Keynes and national self-sufficiency

Wed, Apr 24, 2013, 05:44

Sir, – I enjoyed reading Charles Lysaght’s comments on John Maynard Keynes’s inaugural Finlay lecture on national self-sufficiency in UCD in April 1933 (An Irishman’s Diary, April 15th).

Mr Lysaght rightly does not conclude that Keynes provided a “ringing endorsement” of De Valera’s self-sufficiency policy when he said: “If I were an Irishman I would find much to attract me in the economic outlook of your present government towards greater self-sufficiency”. Instead, he advises the Irish government, then in the throes of an economic war with Britain, “to enter into an economic arrangement with Britain” in order to retain Ireland’s main market for its cattle exports.

What most readers are probably not aware of is that Keynes published two versions of his lecture, one in the Irish journal Studies and the other in the Yale Review . In the former – which reproduces the lecture – Keynes is encouraging, but cautious, in advising the Irish government to pursue self-sufficiency explaining that he knows “so little about Ireland” and that he would have to be satisfied that the Free State “is a large enough unit geographically, with sufficiently diversified natural resources, for more than a very modest measure of national self-sufficiency to be feasible without a disastrous reduction in a standard of life which is already none too high”.

In the Yale Review version, Keynes shows no such caution: “The Irish Free State” is “a unit much too small for a high degree of national self-sufficiency except at great economic cost and is discussing plans which might, if they were carried out, be ruinous”.

There are other smaller differences between the two papers. For example, while he states in the Yale Review paper that if he had “the power” he would most deliberately set out to endow our capital cities with “all the appurtenances of art and civilisation”, in the Studies version this becomes if he had “responsibility for the Government of Ireland” he would do the same thing for Dublin.

Interestingly, both versions of the lecture were published in June 1933. What has always intrigued me about them is, which came first – the encouraging if somewhat cautious endorsement of self-sufficiency delivered to the Irish government (De Valera and his entire cabinet were present in the front row of the theatre in UCD at the Finlay lecture) or the dismissal of self-sufficiency for a small country like Ireland published in the American journal? And what does it say about Keynes – whom I still consider to be the greatest economist of the twentieth century? – Yours, etc,

HELEN O’NEILL,

Prof Emeritus of Economics,

UCD,

Herbert Park Lane,

Ballsbridge,

Dublin 4.