Keynes: Loves and ideas

This article was originally publishein La Razón (Spain) on August 3rd2021.

Professor Ramón Tamames drew my attention to a story regarding a representation of the love letters between Lydia Lopokova and John Maynard Keynes by two great British actors, Helena Bonham Carter and Tobias Menzies, that appeared a few weeks ago in The Economist. At first glance, it was the closest thing to an impossible love. Keynes’s friends expressed an Olympic disdain for the Russian dancer, belittling her intelligence and personality. Virginia Woolf said: “It has the soul of a squirrel.” Lydia was married. Keynes a recognized homosexual. None of this mattered. They met and fell in love in 1921, they were married in 1925, and they lived happily until the economist died in 1946. She survived him for many years, dying in 1981.

Keynes’ changes of opinion have gone down in history. Winston Churchill, who knew him well, is credited with the phrase: “every time I consult three economists I receive four different opinions, two of them from Mr. Keynes.” Another anecdote came from Keynes himself, who, responding to a man who reproached him for his fluctuating views, said: “when circumstances change, I change my mind; what do you do?“. Although the phrase may be apocryphal, it reflects his style, opening the possibility of reflection. Apparently full of common sense, it can be misleading if we identify it with the absence of any criterion of truthfulness.

Indeed, how are we going to know if we are closer or further from the truth if we modify our hypotheses every time circumstances change? It is clear that we must seek a different path. According to Karl Popper, if we want to seek the truth when we raise conjectures we must submit them to the test of refutation. If both logic and empirical testing suggest the lack of solidity of our propositions, we put them aside and try other conjectures that better explain reality. But that’s not changing your mind every time circumstances change. This procedure is much more severe and precise.