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Keynes: A Master of Confused and Confusing Prose


[This article is a selection from Where Keynes Went Wrong]:

Paul Samuelson, professor of economics at MIT after World War II and author of a best-selling economics textbook, was one of Keynes's most ardent American disciples. Here is what he has to say about the latter's General Theory:

It is a badly written book, poorly organized. . . . It is ar­rogant, bad-tempered, polemical, and not overly gener­ous in its acknowledgements. It abounds in mare's nests and confusion….

In reading this, one recalls Keynes's infatuation with paradox. Samuelson, the ardent disciple, is telling us that the master's book is good because it is bad.

We do not, however, have to take Samuelson's word about the bad writing, poor organization, and general confusion of The General Theory. Following publication in 1936, many lead­ing economists pointed to the same problems, although some of them hesitated to criticize or quarrel with Keynes and thus chose their words carefully. Frank H. Knight, a leading American econ­omist, complained that it was "inordinately difficult to tell what the author means. . . . The direct contention of the work [also] seems to me quite unsubstantiated."

Joseph Schumpeter noted Keynes's "technique of skirting problems by artificial definitions which, tied up with highly specialized assumptions, produce paradoxical-looking tau­tologies. . . ." British economist Hubert Henderson privately stated that: "I have allowed myself to be inhibited for many years . . . by a desire not to quarrel in public with Maynard . . . . But. . . I regard Maynard's books as a farrago of confused sophis­tication."

French economist Etienne Mantoux added that the whole thing simply appeared to be "rationalization of a policy … long known to be . . . dear to him.

In The General Theory itself, Keynes has a good word to say about clarity, consistency, and logic.He is quick to pounce on what he considers the errors of others. But he then leads us down a rabbit hole of convolution, needless and misleading jar­gon, mis-statement, confusion, contradiction, unfactuality, and general illogic.

It is not that Keynes is entirely opaque. It is quite feasible to make out what he seems to be saying, but it is worth taking a moment to focus on the particular rhetorical devices and obfuscations that Keynes employed.

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