The Magazine

Latin Labors Lost

The dismal science south of the border.

Nov 18, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 10 • By DAVID FRUM
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Keynes died in 1946. He was only sixty-three. It is strange to look at photographs of this man in clothes that look almost contemporary standing in front of hotels that one could stay in today--Keynes especially liked the Mayflower in Washington--and realize that when his heart began to fail, the only remedy his doctors could offer for his pain was for him to pile bags of ice upon his chest.

Keynes did not live to see the American policy reversal of 1947-1949 that brought American money and American troops to rescue Europe for the third and final time in the century. I think that reversal would have surprised him. He did not have a very high opinion of the American people or their government. Oddly enough, this hero of the left seemed most irked by America's offensive informality and egalitarianism. In 1925, he had converted much of the wealth he had made in his bond-market speculations into a 600-acre country estate in Sussex, which he worked with a disdain for business rationality and an enthusiasm for traditional social distinctions that would have impressed Evelyn Waugh.

He could never accustom himself to the chaotic bureaucracy of Washington, with its endlessly ringing telephones and final subservience to the whims of whichever former insurance salesman or realtor it pleased the people of Missouri or Ohio to send to the Senate. On his way home from his last visit to the United States, Keynes stopped briefly in Ottawa. He loved Canada: not only its magnificent scenery, but also its vestigial British deference. If he ever had to leave England, he wrote to a friend at home, Canada was the country in which he would most like to live.

Whatever reservations one may have about Keynes the man and the international financial system of which he was the single most important designer--and there are plenty to choose from--it's hard not to be dazzled by the pulsing confidence of his mind. At the final dinner of the Bretton Woods Conference, Keynes delivered his brilliant toast: "To the economists--who are the trustees, not of civilization, but of the possibility of civilization."

For a brief moment in the 1990s, it appeared that we were on the verge of a regime of global liberty that would at last overcome global poverty. Now, from Bali to Buenos Aires, we seem once again to be heading backwards.

Of course, that is not how things are conventionally described. Britain's Guardian newspaper has hailed the election of Lula as "an inspirational triumph. . . . Neighbors such as Argentina and Uruguay may now believe that they, too, will find a middle way out of 'subservience' [to the United States]. . . . For the whole [American] backyard, it was a victory for self-respect." We shall see how much self-respect Brazilians feel when their government tries to escape its $260 billion foreign debt by inflating their savings out of existence.

In the meantime, Brink Lindsey has given us our best diagnosis of what went wrong in the 1990s--and Robert Skidelsky an inspiring reminder of our duty to try to set things right.

David Frum is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.