479. Harrod to D. H. Robertson , 7 October 1935 [a]

[Replies to 478 , the exchange continues at 480 and 483 ]

as from Christ Church

7 October 1935

Dear Dennis

I sympathize very much with what you feel about Maynard's book. I was put off both by the claims he was making in conversation and even by his night at Oxford when he made the mistake of presenting an isolated fragment of it. [1] But on the whole I think now I should be called a "convert", having read it through carefully and most of it twice. [2] Unless there is something substantially wrong which I cant find, I do think it makes a great advance in clearing up. I should compare it with Ricardo clearing up the mess left by Adam Smith. In this case it is a clearance of the mess caused by the development of general theory & monetary theory on different, partly conflicting and partly divergent lines. This is how it strikes me, and, surveying the progress of economics, I dont see why it shouldnt be so. It isnt of course at all like Marshall seeing the good in and synthesizing everything. It is like Ricardo striving to get something definite, clear-cut and comprehensible, and making attacks on all and sundry, as Ricardo did on Adam Smith, Malthus, Say etc. sometimes unfairly, who stand in the way of his system. I dont see why Maynard shouldnt be another Ricardo, he is probably just as able a man, and the opportunity is similar--for introducing the clear-cut & definite, pruning away muddles. I repeat that I have been most sceptical for a long time. Yet there is a vice in excessive scepticism.

On one line in particular he has developed thoughts I was struggling with but never expressed. All investment involves risk. Suppose zero interest and as might happen the risk rates which investments have to earn to be so great that insufficient investment would take place to absorb all savings. That was my little thought. As it turns out Maynard's theory of interest is a pure risk theory and my dilemma is formulated with precision. I only give this as one little example of the quality of his work which gives me confidence.

I share your feeling entirely about his attacks. I have attacked him for them, but have only succeeded in getting the most offending chapter printed in smaller type as an appendix. [3] I regret them, I feel they will raise un-necessary dust--but there it is, that is his way.

If my comparison with Ricardo is right, well then, [b] granted the need for boosting in the modern world [c] , his attitude may not be so entirely deplorable. My main fear is that too few people will understand it. It took me some time to persuade him that I had. [4] I may ultimately feel it my duty to take up my pen and try to make it easy. [5]

I hope you will give it sympathetic consideration. I dont know how far you feel you have understood it so far or not. As I understand what he means--and I think I do--it is a big and important fundamental reconstruction. [6] But is it right? That is another question. That is where your criticism is so important. But the propaedeutic to criticism is to comprehend that what he means to say is a fundamental reconstruction and not merely saying something slightly different in violent language.

This is why I said that his book was a ray of light in a generally gloomy atmosphere.

What makes me doubtful of your appreciation of it is the stress you attach to his neglect of lags, [7] which, as I see it, is a comparatively unimportant point about it. Grant his system and begin to work upon it and the lags all come into their own again. Not but what you may have a damaging and final criticism of the system itself, but that cannot be developed by reference to the quite irrelevant question of lags. I hope if you have such a criticism, as you may have, no personal feelings will stand in the way of its vigorous expression.

Are you quite sure that you wont come for a long week-end after your play is over? I promise not to ask the youth of Oxford--if I know any, and I dont seem to now--to encumber it with "social excitements". And I should have my own work to give you intervals from endless economics! Say a Friday till Monday towards the end of term? I suppose later I shall have to be in Oxford for that teachers' meeting, but I dont regard that as at all a good opportunity for a reposeful thrashing out of these questions.

More about your other points later.

Yours

Roy.

  1. 1. Keynes spoke to the Oxford economists on "the marginal efficiency of capital and the rate of interest" on 21 February 1935. See letter 459 for Harrod's comment to Keynes ( [jump to page] ), and note 2 to that letter for details.

    2. The correspondence relating to the proofs of the General Theory run from 26 June to 27 September 1935.

    3. See in particular letters 459 , 460 , 462 , 463 , 465 , 468 , 469 , 470 , 471 , 472 , 473 and 474 . The "most offending chapter" was chapter 16 of the preliminary draft of the General Theory, which Keynes turned into the appendix to chapter 14 of the final version (in Collected Writings vol. VII, pp. 183-93).

    4. See in particular letter 471 .

    5. Harrod eventually wrote such a piece: "Mr. Keynes and Traditional Theory" ( 1937:4 ).

    6. This will be the leitmotif of the article cited in note 5 to this letter, where the General Theory is interpreted as being more a rearrangement of the pieces already present in traditional theory than a revolution in economic thought.

    7. One of the critical targets of Robertson's "Money-Flows" is the timelessness of the method of the Neo-Cambridge school, as opposed to step-by-step analysis of those--including himself--"who find themselves unable to think without a more or less explicit parcelling of time into discrete periods" (pp. 4-5 and passim).

    1. a. ALS, two pages on one leaf, in DHR C3/2 3 .

      b. This comma and the next one have been added to facilitate the reading.

      c. Ms: «well».


Welcome page

top of page

Return to index of this section

Go to previous page

Go to next page