The Strategic Advantage of Bad Writing

7 July 2007 at 9:38 pm 4 comments

| Peter Klein |

Murray Rothbard’s concise and typically witty explanation for the triumph of Keynesian macroeconomics:

How was the Keynesian Revolution accomplished? How was this mare’s nest of discredited Mercantilist fallacies put over? In the first place, by intellectual intimidation. The old fallacies were dressed up by Keynes in such a wilderness of unclear writing and pretentious jargon, in such a bewildering morass of strange concepts, that the Keynesian disciples claimed to be the only ones able to understand the Master.

From a 1959 article included as the introduction to a new edition of Henry Hazlitt’s Failure of the “New Economics”. I feel better now about my bad writing. If I only had disciples. . . . 

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Ephemera.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Joseph Mahoney  |  8 July 2007 at 3:17 pm

    Having had the privilege of having Sidney Weintraub teach Keynes’ General Theory line-by-line to us students at the University of Pennsylvania, I would maintain that Keynes’ was successful DESPITE the book’s difficult writing style and not because of it.

    Also to lump Paul Samuelson’s questionable translations of Keynes with Keynes’ General Theory would be highly objectionable to many.

  • 2. Student  |  9 July 2007 at 12:47 pm

    But do you really believe that “Keynesian Economics” (however you want to define that term) is/was a load of dressed-up fallacies?

  • 3. Peter Klein  |  9 July 2007 at 2:25 pm

    Well, yes. Keynes was a brilliant and clever man but not, in my judgment, a very good economist. (Joe Salerno attributes this to Keynes’s “parochial and stunted training in economic theory — one course in economics and the study of Alfred Marshall’s clunky and disjointed textbook.”) Keynes’s Treatise was crushed by Hayek’s devastating critique in Economica in 1931 and 1932 and mostly disappeared. As for the General Theory, its reliance on crude aggregates instead of meaningful economic variables, its rehabilitation of naive underconsumptionist fallacies and money-crankism, its ignorance of basic capital and investment theory, all contributed to set business-cycle theory back for decades. (I’m not sure it has ever recovered). The Hazlitt book mentioned above discusses all this, and of course there is a huge secondary literature on Keynes that you can consume at your leisure. (One of Rothbard’s points is that the emergence of this secondary literature — and all the buzz about what Keynes “really meant” — is exactly the result of Keynes’s confusing exposition.)

    Now, if by “Keynesian economics” you mean Samuelson or Hicks or Hansen or New Keynesian economics or something else, then my answer would be different. (Joe, I didn’t mean to lump together Keynes and Samuelson — far from it!) I have no problem with menu costs, overlapping-generations models, and other deviations from the instantaneous market clearing that characterizes real-business-cycle theory (but not efficiency-wage models). However, these concepts don’t seem to me to have much to do with Keynes.

  • 4. Robert Vienneau  |  9 July 2007 at 5:10 pm

    Some time ago, I pointed, Hazlitt doesn’t know what he is talking about.

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