Keynes in Dublin: Exploring the 1933 Finlay Lecture

Mark C. Nolan, €30

The story behind a lecture given by economist John Maynard Keynes in Dublin in 1933 makes interesting and timely reading. Keynes was “beyond any doubt, the most influential political economist of the second quarter of the 20th century,” according to author Mark Nolan,

Instead of spending money on unemployment, Keynes advocated that people should be employed to do constructive work. “If I had responsibility for the Government of Ireland today, I should most deliberately set out to make Dublin, with its appropriate limits of scale, a splendid city fully endowed with all the appurtenances of art and civilisation on the highest standards,” he argued. Spending money in this way was not only better than dole, but could actually eliminate the need for dole.

Many countries were trying to tackle the economic depression by promoting national self-sufficiency. “Italy, Ireland, Germany have cast their eyes or are casting them towards new modes of political economy,” Keynes warned. “We are — all of us, I expect about to make mistakes.”

His strongest criticism was reserved for the communist Soviet Union. “Russia today exhibits the worst example which the world, perhaps, has ever seen of administrative incompetence,” he said. “Russia stands before us as an awful example of what ruin and desolation, ill-judging and obstinate experimentation can work in an agricultural people, so that men are actually starving today in what was a little time ago one of the great food-producing areas of the world.” It was not until saddled with massive American wheat imports in the 1980s that the Soviets woke up to that reality.

Even though there was much that was attractive about Irish efforts to achieve greater self-sufficiency, the Free State did not have the natural resources “for more than a very modest measure of national self-sufficiency to be feasible without a disastrous reduction in a standard of life,” Keynes warned. “What a wound would have been inflicted on the fair face of Ireland, if within two or three years, her rich pastures were to be ploughed up and the result were to be a fiasco!”

Keynes considered free trade an imperative of economic progress. It was “almost as part of the moral law,” he argued. “I regarded ordinary departures from it as being at the same time an imbecility and an outrage.”

The de Valera government did not start the Economic War with Britain, as Keynes seemed to believe, but did welcome the opportunity it afforded to introduce tariffs against British imports.

Se•n Lemass was the driving force of this protectionism, because he believed that free trade had been responsible for the plight of the Irish people during the 19th century. Lemass is now fondly remembered as a highly successful Taoiseach, but people usually forget that he actually turned his back on the protectionism that he had promoted.

Hitler had only just come to full power in Germany in 1933, but Keynes warned of the dangers of allowing him to be above criticism. The warning was appropriate for here, too, from the scandals involving the abuse of children to For decades nobody dared question the conduct of church authorities. Is the Garda Síoch•na. now claiming that it, too, should be above internal criticism?

The warnings of Keynes in 1933 are as appropriate today, and a timely reminder from the past.

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