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A Critique of Keynesian Rationality: From Philosophy, to Ethics, to Macroeconomic Management

Lecturer: Austin Hayden Smidt

Originally Taught: Summer School 2024

This course will argue that to understand Keynes is to understand how his philosophy of time is inseparable from his ethical philosophy, which grounds his economic theory in the pursuit of the good society through the management of the future. Essentially, the course is broken down into two parts. In Part 1, we address the ethical and temporal foundations of Keynes’ philosophical orientation, as it is his philosophical concerns for the future well-being of the nation and the good that guide his economic theory. This informs Keynes’ desire to construct a future good society in economic terms by managing the future itself. Then, in Part 2, we discuss how the construction of a future good society in economic terms occurs by managing the future via a modal operation of economic management as an ongoing communicative activity through institutions and subjects. By the end of the course, we will have painted a picture of Keynesian theory defined as an ethics of macroeconomic rationality. This is because Keynes is a moral theorist, centrally concerned with the philosophical pursuit of the good in the form of national well-being. This occurs for Keynes through the management of an uncertain future by technical instruments, put in the hands of those charged with mitigating the consequences that such uncertainty presents. The importance of this is to understand the philosophical underpinning of a dominant mode of economic thinking and practice operative in our world today. What is more, by understanding precisely how Keynesian theory feeds directly into a legitimation of macroeconomic management, we can see how macroeconomic institutions justify their actions in and over the world in various ways. We will close the course by briefly discussing practical examples highlighting precisely how this process occurs.

Lecture One – The Philosophical Foundations of Keynesian Political Economy 

This week will focus on the philosophical influences on Keynes, particularly the work of G.E. Moore and J.M. McTaggart. The foundations of Keynes' political economic theory are rooted in his ethical concerns for the construction of the good society which were greatly influenced by the meta-ethical work of Moore. Further, Keynes’ fascination with the unknowable future can be traced to the influence of McTaggart’s thesis on the unreality of time. We close the week by asking if Keynes is best understood as a Platonist, an Aristotelean, or perhaps both.

Readings – selected pages from:

  • G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica
  • McTaggart, “The Unreality of Time”
  • Keynes, The Essential Keynes

Lecture Two – Keynes’ Economic Management of The Future

Once we understand the philosophical foundations that ground Keynes’ inquiry into the construction of a good society, we will explore how his economic theory is essentially concerned with mitigating the consequences that come from our inability to know the future and the concurrent ethical mandate to secure as bright a future as possible for the nation despite the certainty that the future is fraught with uncertainty. This, for example, explains how he understands the role of money and liquidity preference as providing a link between the present and future, and helps explain the rationale behind hoarding liquidity as a security measure. Further, this sheds light on his view of the uncertain future as not being merely an epistemological limitation that can be calculated away by risk management or other such financial technologies, but as an ontological feature of reality itself.

Readings – selected pages from:

  • Keynes, The Essential Keynes
  • Selected passages/quotes from the literature (Robinson, Lavoie, Madsen, Chick and Dow, Skidelsky, Davidson, etc)

Lecture Three – The Rationality of Technocratic Sovereignty: Macroeconomic Management of the Future 

Understanding Keynes’ concern to manage the future, and understanding how he views the irreducible uncertainty of the future as an ontological feature, allows us to understand how and why Keynesian theory justifies technocratic sovereignty through macroeconomic management. This week will recap what we’ve learned so far by tying the first two weeks together and also exploring the logic of Keynesian macroeconomic management as a necessary activity of institutions who are able to use economic models to aim towards the creation of the good society, which is by mitigating the negative consequences that are the direct result of the certainty of varying degrees of fraught futures. 

Readings – selected pages from:

  • Keynes, The Essential Keynes
  • Martijn Konings, Capital and Time
  • Paul Livingston, The Politics of Logic
  • Selected passages from the literature

Week Four – Macrofoundations of Micro: The Modal Logic of Macroeconomic Rationality

This week is the most speculative of the weeks, suggesting that the form that Keynesian technocratic sovereignty takes is an ongoing communicative modal activity. Essentially, what this means is that it is a system of giving and asking for reasons. To say, for example, “central banks inject liquidity into the market” is a statement that has empirical content. A modal expression that makes explicit the rules implicit in this first empirical claim might be something like “in order to prop up asset prices.” This latter modal expression reveals certain rules that frame thought and practice in relation to the original proposition. The modal claim does not add external truth to the original claim, but serves as the inferential license to make the original claim from, for example, the perspective of political economic analysis. We close the lesson by looking at how balance sheet operations are one of the key technological operations that use this modal style of ongoing communication. We appeal to the work of post-Keynesian Hyman Minsky to make this clear.

Readings – selected pages from:

  • Keynes, The Essential Keynes
  • Robert Brandom, “Modal Kant-Sellars Thesis”
  • Further selected passages from the literature (Sellars, Minsky, Konings, Culham)

Lecture Five – Recap and Practical Examples

In the final week, we will do a full recap and attempt to weave the various threads together into a single logical map for the class, so that we can see how each of the topics discussed from week one through to week four inform one another. Then, we will close by looking at practical examples from the media that demonstrate precisely how these theoretical musings are played out in real-world economic discussions and policy

Readings/Media: TBD