J.M. Keynes reflected on that “happy age” of international commerce and freedom of travel that was destroyed by the cataclysm of the First World War (1920)

John Maynard Keynes

2006 is the 90th anniversary of two of the bloodiest battles of the First World War, Verdun and the Somme. Keynes reminds us of the classical liberal world which was destroyed by that war:

… any man of capacity or character at all exceeding the average, into the middle and upper classes, for whom life offered, at a low cost and with the least trouble, conveniences, comforts, and amenities beyond the compass of the richest and most powerful monarchs of other ages. The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep; he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, and share, without exertion or even trouble, in their prospective fruits and advantages; or he could decide to couple the security of his fortunes with the good faith of the townspeople of any substantial municipality in any continent that fancy or information might recommend. He could secure forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate without passport or other formality, could despatch his servant to the neighboring office of a bank for such supply of the precious metals as might seem convenient, and could then proceed abroad to foreign quarters, without knowledge of their religion, language, or customs, bearing coined wealth upon his person, and would consider himself greatly aggrieved and much surprised at the least interference. But, most important of all, he regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement, and any deviation from it as aberrant, scandalous, and avoidable. The projects and politics of militarism and imperialism, of racial and cultural rivalries, of monopolies, restrictions, and exclusion, which were to play the serpent to this paradise, were little more than the amusements of his daily newspaper, and appeared to exercise almost no influence at all on the ordinary course of social and economic life, the internationalization of which was nearly complete in practice.

2006 is the 90th anniversary of two of the bloodiest battles of the First World War, Verdun and the Somme, where hundreds of thousands of men were killed and injured. In this quotation Keynes reminds us of the classical liberal world which was destroyed forever by that war. It also makes me think of a slightly rewritten song by John Lennon, “Imagine”: “Imagine there are no borders, it’s easy if you try” (and then add in place of “borders” - “currency control”, “passports”, “fiat money”, and so on. In the post 9/11 world imagine if you can such a world. A very useful companion piece to Keynes' book is that by the great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, Nation, State, and Economy (1919) which says much the same only better.