He hardly seemed cut out to be a workingman's revolutionary. A Cambridge University don with a flair for making money, a graduate of England's exclusive Eton prep school, a collector of modern art, the darling of Virginia Woolf and her intellectually avant-garde Bloomsbury Group, the chairman of a life-insurance company, later a director of the Bank of England, married to a ballerina, John Maynard Keynes--tall, charming and self-confident--nonetheless transformed the dismal science into a revolutionary engine of social progress.
Before Keynes, economists were gloomy naysayers. "Nothing can be done," "Don't interfere," "It will never work," they intoned with Eeyore-like pessimism. But Keynes was an unswerving optimist. Of course we can lick unemployment! There's no reason to put up with recessions and depressions! The "economic problem is not--if we look into the future--the permanent problem of the human race," he wrote (liberally using italics for emphasis).
Born in Cambridge, England, in 1883, the year Karl Marx died, Keynes probably saved capitalism from itself and surely kept latter-day Marxists at bay.
His father John Neville Keynes was a noted Cambridge economist. His mother Florence Ada Keynes became mayor of Cambridge. Young John was a brilliant student but didn't immediately aspire to either academic or public life. He wanted to run a railroad. "It is so easy...and fascinating to master the principles of these things," he told a friend, with his usual modesty. But no railway came along, and Keynes ended up taking the civil service exam. His lowest mark was in economics. "I evidently knew more about Economics than my examiners," he later explained.
Keynes was posted to the India Office, but the civil service proved deadly dull, and he soon left. He lectured at Cambridge, edited an influential journal, socialized with his Bloomsbury friends, surrounded himself with artists and writers and led an altogether dilettantish life until Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo and Europe was plunged into World War I. Keynes was called to Britain's Treasury to work on overseas finances, where he quickly shone. Even his artistic tastes came in handy. He figured a way to balance the French accounts by having Britain's National Gallery buy paintings by Manet, Corot and Delacroix at bargain prices.
His first brush with fame came soon after the war, when he was selected to be a delegate to the Paris Peace Conference of 1918-19. The young Keynes held his tongue as Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau imposed vindictive war reparations on Germany. But he let out a roar when he returned to England, immediately writing a short book, The Economic Consequences of the Peace.
The Germans, he wrote acerbically, could not possibly pay what the victors were demanding. Calling Wilson a "blind, deaf Don Quixote" and Clemenceau a xenophobe with "one illusion--France, and one disillusion--mankind" (and only at the last moment scratching the purple prose he had reserved for Lloyd George: "this goat-footed bard, this half-human visitor to our age from the hag-ridden magic and enchanted woods of Celtic antiquity"), an outraged Keynes prophesied that the reparations would keep Germany impoverished and ultimately threaten all Europe.