Of course you know that not everything on the web is accurate, but what if you find thousands of hits for a quotation, including citations in Webster’s Online Dictionary, the Washington Post, and the Howard Law Journal (which, in its Vol 48 Issue 1 Fall 2004 issue, blithely quoted the Washington Post article referenced at the end of this post)?
“Capitalism is the extraordinary belief that the nastiest of men for the nastiest of motives will somehow work for the benefit of all.”
You can find this statement, attributed to economist John Maynard Keynes all over the web. It also appears, somewhat more frequently, in this form:
“Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone.“
In no case, (even in a book about capitalism) is the quotation accompanied by a citation naming its source among Keynes’ many books and lectures. That in itself is not unusual; incomplete attribution is unscholarly, but it is internet SOP. But is either quotation truly from Keynes?
The first version sounds intelligent, but not necessarily Keynesian, and the second reads as if it were written by an illiterate. Since the two are nearly equivalent in their meaning, it is highly unlikely that both of them are from Keynes’ oeuvre. So I queried a number of Keynesian scholars.
Thomas Cate, professor of economics, Northern Kentucky University, specializing in the economics of John Maynard Keynes:
“I do not believe that this quote is by Keynes. It appears to be a re-wording of something said by Adam Smith about the business community.“
J. Bradford DeLong, professor of economics, University of California at Berkeley, and former deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury:
“I’ve never seen it.”
Alexander Kirby, Associate Professor of American History and Government, University of Wisconsin-Stout:
“Beats me, which is why I’d never use it in a scholarly source.”
Michael S. Lawlor, Professor of Economics, Wake Forest University, co-author of New Perspectives on Keynes (1995):
“The quotation you cite is unfamiliar to me.“
N. Gregory Mankiw, Robert M. Beren Professor of Economics, Harvard University, and former chief of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors (he even has a dog named “Keynes”!):
“I don’t know where the quotation comes from.”
Allan Meltzer, University Professor of Political Economy, Carnegie Mellon Tepper School of Business:
“I read most of Keynes’s published papers. I never saw it.”
Donald E. Moggridge, Professor of Economics, University of Toronto:
“The quotation is fabricated.“
James M. Rock, Emeritus Professor of Economics, University of Utah:
“I think it is bogus.”
Robert Skidelsky, Emeritus Professor of Political Economy at the University of Warwick and author of a prize-winning, three-volume biography of Keynes:
“One of the fictions.”
Luigi Zingales, Robert C. McCormack Professor of Entrepreneurship and Finance, University of Chicago Booth School of Business:
“I have never heard of it.”
This is almost certainly one of those cases where someone created an opinion and attached it to a dead person’s name. Gullibility or deviousness carried the fiction onward, and in a while it became gospel.
Except in Wikipedia. This quotation is not included in its Keynes entry.
* * * * *
Washington Post article: Paul Farhi, Feeding the Beast: The Greed That Lives (and Seems to be Thriving) in Us All, Mar. 3, 2002
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