Keynes’s Ideology of Ethical Nihilism

“On what moral or philosophical basis, it is reasonable to ask, did Keynes believe that policy advocates such as he had either the right or the ability to manage or direct the economic interactions of multitudes of peoples in the marketplace? He explained his own moral foundations in Two Memoirs, published posthumously in 1949, three years after his death. One memoir, written in 1938, examined the formation of his early beliefs as a young man in his twenties at Cambridge University in the first decade of the twentieth century.
He, and many other young intellectuals at Cambridge, had been influenced by the writings of philosopher G.E. Moore. Separate from Moore’s argument, what are of interest are the conclusions reached by Keynes from reading Moore’s work. Keynes said,
Indeed, in our opinion, one of the greatest advantages of his [Moore’s] religion, was that it made morals unnecessary….
… Nothing mattered except states of mind, our own and other people’s of course, but chiefly our own. These states of mind were not associated with action or achievement or consequences. They consisted of timeless, passionate states of contemplation and communion, largely unattached to “before” and “after.” (Two Memoirs [1949], 82-83)
In that setting, traditional or established ethical or moral codes of conduct meant nothing. Said Keynes:
We entirely repudiated a personal liability on us to obey general rules. We claimed the right to judge every individual case on its own merits, and the wisdom, experience and self-control to do so successfully. This was a very important part of our faith, violently and aggressively held…. We repudiated entirely customary morals, conventions and traditional wisdom. We were, that is to say, in the strict sense of the term, immoralists…. We recognized no moral obligation on us, no inner sanction to conform or obey. Before heaven we claimed to be our own judge in our own case. (pp. 97-98)
Keynes declared that he and those like him were “left, from now onwards, to their own sensible devices, pure motives and reliable intuitions of the good.”
In his mid fifties, Keynes declared in 1938, “Yet so far as I am concerned, it is too late to change. I remain, and always will remain, an immoralist.” As for the social order in which he still claimed the right to act in such unrestrained ways, he said that “civilization was a thin and precarious crust erected by the personality and the will of a very few, and only maintained by rules and conventions skillfully put across and guilely preserved.” (pp. 98-99)
Thus, the decisions concerning the affairs of society are to be made on the basis of the self-centered state of mind of the policymakers, with total disregard of traditions, customs, moral codes, rules, or the long-run laws of the market. Their rightness or wrongness was not bound by any independent standard of “achievement and consequence.” Instead it was to be guided by “timeless, passionate states of contemplation and communion, largely unattached to ‘before’ and ‘after.’” The decision-maker’s own “intuitions of the good,” for himself and for others, were to serve as his compass. And let no ordinary man criticize such actions or their results. “Before heaven,” said Keynes, “we claimed to be our own judge in our own case.”
Here was an elitist ideology of nihilism. The members of this elite were self-appointed and belonged to this elect precisely through mutual self- congratulations of having broken out of the straitjacket of conformity, custom, and law.
For Keynes in his fifties, civilization was a thin, precarious crust overlaying the animal spirits and irrationality of ordinary men. Its existence, for whatever it was worth, was the product of “the personality and the will of a very few,” like himself, naturally, and maintained through “rules and conventions skillfully put across and guilely preserved.”
Society’s shape and changing form were to be left in the hands of the chosen few who stood above the passive conventions of the masses. Here was the hubris of the social engineer, the self-selected philosopher-king, who through manipulative skill and guile directed and experimented on society and its multitudes of individuals.
Keynes’s arrogance and self-confidence in his ability to manage and manipulate public opinion and public policy was expressed shortly before his death in 1946. Hayek recounts a conversation he had with Keynes in the immediate post–World War II period. He had asked Keynes whether he was concerned that some of his own intellectual disciples were taking his ideas into dangerous and undesirable directions.
After a not very complimentary remark about the persons concerned he proceeded to reassure me: those ideas had been badly needed at the time he had launched them. But I need not be alarmed; if they should ever become dangerous I could rely upon him that he would again quickly swing round public opinion — indicating by a quick movement of his hand how rapidly that would be done. But three months later he was dead. (The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek, Vol. 9: Contra Keynes and Cambridge [1995] p. 323)
Austrian Economics & Public Policy, pp. 261-263, Richard Ebeling