In the long run we are all dead

May 19, 2019 (562 words) :: A quote from an essay by John Maynard Keynes.
Tags: personal

This post is day 139 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

I’m extremely behind on fragments - I wrote the previous 3 days’ worth of fragments today - so today’s fragment is a brief one about a John Maynard Keynes I like:

The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is past the ocean is flat again.

This quote from Keynes’ 1923 Tract on Monetary Reform is meant as a criticism of a tendency among economists to handwave away the problem of financial crisis, under the assumption that the problem will fix itself, given enough time. Given enough time, sure, the invisible hand of the market will correct anomalies; given enough time, the stars will explode into supernovas and there’ll be nothing to look forward to except the heat death of the universe.

Keynes’ point here is that we cannot merely leave the economy to its own devices. After all, what counts as the “economy” is always a politically constructed concept, and sometimes you need political intervention to reshape it into something that’s more appropriate for the times.

If you believe the free marketeers, the market is an elegant system for harnessing the energy of individuals pursuing their own self-interest and turning it toward the collective good; whatever anomalies may appear are only temporary, as they will eventually be smoothed out by the invisible hand. Government intervention should be kept to a minimum, except that which creates the conditions for the market to flourish. Anything that might impede the natural functioning of the market - whatever that might be - is bad, because the market will always correct itself, at least in the long run.

But the possibility of things fixing themselves in the ‘long run’ is little consolation if you’re suffering right now. The economy isn’t an abstract creation that only exists in theoryspace; its subjects it governs are real human beings whose lives may be irrevocably damaged by the economy’s failings. The question to ask is whether the economy is currently serving the people it exists to serve, not whether it will eventually correct itself. It may do so, but why should that matter? Surely the plight of actually existing people has to come ahead of fanatical devotion to a theoretical concept.

Left to its own devices, the market may indeed be able to incorporate recent discoveries in climate science, and might even come up with a solution to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. It may. On the other hand, if there’s a climate-triggered global economic collapse before that happens, then the market won’t have any subjects anymore, and it will no longer be able to “do” anything.

There’s a way to read this quote nihilistically: in the long run we are all dead, so why bother doing anything all? Why not just give up and resign yourself to dying in the coming climate apocalypse?

I’m not going to lie: it’s tempting, sometimes. But now is not the long run; right now you are alive, and the world is not yet entirely on fire, and there’s a lot that can happen before we get to “the long run”. What happens between now then isn’t a given, and in that uncertainty, there’s hope.

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