29 March 2018

Keynes’s Giraffes and the Ordinary Textuality of Economic Ideas

In the 1926 essay “The End of Laissez-Faire”, John Maynard Keynes used the giraffe as a metaphor of both welfare and herd dynamics, in order to argue for the importance of wise government intercession into markets. A chapter by Assistant Professor Carolyn Biltoft conducts a close textual analysis of that essay, demonstrating how Keynes’ own choice of metaphor reveals the economist’s deeper seated, even latent imperial preferences and pre-commitments (in Robert Fredona and Sophus Reinert’s New Perspectives on the History of Political Economy, Palgrave Macmillan).

Carolyn Biltoft asks what we perceive by thinking of economic theories and models as “texts”. While not denying the fact that the work of economists is to test and evaluate such theories, she claims that historians can instead work with a different set of assumptions and so arrive at a different sets of insights. Subjecting economic theory to textual analysis is a way of demonstrating the “embeddedness” of economic ideas; in short, it shows that “context” is always endogenous.

Professor Biltoft interrogates the work of influential British economic theorists such as J.M. Keynes, who chose the “giraffe” as a metaphor for rethinking the link between self-interest and collective welfare. Since the figure of the giraffe figured so significantly in the iconography of British imperialism, she argues that Keynes’ reference can be a starting place for rethinking the hidden geographies of his concept of “the National Economy”. In short, she suggests that we can see Keynes’ implicit conception of imperialism running in the background of his concept of “collective welfare”.

She adds that economic models can be interpreted hermeneutically to uncover how they reflected the foundational debates of the time and how they began to shape economic doctrines that have come to influence our present. Historically, there has been a mismatch between the interests of colonial populations and the normative claim of “one single, universal, linear path to development” of the British Empire. Thinkers such as Keynes came to see the economist as a “therapist” whose role was to provide technical “fixes” to fiscal problems. Keynes reinforced the idea of “wise” expert interventions on behalf of the community. However, he obscured the question of how the “community” was constituted as well as the fact that the welfare of Britain depended on the resources of its empire. “Blindness” to such foundational contexts creates justifications for actions; for instance, democratically elected leaders can be toppled on the basis of mobilising reductive economic principles.

A point of entry for these research questions has been the global financial crisis of 2008 and the debates around state intervention that were re-invoked at the time. By historicising economic ideas, the binary frameworks that have been used in evaluating and applying policies as “effective”, “good”, “bad”, etc., can be examined within the contexts that produced them. Using economic models is not a problem, but using them without accounting for these “blind spots” is. Professor Biltoft’s chapter underlines the nuances that go into such intellectual projects that manifested as policy interventions.

Full citation of Professor Biltoft’s chapter:
Biltoft, Carolyn N. “On a Certain Blindness in Economic Theory: Keynes’s Giraffes and the Ordinary Textuality of Economic Ideas.” In New Perspectives on the History of Political Economy, edited by Robert Fredona and Sophus Reinert, 309–47. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-58247-4_11.

By Aditya Kiran Kakati, doctoral candidate in International History and Anthropology and Sociology