What’s the threshold for “internet sensation” these days? Surely 400,000 views in less than a week makes the grade. So, meet your latest internet sensation: “Fight of the Century,” an epic rap battle staged between actors portraying the economists John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek. Take a look:
Pretty impressive production, and also not a bad primer on some of the differences between two prominent economic schools of thought. It’s clear from the video that its producers’ sympathies lie with Hayek. In the boxing match between the two men, Keynes is nearly knocked out, barely struggles to his feet, and yet, in a surprise for both combatants, is ruled the winner by the judge. The boxing match serves ostensibly to illustrate the verbal combat in the video’s other thread, which also ends with Keynes being embraced by officials (while Hayek is championed by the people).
Be careful with taking too many lessons from this video. There’s more than a little manipulation going on here. Keynes cast as an unfairly-crowned champion? In a context meant to resemble the United States in 2011? That’s gotta make you chuckle. You know who else is chuckling? Milton Friedman.
Sure, the economic collapse led to the development of some renewed appreciation for Keynes. But a glimpse at the tone of the ongoing budget discussions should give the lie to any notion of the triumph of Keynesianism. In 2010 we published a book called The Return to Keynes, which documented the dramatic rebirth of Keynes’ thought as a guiding force for the recovery. And then, not a year later, someone at the American Economic Association’s annual meeting saw the book in our booth and cracked that, with hindsight, it should’ve been called The BRIEF Return to Keynes.
Actually, though, as funny and informative as this video may appear, economic thought is usually far too nuanced to be cast in neat opposition. Keynes and Hayek are sparring partners here, but in reality Keynes expressed great admiration for Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, which, with a little help from Glenn Beck, remains far and away his best-known work.
Keynes has always been a real challenge to historians and biographers, in part because writing about him accurately requires taking readers back to an economic era that looks quite foreign from today’s vantage. Keynes, for example, was much more modest about his aims for economics than are most economists today. Today’s economists still optimistically see their work as a predictive science, even after they’ve given up on the idea of the “rational” actor. Keynes, by contrast, didn't really think of himself as a scientist.
A book we’ll publish later this year by Roger Backhouse and Bradley Bateman helps to get us past the polarizing rhetoric that surrounds discussions of capitalism by bringing Keynes’ era and thought back to life. Keynes saw himself not as a crusader against capitalism, about which he was more open-minded than is usually acknowledged, but as working to mitigate the miseries that capitalism inflicts on everyday people. In Capitalist Revolutionary, Backhouse and Bateman cut through the misinformation, the caricature, and maybe even the web memes, to give us an actually useful understanding of Keynes as a philosopher offering a moral critique of our capitalist system.
According to Backhouse and Bateman, Keynes was essentially a man who wanted to create a revolution in how we thought about economic problems. In 2011 YouTube videos ARE how we think about economic problems, so he’s obviously fair game for this sort of fun. But, even still, anyone looking to videos like this for more than some laughs would do well to seek out a greater understanding of this protean figure who is bound to go in and out of style.