Review: Keynes Hayek, by Nicholas Wapshott

Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics, by Nicholas Wapshott. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011. 382 pp. $28.95 (hardcover).


The financial-economic crash of 2008–9, dubbed the “Great Recession” by pundits who have insisted its severity was second only to that of the Great Depression (1930s), has been blamed on “greed,” tax-rate cuts (2003), the GOP, and looser regulations in the prior decade—that is, to what passes today for full, laissez-faire capitalism (the same culprit fingered in the 1930s). The crash has also renewed interest in Keynesian economics, which holds that free markets are prone to failures, breakdowns, and recessions due to excessive production (supply) and can be cured of slumps only by state intervention to boost demand and dictate investment. And the crash has led to the worldwide adoption of two pet policies of John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946): massive deficit spending and inflation to “stimulate” stagnant economies. In fact, economies continue to languish not in spite of Keynesian policies but because of them.

One key factor precipitating the recent revival of Keynes was the awarding of a Nobel prize to Keynesian Paul Krugman in fall 2008, during the worst weeks of the crisis, when the $700 billion bank bailout (TARP) was debated and enacted. A half dozen new books since 2008 also have helped revive Keynesian notions; one is subtitled “return of the master,” another eagerly reports that the crash has “restored Keynes, the capitalist revolutionary, to prominence.” As in the 1930s, when Keynes first exerted strong influence on policy, he is depicted today as capitalism’s savior, favoring a mixed economy to quell popular angst of recessions and prevent more authoritarian alternatives (fascism, communism).

Like most intellectuals today, British journalist Nicholas Wapshott (formerly senior editor at the London Times and New York Sun) falsely attributes the recent financial crisis to overly free markets; he also admires Keynes, his demand-side theories, and his interventionist policies. Yet unlike typical hagiography on Keynes, Wapshott adopts an ideas-oriented approach to Keynes’s revival in his book, Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics.

Like most interpreters, Wapshott believes that Keynesianism somehow “saves” capitalism from itself and from ultimate political tyranny, although he does not deny (or bother to hide) the many cases where Keynes expresses an unvarnished hatred for individualism and free markets. He acknowledges (and welcomes) the return of Keynesian policies, but he worries they may have been hastily implemented and thus ineffectual, given that multi-trillion-dollar stimulus schemes in the three years since 2008 have not boosted growth or jobs. Wapshott rightly recounts how Keynesianism was discredited during the 1970s “stagflation” (which it could not explain) and successfully challenged by “efficient market” theorists and classically oriented supply-siders (“Reaganomics”). But he exaggerates the reach of pro-capitalist ideas and policies in recent decades, and pins blame for the recent crash on what is still free about markets, not on the state interventions that necessarily render otherwise efficient markets dysfunctional and destructive.

Yet Wapshott’s main goal in Keynes Hayek is to have us understand Keynes’s recent revival in the context of a long-running battle or “clash” between the ideas and policies of Keynes and those of Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek (1899–1992), who is portrayed as the champion of free markets and skeptic toward state intervention. Wapshott mostly succeeds in achieving his goal, but in the end he draws the wrong conclusion—namely, that the Keynesian revival is warranted—because he believes, not merely with Keynes, but, we see, also with Hayek, that markets fail when left free. In fact, free markets do not fail, but widespread belief that they do has helped revive Keynes. . . .

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