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History of Political Economy 35.4 (2003) 784-785

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Keynes on Population. By John Toye. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. 260 pp. Cloth $49.95.

Maynard Keynes's interest in the ideas of T. R. Malthus continues to attract much attention, primarily concerning Malthus's rejection of Say's law and his insistence that deficient effective demand can cause a general glut of commodities. In this lively, well-written book and in a 1997 Cambridge Journal of Economics article, the prominent development economist John Toye calls attention to the neo-Malthusian views about population and the terms of trade in Keynes's May 1914 lecture at Oxford on population, the earliest version of what became Keynes's well-known 1933 essay on Malthus. Keynes's 1914 manuscript was first published in 1993 as part of the Chadwick-Healey microfilm edition of the Keynes archive at King's College, Cambridge, but only a few well-endowed libraries acquired that vast, expensive set. The reprint as an appendix to Toye's chapter 2 (along with the extracts from Keynes's 1912 Cambridge lectures in an appendix to chapter 1 and unpublished correspondence between Keynes and Marie Stopes about the birth control movement in chapter 5) is much more readily accessible. Toye's 1997 account of Keynes's racial prejudice received widespread newspaper coverage, which Toye recalls as divided between outrage at his "secular blasphemy" against "a cultural icon like Keynes" and "elaborate expressions of indifference" (4). I remember the newspaper coverage as critical of Keynes, not of Toye. Toye's scrupulous, balanced book is unblinking about Keynes's lectures on population, and about his worsting by Sir William Beveridge in their 1923–24 debate about population growth and terms of trade, without losing perspective or respect for Keynes and his achievements. Keynes was then a neo-Malthusian, alarmed lest growing world population and demand for food, combined with diminishing returns to scale in agriculture, would make agricultural produce more costly in terms of industrial products, to the disadvantage of industrial countries such as Britain.

Influenced by his visit to Egypt in 1913, Keynes warned in his Oxford lecture in 1914 that efforts by colonial governments to raise the standard of living in Egypt or India would fail because of population increase: a rise in real wages in the Punjab was due only to a "beneficent visitation" of plague. He held that "almost any measures seem to me to be justified in order to protect our standard of life from injury at the hands of more prolific races. Some definite parceling out of the world may well become necessary; and I suppose that this may not improbably provoke racial wars . . . . Countries in the position of British Columbia are entirely justified in protecting themselves from the fecundity of the East by very rigorous immigration laws and other restrictive measures" (71). In contrast to pro-natalists (characterized by Keynes as "English bishops, French politicians and German economists," to which he later added "Bolshevik Russians"), Keynes argued that contraception should be freely available. Rather than relying solely on personal freedom as a justification, Keynes initially appealed to eugenic concerns about the quality of the population, urging that contraception, already available to the upper and middle classes, be spread to the working class. He later abandoned his neo-Malthusianism, and by [End Page 784] the time of his Galton Lecture in 1937, Keynes was concerned with the supposed prospect of falling population (with contraception treated as an issue of personal freedom).

Toye makes a significant scholarly contribution with his exposition of Keynes's neo-Malthusian lectures of 1912 and 1914, the Keynes-Beveridge exchange of 1923–24, Keynes's involvement in the birth control movement, and Keynes's recantation of neo-Malthusian worries about expanding population shifting the terms of trade (notably in his Galton Lecture). Toye is on shakier ground in trying to make much of Keynes's occasional casual expression of anti-Semitic stereotypes then prevalent among the English upper classes (and also in a digression asserting that H. G. Wells was free of such stereotypes...


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