The Economic Consequences
of John Maynard Keynes
John D. Allen
[Reprinted from Land & Liberty,
July-August, 1983. At the time of this article, Mr. Allen was one of
Britain's leading industrial journalists. He had undertaken a
re-examination of the teachings of the masters of economics in the
search for a solution to current economic problems.]
MANY EMINENT men have in their day accepted the Malthusian principle
of population as a scientific revelation. Among them is the naturalist
Charles Darwin, the distinguished economist Alfred Marshall and, of
course, Lord Keynes himself.
It was left to Henry George to inveigh against the so-called
principle with its plausible explanation of poverty and unemployment
among people dependent upon incomes at subsistence level.
John Maynard Keynes, the centenary of whose birth falls this year,
had a most favourable view of these theories and the propositions that
flow from them. After reading the volume of letters that passed
between Thomas Mathus, Professor of Political Economy at Haileybury,
and the stockbroker David Ricardo, Keynes gave this opinion in his
Essays in Biography:
"One cannot rise from a perusal of this
correspondence without a feeling that the almost complete
obliteration of Malthus's line of approach and the complete
domination of Ricardo's for a period of a hundred years has been a
disaster for the progress of economics ... If only Malthus, instead
of Ricardo, had been the parent stem from which nineteenth century
economics proceeded, what a much wiser and richer place the world
would be today."
To Keynes's great regret, the Malthusian doctrine that employment is
regulated by the laws of supply and demand for labour appeared to be
swamped by the weight of Ricardian reasoning. But this cannot be quite
right because Ricardo not only did not dissent from the Malthusian
view of wages, he also voiced his admiration for the Essay on
Population. "I am persuaded" he wrote, "that its
just reputation will spread with the cultivation of that science of
which it is so eminent an ornament."
Ricardo's differences with Malthus were over a quite different aspect
of economic science -- the principles of rent. Here the Ricardian view
has not triumphed. To quote Henry George:
"This accepted (sic) law of rent, which John Stuart
Mill denominates the pans asinorum of political economy, is
sometimes called 'Ricardo's law of rent' from the fact that,
although not the first to announce it, he first brought it
prominently into notice. It is: The rent of land is determined by
the excess of its produce over that which the same application can
secure from the least productive land in use'."
As Henry George comments, the mere statement of this proposition
should be sufficient to demonstrate its self-evident character. It may
well be that economists have agreed over the principle or formulation
of the law of rent. But the Malthusian interpretation of its action is
totally different from that of Ricardo and there is no doubt whatever
that the Malthusian view of the law of rent has prevailed.
This interpretation, as expounded by John Stuart Mill and most
leading economists since then, is that because a greater effort is
required to raise the same produce from inferior land, labour and
capital is confronted by the law of diminishing return.
To cite John Stuart Mill, it is the law of production from the land
that an increase in labour inputs does not increase the output of
produce by an equal degree; or to express the same thing in other
words, every increase of produce is obtained by a more than
proportional increase in the application of labour.
MILL SAYS that this general law is the most important proposition in
Not surprisingly, other economists have followed him down this road,
culminating at the end of the 19th century with the theory of marginal
productivity as propounded by Marshall and others.
This centres on the proposition that the wages of every class of
labour tend to be equal to the net product of the marginal labourer.
This principle is Malthus all over and Keynes draws heavily on it in
This kind of thinking, where wages are subject to the law of
diminishing return, is at the basis of Keynesian economics and indeed
the orthodox economics of the preceding century.
In his preface to the German edition of the General Theory of
Employment, Interest and Money, Keynes says that Alfred Marshall,
on whose principles of economics all contemporary English economists
have been brought up, was at particular pains to emphasise the
continuity of his work with Ricardo's.
According to Keynes, the important contribution made by Marshall was
grafting the marginal principle on to the Ricardian tradition.
This in itself is rather strange for it was Ricardo who first drew
attention to the marginal principle as the regulator of all economic
phenomena. However, if Marshall followed the Ricardian tradition, it
is not evident from his writings. Plainly from his own testimony, he
was an ardent Malthusian. There was no need for Keynes to wring his
hands over Marshall's deviationist tendencies.
Malthus, he stated, by careful study of the facts, proves that every
people has been so prolific that the growth of their numbers would
have been rapid and continuous if they had not been checked either by
a scarcity of the necessaries of life or some other cause, that is by
disease, by war, by infanticide or, lastly, by a voluntary restraint.
"His second position", said Marshall, "relates to the
demand for labour. Like the first it is supported by facts, but by a
different set of facts. He shows that up to the time at which he
wrote, no country (as distinguished from a city, such as Rome or
Venice) had been able to obtain an abundant supply of the necessaries
of life after its territory had become very thickly peopled. The
produce which Nature returns to the work of man is her effective
demand for population: and he shows that up to this time a rapid
increase in population when already thick had not led to a
proportionate increase in this demand."
Malthus could hardly have wished for a more able expositor, but those
who have read Henry George will know that there are other facts and
reasons for this apparent niggardliness of Nature.
Lest it be thought that Marshall was merely summarising Malthus, one
more quotation will dispel that:
"His position with regard to the supply of the
population remains substantially valid ... it remains true that
unless the checks on the growth of population in force at the end of
the nineteenth century are on the whole increased ... it will be
impossible for the habits of comfort prevailing in Western Europe to
spread themselves over the whole world and maintain themselves for
many hundred years."
The principle of effective demand turns up as one of the key concepts
in Keynesian economics.
This was the established view at the end of the 19th century and
Keynes carried it forward, though in a novel form which caught the
attention of his generation.
To give him his due, it was a brilliant attempt to re-formulate the
19th century view. And the predictions of the population principle
certainly seem to be borne out by rising unemployment in Europe and
the state of things in the Third World.
While endorsing the Malthusian approach with such eloquence (for he
was a fine writer), Marshall was slighting in most of his references
to Ricardo. He accused him of inexactitude in stating the law of
diminishing return, adding somewhat patronisingly: "It is however
probable that the inaccuracy was due not to careless thinking but only
to careless writing."
These are hardly the words of someone who sought to perpetuate the
tradition of Ricardo. Alfred Marshall was very much on the side of
Malthus when it came to the law of rent.
Actually Ricardo never formulated any law of diminishing return: this
was the work of Malthus and the economists who followed this line of
WHAT RICARDO stated with tolerable accuracy was the action of the
principles of rent, albeit mainly in their agricultural application.
These principles brought out the key importance of the least
productive site in use, or the margin of cultivation. Time and again,
Ricardo refers to the product of the marginal site as the regulator of
wages, prices, profits and rents.
The Ricardian marginal principle is that the product of the least
productive land in use is the fund from which wages and return on
capital are drawn; any excess above this on more productive land is
rent. Since prices are determined by the revenue required by the
marginal producer, rent cannot possibly enter into prices because at
the margin no rent is paid.
This is quite different from the exposition given by Malthus, who
asserted that the main cause of the high price of produce was "that
quality of the earth, by which it can be made to yield a greater
portion of the necessaries of life than is required for the
maintenance of the persons employed on the land."
Here is a fundamental difference between the two men: though he
admired Malthus for his diligent application to the principles of
economics, Ricardo felt it necessary to refute this and other errors.
This part of his book is one of the most rewarding in economics, due
to its close reasoning. In one telling passage he says: "Land
possessed of very little fertility can never bear any rent; land of
moderate fertility may be made, as population increases, to bear a
moderate rent; and land of great fertility a high rent; but it is one
thing to be able to bear a high rent, and another thing actually to
pay it. Rent may be lower in a country where lands are exceedingly
fertile than in a country where they yield a moderate return, it being
in proportion rather to relative than absolute fertility -to the value
of the produce and not to its abundance."
Time and again, Ricardo keeps on hammering home that rent is not a
question of quantity but of proportion. Its quantity has no influence
on wages, costs or prices. The amount of rent on any site is measured
by the product on that site (given equal inputs of labour and capital)
relative to the product on the marginal site.
This has been completely missed by the advocates of the law of
diminishing return, required to give a spurious validity to the
Malthusian approach. This assumes, as Keynes expounded it, that the
return to labour diminishes with the increase of employment at a given
location, so that the pressure of population or demand for jobs exerts
a downward force on wages, until they reach the level at which they
are just sufficient to call forth the required volume of labour.
Ricardo, on the other hand, said that with increasing population, the
tendency was for rents to rise, implying that the community was
enriched by the expansion of employment. This is the correct
analytical approach and if it were adopted, it would help us to banish
But the Malthusian approach won: Keynes described unemployment
occurring when the marginal product of labour falls to a level where
its utility to the employee is counterbalanced by the disutility of
employment as "voluntary unemployment".
In other words, if men withhold their labour because the return isn't
worth the effort, that is their affair. In the welfare state, of
course, the missing subsistence for labour has to be supplied from
public funds, at enormous cost to the taxpayer. The resulting tax
pressure has a further adverse action on the margin.
The surprising aspect of the Keynesian theory is that when men are
unwilling to work for the marginal wage (itself determined according
to this theory by the pressure of numbers) their plight is regarded as
According to Keynes, the state of "involuntary unemployment"
occurs when, even though men are willing to work for a lower money
wage than the marginal product would justify, there is insufficient
demand for their labour.
Such a reduction in the money-wage would be caused by rising prices,
i.e. the marginal wage unadjusted for inflation.
This is close to the economic policy followed by Mrs. Thatcher's
Conservative Government, whose Chancellor sees pay restraint as the
key to improved prospects for employment.
As Keynes saw it, writers in the classical tradition assumed that "unemployment
must be due at bottom to a refusal by the unemployed factors to accept
a reward which corresponds to their marginal productivity."
Such unemployment, he argues, is merely apparent and this corresponds
to a state of full employment.
'This is analagous to Malthus's view that rising prices are due "to
the increasing number of people demanding subsistence, and ready to
offer their services in any way in which they can be useful."
As previously observed, Ricardo accepted the Malthusian view of wages
determination but at the same time lamented the distress of the poor
whom Keynes might have regarded as voluntarily unemployed.
However, Ricardo did suggest an easing of unemployment and low wages
through accumulation of capital at a faster rate than the growth of
population. Here were the seeds of a different possibility,
unfortunately killed by the 19th century insistence that industry is
limited by capital, and wages are subject to iron laws.
Yet in his General Theory Keynes said:
"The idea that we can safely neglect the aggregate
demand function is fundamental to the Ricardian economics, which
underlie what we have been taught for a century. Malthus, indeed,
had vehemently opposed Ricardo's doctrine that it was impossible for
effective demand to be deficient; but vainly.
For since Malthus was unable to explain clearly (apart from an
appeal to the facts of common observation) how and why effective
demand could be deficient or excessive, he failed to furnish an
alternative construction, and Ricardo conquered England as
completely as the Holy Inquisition conquered Spain.
Not only was his theory accepted by the city, by statesmen and by
the academic world. But controversy ceased; the other point of view
completely disappeared; it ceased to be discussed. The great puzzle
of effective demand with which Malthus had wrestled vanished from
If the question of effective demand vanished, it must have been
because succeeding economists felt that the Malthusian principle had
answered it; when effective demand failed, it was due to the pressure
of population on the means of subsistence. Ricardo accepted it, John
Stuart Mill elevated it to an economic law; only the voice of Henry
George was raised against it. His advocacy of the taxation of land
values as a cure for unemployment is obliquely dismissed by Marshall
and not even mentioned by Keynes.
ONE OF the great puzzles of Keynesian economics is its total failure
to grapple with questions of taxation, notwithstanding the enormous
importance of taxation in the modern economy, both in Europe and the
It seems strange that the principles of taxation laid down by Adam
Smith, applauded by Ricardo and endorsed by Henry George, should be so
completely ignored. They are hardly mentioned by Marshall and,
needless to say, by no economist since his time.
Modern taxation is therefore guided by no principle whatever
except that of exaction and impost. This, too, is part of the heritage
The completeness of the Ricardian victory is something of a curiosity
and a mystery, according to Keynes. But an even greater curiosity and
mystery is why the triumph of Malthusian principles should be laid at
the door of Ricardo.
There is a big misunderstanding here.
Take, for example, the postulates on which Keynes founds his General
Theory. He calls it a general theory to distinguish it from what
he calls the special case to which classical postulates are
applicable. By "classical", Keynes means the views of all
who preceded him including Marshall, Edgeworth and Pigou, those whom
he claims perfected the theory of the Ricardian economics.
Keynes evidently meant by the theory of Ricardian economics the
proposition as enunciated by Ricardo - that what matters in economics
are the laws which determine the division of the product of industry.
No law, said Ricardo, could be laid down respecting quantity but a
tolerably correct one can be laid down respecting proportions.
This is exactly the principle on which the whole of Ricardian
He added this telling comment:
"Every day I am more satisfied that the former is
vain and delusive, and the latter the only true objects of science."
If this is what Keynes meant by the Ricardian tradition, he was
evidently undeterred by Ricardo's warning that any other kind of
inquiry (such as that of Malthus) is vain and delusive.
Keynes's question was: what determines the actual employment of the
available resources, which includes the size of the employable
This is the quantitative approach so much deplored by Ricardo. He
spoke of laws governing distribution of the product, whereas the
Keynesian view derived from Malthus is concerned with the so-called
laws of supply and demand for labour.
KEYNES attempted to summarise the classical theory of employment in
two fundamental postulates.
The first of this is brilliantly simple, the second almost obscure.
- 1. The wage is equal to the marginal product of labour.
- 2. The utility of the wage when a given volume of labour is
employed is equal to the marginal disutility of that amount of
The first statement is a splendid formulation of the law of wages
which classical writers such as Adam Smith sought to express. The
marginal product, following the doctrine of The Wealth of Nations
and echoed by Henry George in Progress and Poverty, is the
product of labour at the margin of cultivation.
As Henry George put it, the wages which an employer must pay will be
measured by the lowest point of natural productiveness to which
production extends, and wages will rise or fall as this point rises or
The corollary is that wages can never exceed the marginal product
which sets the standard of earnings for the rest of the economy. So,
on the face of things, the Keynesian formulation is one that could
have come straight from the pages of The Wealth of Nations.
For as Adam Smith said, the produce of labour constitutes the natural
recompense or wages of labour.
But this is not what Keynes meant by the marginal product. He had in
mind wages being determined by the law of diminishing return and the
theory of marginal productivity. Hence the next postulate, bringing in
the concept of marginal utility.
As Keynes himself explained, the argument runs as follows: n
men are employed, and nth man adds a bushel a day to the
harvest, and wages have a buying power of a bushel a day. That is the
Another man, it is argued, could not raise the product by so much; it
must be less, say, 0.9 of a bushel.
Thus the marginal product of labour has fallen due to an increase of
employment, and this marginal product sets the standard for everyone
Not only that, it will cause a shift in the balance of distribution
between labour and employers.
As Keynes puts it, the employment of an additional man will
necessarily involve a transfer of income from those previously in work
to the entrepreneurs.
What about that for the pressure of population?
This may well have been the view of Marshall; indeed, he advances
something of the kind in his own writings.
In reality it is the law of diminishing return and it is straight
from the Malthusian tradition of economics. It owes nothing to
Ricardo, who merely adopted the prevailing view of the day on wages
that the natural level was subsistence of the labourers.
This is Keynes's version of subsistence, for he says that the real
wage of an employed person is that which is just sufficient to induce
the labour actually employed to be forthcoming. So we arrive at the
Keynesian conclusion that the amount of employment is fixed at the
point where the utility of the marginal product balances the
disutility of the marginal employment.
In its way, this is a brilliant formulation of economic laws at
work, except that it means in the minds of today's economists
something quite different from what it would have meant to Adam Smith
and David R icardo.
Where the volume of employment is contracting, it should surely be
the job of the economist to see how the utility of the marginal
product can be improved.
Under today's conditions this effort is weighed down by the huge
pressure of taxation on employment, both income tax and national
It means that the price of the marginal product has to be inflated to
meet taxation: putting it another way, the cost of the marginal labour
becomes too high and the margin is forced out of use.
The Henry George tradition would require easing the burden of
taxation on labour and capital by shifting it on to that excess
product yielded by more productive sites that the classical economists
called rent. This releasing of taxation at the margin has the
advantage of relieving taxation on wages and profits, thus reducing
the marginal cost of labour to the employer. It also provides an
enormous incentive to productive effort.
KEYNESIAN theory has no answer to the problems of rising unemployment
and inflation. It cannot produce these answers because it has no
theory of taxation. It does not recognise taxation as a factor in the
equation, probably because taxation is not a factor of production.
Despite what Keynes said, what is needed now is a return to the
Ricardian tradition of measuring marginal productivity, together with
a better formulation of the laws that govern wages. Keynes's own
formulation, that the wage is equal to the marginal product of labour,
would be a good starting point if only the marginal product of labour
were equal to the wage. This can only occur if it is freed of
Adam Smith gave the elements of the law of wages; Ricardo gave the
elements of the law of rent. Henry George appreciated the force of
both these laws and struggled to reconcile them with the return to
In fact, there is nothing difficult about the return to capital. It
is simply that part of the marginal product which the employer takes
in providing the means of enhancing the marginal product.
But it must never be forgotten that labour generates the marginal
product and must be allowed to take its full share.
Taxation can be met in proportion to the better resources of
industries better placed. This needs a concept of taxable capacity,
measured by reference to rental values.
This would satisfy the first of Adam Smith's rules of taxation, that
the taxpayers should contribute to the support of the Government as
nearly as possible in proportion to their respective abilities.
Adam Smith was right when he spoke in favour of liberal wages. "The
liberal reward of labour, therefore," he said, "as it is the
effect of increasing wealth, so it is the cause of increasing
population. To complain of it is to lament over the necessary effect
and cause of the greatest public prosperity."
This was the approach with which the classical school began, the
liberal approach that has been overthrown by slavish adherence to the
doctrines of Malthus.
Keynes is only the latest exponent of these ideas and the price being
exacted is the decline of the industrial economies of the Western
1. Quoted in Professor Flew's
introduction to An Essay on the Principle of Population by the
Revd. Thomas Malthus. 1798: Penguin Library edn.. 1982. p.16.
2. David Ricardo, On the Principles of Political Economy and
Taxation, Pelican Classics edn.. 1971. For Mr. Malthus's opinions
on rent, see p.390.
3. Progress and Poverty, 1879; Everyman's Library edn.,
4. Principles of Political Economy, Book I. Ch. 12; Longmans
Green 1926 edn.. p. 177.
5. Principles of Economics, Book IV, Ch. 4; Royal Economic
Society. 1961. p. 178.
6. Ibid., Book IV. Ch. iv. pp. 179-80.
7. Ibid., Book IV, Ch. iii, p. 163. See also the appendix on
Ricardo's theory of value.
8. An Inquiry into the Nature and Progress of Rent, 1815;
John Hopkins Press, 1903, p.15.
9. Op. cit., p.395.
10. General Theory of Employment, Money and Interest, 1936;
Royal Economic Society edn., p. 16.
11. Op. cit., p.21.
12. Principles, op. cit., p. 121.
13. Op. cit., p.32.
14. Op. cit., p.3.
15. Letter to Thomas Malthus, October 1820, quoted in the General
Theory, op. cit., p.4.
16. Ibid., p.5.
17. The Wealth of Nations, Book I. Ch. 8: Everyman's Library
edn., 1910, p.57.
18. Op. cit.,p.17.
19. The Ricardian definition is assumed here, whereby the rent of
land is the compensation paid for access to its original powers,
irrespective of any improvements produced by expenditure of capital.
20. Op. cit.. Vol. II. Book V. p.307.
21. Ibid.,Vo\. I. Book I, p.72.