Department of Economics at Yale, and unquestionably in similar departments in many colleges throughout the country. The documentation that follows should paint a vivid picture.” — William F. Buckley, Jr. God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of Academic Freedom, Henry Regery, 1951, p. 46-47.

And I might also mention Buckley’s attitude to Keynes, also from the same source, which would have applied to Samuelson quite as much as Tarshis:

“The individualist insists that drastic depressions are the result of credit inflation; (not excessive savings, as the Keynesians would have it) which at all times in history has been caused by direct government action or by government influence. As for aggravated unemployment, the individualist insists that it is exclusively the result of government intervention through inflation, wage rigidities, burdensome taxes, and restrictions on trade and production such as price controls and tariffs. The inflation that comes inevitably with government pump-priming soon catches up with the laborer, wipes away any real increase in his wages, discourages private investment, and sets off a new deflationary spiral which can in turn only be counteracted by more coercive and paternalistic government policies. And so it is that the “long run” is very soon a-coming, and the harmful effects of government intervention are far more durable than those that are sustained by encouraging the unhampered free market to work out its own destiny.”

The true reason, in my view, that Samuelson’s text won out over Tarshis’s is because it is a far better book, much much more accessible. The macroeconomic side, with its C+I+G diagrams and others of a similar kind, is a fantastic improvement in the underlying power of explanation. I have first editions of both Samuelson and Tarshis, and there is no comparison. Even Samuelson’s 1948 version is an order of magnitude better, both to teach and to learn from. There are virtually no diagrams in the macro half of Tarshis’s text (and the diagrams in the micro half are often bizarrely complex), while Samuelson has a number of diagrams (a small number, especially in comparison the text we are now all familiar with), which bring out the underlying message in a way that the hundreds of pages of diagramless text in Tarshis does not.

I might add, but only just for fun, that in my Defending the History of Economic Thought, I discuss the ways in which diagrams have dumbed down economic thought, so that we now move lines in a two-dimensional space, instead of trying to think through the actual economic adjustments that are supposedly going on. But that is just by the way.

And if you have reached this far, Nato asked a very interesting question, for which I am grateful, and for which there is a very interesting answer. The question: “Talking about your contributions, Say’s law and the classics, is the Elgar debate with Rochon still running?”

The answer: We had agree to a third letter each and when I sent off my third letter off, I suggested that perhaps we could even go for a fourth. The reply that came back was that Rochon had decided that he no longer even wished to do the third, so we would stop there without publishing this third letter.

It is clear that he is no longer game to go on, but that was, in my view, all the more reason to hold him to what he had agreed. Keynesian economics is the absolute standard in macroeconomics at the moment. If anyone should have been overwhelmed in this debate – going only by the numbers – it should have been me. My third letter was a clarification of some of the issues already raised, I replied to what had been written previously, as well as going on with a further discussion of the problems with Keynesian theory. That is just what such a debate should be. Each of us gets to respond to the issues the other has raised. By probing for the weak points in each other’s arguments, we bring the various tensions on our own positions to light and, hopefully, learn something at the same time.

I can only say that if Keynesian theory is as indefensible as it appears from the the first two letters defending Keynes, and which I think my third letter would have helped to emphasise to others, then I think there is some kind of moral duty to publish my third letter. This is not some small matter, but involves the entire theoretical and strategic approach to managing our economies. If the Keynesian defence is as feeble as it has been shown it to be – and I would hardly deny that there may be others who could do a better job – then I think my third letter should enter into the public debate, and if there are others who think they can do better, they can come forward to try to explain the Keynesian position more clearly. But to me this is a debate that we need to have.

I will only add at this point that the matter is not yet closed.

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