“Words ought to be a little wild . . . “

keynes general theory


“Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assaults of thoughts on the unthinking.”


John Maynard Keynes, “National Self-Sufficiency,” The Yale Review, Vol. 22, no. 4 (June 1933)


I see three outstanding dangers in economic nationalism and in the movements towards national self-sufficiency, imperilling their success.

The first is Silliness–the silliness of the doctrinaire. It is nothing strange to discover this in movements which have passed somewhat suddenly from the phase of midnight high-flown talk into the field of action. We do not distinguish, at first, between the color of the rhetoric with which we have won a people’s assent and the dull substance of the truth of our message. There is nothing insincere in the transition. Words ought to be a little wild–for they are the assault of thoughts upon the unthinking. But when the seats of power and authority have been attained, there should be no more poetic license.

We have, therefore, to count the cost down to the penny which our rhetoric has despised. An experimental society has need to be far more efficient than an old-established one, if it is to survive safely. It will need all its economic margin for its own proper purposes, and can afford to give nothing away to soft-headedness or doctrinaire impracticability. When a doctrinaire proceeds to action, he must, so to speak, forget his doctrine. For those who in action remember the letter will probably lose what they are seeking.

The second danger–and a worse danger than silliness–is Haste. Paul Valery’s aphorism is worth quoting: “Political conflicts distort and disturb the people’s sense of distinction between matters of importance and matters of urgency.” The economic transition of a society is a thing to be accomplished slowly. What I have been discussing is not a sudden revolution, but the direction of secular trend. We have a fearful example in Russia to-day of the evils of insane and unnecessary haste. The sacrifices and losses of transition will be vastly greater if the pace is forced. I do not believe in the inevitability of gradualness, but I do believe in gradualness. This is, above all, true of a transition towards greater national self-sufficiency and a planned domestic economy. For it is of the nature of economic processes to be rooted in time. A rapid transition will involve so much pure destruction of wealth that the new state of affairs will be, at first, far worse than the old; and the grand experiment will be discredited. For men judge remorselessly by results, and by early results, too.

The third risk, and the worst risk of all three, is Intolerance and the stifling of instructed criticism. The new movements have usually come into power through a phase of violence or quasi-violence. They have not convinced their opponents; they have downed them. It is the modern method–but very disastrous, I am still old-fashioned enough to believe–to depend on propaganda and to seize the organs of opinion; it is thought to be clever and useful to fossilize thought and to use all the forces of authority to paralyze the play of mind on mind. For those who have found it necessary to employ all methods whatever to attain power, it is a serious temptation to continue to use for the task of construction the same dangerous tools which wrought the preliminary housebreaking.

Russia, again furnishes us with an example of the crushing blunders which a régime makes when it has exempted itself from criticism. The explanation of the incompetence with which wars are always conducted on both sides may be found in the comparative exemption from criticism which the military hierarchy affords to the high command. I have no excessive admiration for politicians, but, brought up as they are in the very breath of criticism, how much superior they are to the soldiers! Revolutions only succeed because they are conducted by politicians against soldiers. Paradox though it be–who ever heard of a successful revolution conducted by soldiers against politicians? But we all hate criticism. Nothing but rooted principle will cause us willingly to expose ourselves to it.

Yet the new economic modes, towards which we are blundering, are, in the essence of their nature, experiments. We have no clear idea laid up in our minds beforehand of exactly what we want. We shall discover it as we move along, and we shall have to mould our material in accordance with our experience. Now for this process bold, free, and remorseless criticism is a sine qua non of ultimate success. We heed the collaboration of all the bright spirits of the age. Stalin has eliminated every independent, critical mnd, even those sympathetic in general outlook. He has produced an environment in which the processes of mind are atrophied. The soft convolutions of the brain are turned to wood. The multiplied bray of the loud-speaker replaces the soft inflections of the human voice. The bleat of propaganda bores even the birds and the beasts of the field into stupefaction. . .

* Full text at https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/interwar/keynes.htm

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* Thanks to Paul Krugman for this timely (and necessary) reminder

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