John Maynard Keynes: Capitalism and the “Nastiest/Wickedest of Men”

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 Wikiquote 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 Moving Forward, 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 variation of this quote 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 exist separately in Keynes’ oeuvre. Accordingly, I queried a number of Keynesian scholars. Their responses are below, listed alphabetically.

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.

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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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28 Comments on “John Maynard Keynes: Capitalism and the “Nastiest/Wickedest of Men”

  1. All that is said there is that most people, including Keynesian scholars, don’t know where the “quote” came from. What’s the old saw: the absence of evidence is not evidence of an absence. I used the quote in a book and will revise the quote to “attributed to”, which I previously had to do with something alleged to have been said by De Tocqueville, about America is Good etc. Thanks for the heads up.

    [SC responds: I agree that there is no clear proof. But isn’t the fact that there are NO attributions at all…anywhere…more than a bit suspicious? I think it unscholarly and self-serving to use a quote that can’t be verified. Even “attributing” it to Keynes gives it a weight that cannot be justified.]

    1. Surely, in relation to academic sources, the absence of evidence *is* the evidence of absence? Even if a quote was verbal, there should usually be a written recollection of it somewhere, in a letter, or a diary, or similar. If we accept things without even that, what is the point of any research?

    2. I do not think it necessarily is either unscholarly or self-serving to use a quotation whose author cannot be firmly established IF it is noted the author is unknown. The statement, in multiple variations, obviously has been floating around for decades. I think it would be unscholarly to give false attribution. I am reasonably confident John Maynard Keynes never said this. His associate E.A.G. Robinson MAY have–key word, “may”. Since it has not been clearly established Robinson said it, the statement should not be attributed to him either. I also think it would be unscholarly not to use a statement that has been used for decades simply because the author cannot be identified definitively. Thus, the proper course of action would be to use the statement while saying “author unknown”.

  2. It is interesting, but I don’t know if it is suspicious, especially since it seems like something he would say, which is maybe why it got out there in the first place – he said it to a small group, perhaps in a class lecture, they liked it and passed it on. But being a “remark” it never made it into print. Want to look up everyone who ever had a class with him and see what they think?

    Its enough to my my mind to recognize when used that a) it is attributed everywhere to him; and, b) can’t be found in print anywhere or is recognized by scholars of his work. Both are facts. The statement, as you noted, remains basically true and perhaps even a bit wise.

    1. The reasoning you have just offered would enable science to be constructed by the loudest foghorn or the most persistent gossiper. When so many economists don’t think it “sounds like something he’d say” then I think we can take a hint. That was my own immediate impression too. Economists are not usually haters — it is a dismal science, not an arm-waving theater of malice.

    2. And after all, is there really such a thing as an expert in this subject? I’d expect Keynes to realize that all economic systems are capitalist. Socialism is a political system. Communism is a theory that has not found translation into real world process.
      And my argument with You was more testy than I intended. Sorry

  3. BTW, speaking of misattribution, Dr. Alec Kirby does not work at the University of Wisconsin, which refers to the flagship Research I school, the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The link you offered indicates that he works at the University of Wisconsin at Stout, an entirely different (i.e., smaller, non-Ph.D.-granting) university.

    Also, why is this same quote listed on his page – AND attributed to Keynes? I’m completely confused.

    [SC responds: Thanks, J. Mea culpa. I have corrected the university named and included Prof. Kirby’s full response to my query. You are correct that he attributed the quote to Keynes on his website. Given his response to me, however, I suspect he will remove the attribution or the quotation now that he knows that its provenance is questionable.]

  4. Perhaps this is the Adam Smith statement referenced above by Prof. Cate:

    “I have never known much good done by those who profess to trade for the public good.”

    It was used in Milton Friedman’s Adam Smith Award Address, 31st Annual Meeting of the National Association for Business Economics, September 24-27, 1989.

  5. My refutation cannot even stem a nearby tide. On 8/26, this letter was printed in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, my local paper:


    EDITOR: In response to Don Christensen’s Sunday letter (“U.S. socialism”), let me quote the economist John Maynard Keynes: “Capitalism is the extraordinary belief that the nastiest of men for the nastiest of motives will somehow work for the benefit of all.”



    1. Mr. Cotler,

      Sir. It was indeed a surprise, and a joy to receive your letter today, 9/1. Though I do not know your brother, Lanny personally,I think I met him once at the WCT, I am rather familiar with his political persuasions and comments in The Willits News. I must say that I admire him very much, and have always wanted to personally meet him.
      My bad on the misquotation in the P.D. I should have researched it a little more before putting it out there for everyone to see. Thank you for setting the record straight.
      If you’re ever up this way to visit Lanny, I would like to extend an invitation to both of you, and your families, to come up to Pine Mountain for a glass of wine, visit, and chat.

      Mike Morawski

  6. While researching a quotation attributed to John Maynard Keynes about capitalism and the “nastiest of men” I found your valuable webpage on the topic. Your work is mentioned in the webpage I created at The main new result in my research was the discovery of a 1941 variant of the saying used by a close colleague of Keynes named E. A. G. Robinson. In the book “Monopoly” Robinson wrote: The great merit of the capitalist system, it has been said, is that it succeeds in using the nastiest motives of nasty people for the ultimate benefit of society. The investigation is summarized here: Many thanks for your work contacting economists and evaluating the quotation. Best, Garson O’Toole

  7. JMK did make statements indicating his acceptance of many socialist theories such as free market capitalism being a transitional condition on the path to something better in which the government plays a much larger roll. His theories vindicate big government involvement in the economy and government deficit spending. The theories in his “general theory” have been refuted by many free market economists.

    1. Thanks for posting that link. If you read the article through, you’ll find this very blog post quoted in it.

  8. To whomever this statement is properly attributed, it remains nevertheless well considered. Capitalism is what happens when you make the greatest sustainable human rights violation the basis for society; it’s what we have having made 7+ billion human beings rightsless so they can be excluded and exploited for profit.

    On the positive side, I think people are catching on and can imagine a better way of doing economics in the world.

  9. Two things:
    1. While quoting all those people is a deceptively alluring thing to do, it’s also a fallacy: that one from authority.
    2. While not explicitely doing so, the impression might arise that de-attributing the quote from Keynes, it makes the quote itself less valuable, less “true”

    “Capitalism is against the things that we say we believe in – democracy, freedom of choice, fairness. It’s not about any of those things now. It’s about protecting the wealthy and legalizing greed.” – Micheal Moore.

    1. You are correct that quoting from authority doesn’t prove anything, but my point was that a quote without attribution is suspect, and when all authorities dispute or find the quotation unconvincing, the weight of evidence shifts dramatically toward it’s being manufactured, rather than authoritative.

      Your second point is true. Keynes is a heavyweight; if he had said it, the statement would seem to have more weight. I did not mean to devalue the statement, only to remove the dishonesty of quoting from authority (Keynes), when it is overwhelmingly likely that no such authority exists.

      BTW…I think Michael Moore is spot-on…and I have an MBA from Harvard Business School, the bastion of capitalism.

  10. “especially since it seems like something he would say,”

    Except that it doesn’t. It sounds like something that someone on either the right or the left who confuses Keynesian views with socialist views would attribute to Keynes.

    I commonly see that pattern on the right. Keynesians disagree with us, socialists disagree with us, so Keynesians must really be socialists.

    On the other hand, Keynes’ glowing endorsement of Hayek’s _Road to Serfdom_ on the back cover of the published book is almost certainly real.

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