History of Political Economy 32.4 (2000) 833-856
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The Anti-Semitism of Some Eminent Economists
Melvin W. Reder
In a review of recent biographies of John Maynard Keynes, Mark Blaug (1994, 1213) speaks of “his (Keynes’s) mild anti-Semitism, so typical of educated people in the interwar years.” While mildness is a matter of taste, that “anti-Semitism [was] typical of educated people in the interwar years” is a proposition that merits some examination. The first part of this article presents some evidence relevant to judging both the mildness of the sentiments and their etiology. The second part contrasts the attitude of “educated people” toward Jews in the second half of the twentieth century with that expressed by Keynes and at least some of his eminent contemporaries, specifically Joseph Schumpeter and Friedrich Hayek, in the first half, and attempts to explain the change.
The purpose of this essay is to use the recorded views of these economists of unquestioned eminence as a window for viewing the mind-set of “educated people” generally during the first half of the twentieth century. To do this, it is necessary to assume that expressions of hostility toward Jews were uncorrelated with field of specialization—that is, such expressions were as likely to be made by a practitioner of any other occupation requiring a high level of education as by an economist. In addition I wish to acknowledge that I have made no attempt [End Page 833] to develop the possible connection between an individual’s attitude on this subject and the substance of his writing. While I consider it quite possible that there might have been a connection between an individual’s anti-Semitism and his views on matters of public policy and/or academic politics, documenting such a connection would be very difficult, and I have not attempted it.1 The objective of this essay is limited to exposing a facet of contemporary culture that is perceptibly different from what it was (say) fifty to seventy-five years ago and to suggest an explanation for the change.
It would be absurd to attempt to infer from the writing of three individuals, and outstanding ones at that, the “typical” attitude of an entire profession or, a fortiori, of the “educated class.” Rather I start with a prior belief, similar to Blaug’s, that the attitude in question was common among “educated people” and use these particular individuals as illustrations. The historical importance of these individuals (Keynes has been the subject of four biographies and Schumpeter of three), as well as the wide esteem in which they are held among contemporary economists, provides additional justification for a careful examination of their views on this subject.
Because the esteem in which these individuals are held conflicts with the current disapprobation of anti-Semitism among educated people, biographers have tended to apologize for and/or minimize the significance of remarks that would indicate that their subjects entertained inappropriate views on this sensitive topic (see below). The current disapprobation has also prompted efforts to point out exculpatory behavior by one or another of these subjects, such as the befriending of Jewish individuals or the extension of public support for efforts to assist refugees from Nazi Germany. However, I contend that the very occurrence of such behavior serves to highlight an important aspect of the attitude that is to be described: its ambivalence. Whether mild or astringent, typically the anti-Semitism of educated people was ambivalent, manifested in some contexts and toward some individuals, but not in others. [End Page 834]
This attitude of ambivalent anti-Semitism that was so common before World War II underwent a marked and quite rapid change, especially in academic circles, sometime around 1950.2 Part 2 attempts to describe this change and to offer an explanation for its occurrence.
To establish the facts, I begin by presenting a number of the remarks and other evidence on which the attribution of anti-Semitic attitudes to these individuals is based. I start with Keynes, because in his case the evidence is much...