Capitalism: The Nastiest of Men for the Nastiest of Motives Will Somehow Work for the Benefit of All

John Maynard Keynes? E. A. G. Robinson? Fictional? Anonymous?


Dear Quote Investigator: Many times I have seen the following quote attributed to John Maynard Keynes:

Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone.

I cannot find a source. Also, I do not believe that Lord Keynes would ever say “most wickedest”. (I have seen the quote without the two “most”s.) It’s a pretty well-turned phrase though, so somebody must have said it. I thought maybe Shaw had something like this but have come up blank there, too. Someone from the Muckraker Era? Lincoln Steffens? Upton Sinclair? Anyway, Doctor, would you look into this?

Quote Investigator: Note, QI researches sayings that embody a variety of different viewpoints. This interesting quote has engaged the curiosity of many people. There is another similar maxim attributed to Keynes:

Capitalism is the extraordinary belief that the nastiest of men for the nastiest of motives will somehow work for the benefit of all.

This variant using the word “nastiest” appeared before the instance using the word “wickedest”, and QI believes that the “wickedest” version was created by modifying the earlier statement. This blog post will primarily trace the first variant that uses the word “nastiest”.

The earliest known attribution of the saying to Keynes was found by the outstanding researcher Ken Hirsch who shared his knowledge via Wikiquote [WJK]. The words appeared in 1951 in the book “Christianity and Human Relations in Industry” within a discussion of free markets and “the doctrine of the hidden hand” [CHR]:

… as J. M. Keynes used to put it, ‘the astonishing belief that the nastiest motives of the nastiest men somehow or other work for the best results in the best of all possible worlds’.

The subphrase “the best results in the best of all possible worlds” alludes to Voltaire’s satirical character Dr. Pangloss and his philosophy in “Candide”. Indeed, the entire statement credited to Keynes has a satirical edge. However, Keynes died in 1946 and this statement has not been found in his writings.

QI has located a similar remark that appeared a decade earlier in 1941 in a book written by a close colleague of Keynes named E. A. G. Robinson (Edward Austin Gossage Robinson) titled “Monopoly” [ERM]:

The great merit of the capitalist system, it has been said, is that it succeeds in using the nastiest motives of nasty people for the ultimate benefit of society.

Robinson did not attribute this description of the capitalist system to Keynes; instead, he used the locution “it has been said”. Hence there is no clear attribution beyond Robinson himself.

Robinson worked with Keynes, and it is possible that he heard the phrase from Keynes. Alternatively, Keynes may have read the phrase in Robinson’s book and repeated it to someone else. But there is no direct evidence for either of these conjectures. It is commonplace for quotations to be reassigned to individuals of greater prominence. Thus, it is possible that Robinson’s quote was slightly altered and then simply reattributed to Keynes who was a famous economist in 1951 as he is today.

Here are selected citations in chronological order.

A 1993 obituary of E. A. G. Robinson in the Independent stated that he “was Keynes’s close and trusty colleague for many years” [ERI]. Robinson assisted Keynes in the editorial tasks at the Economic Journal according to a note on the cover of that journal. The quotation by Robinson about capitalism and “nasty people” appeared in the 1941 book “Monopoly” which was part of a series called the “Cambridge Economic Handbooks” that was planned and edited by Keynes initially. But Keynes was not listed as the editor of “Monopoly”.

The quotation fell within a chapter titled “Future Policy” which outlined different viewpoints regarding monopolies. Specifically, the passage below occurred in a discussion about individuals who opposed intervention against monopolies [ERM]:

But by far the strongest resistance to drastic action comes from those who would say, if they sought at all to express their motives, that inequality of incomes is inevitable and even desirable in a world in which individual are born with unequal talents. You must leave the efficient man as well as the inefficient the motive to exert himself to the utmost. The great merit of the capitalist system, it has been said, is that it succeeds in using the nastiest motives of nasty people for the ultimate benefit of society.

In 1951 a version of the saying was attributed to Keynes in a book by the British politician Sir George Schuster [CHR]:

That was the theory. Its practice tended to create the idea that all values were commensurable in terms of money, and that the degree of profitability was a correct guide to the choice between different activities. This theory and practice were supported (to quote Canon Demant) ‘by the doctrine of the hidden hand which behind the scenes of human will and intelligence made all things work together for good whether men loved God or not’ or, as J. M. Keynes used to put it, ‘the astonishing belief that the nastiest motives of the nastiest men somehow or other work for the best results in the best of all possible worlds’.

In 1954 the saying was again credited to Keynes in a book titled “The Social Psychology of Industry: Human Relations in the Factory” by J. A. C. Brown. But the source of this attribution was the 1951 book by Schuster. This was not an independent piece of evidence [SPI]:

Whether or not this reorganization of society will involve the end of ‘Capitalism’ depends, of course, upon how the word capitalism is defined — and here Sir George Schuster has some most interesting points to make in the book which we have elsewhere found reason to criticize. J. M. Keynes once defined capitalism as ‘the astonishing belief that the nastiest motives of the nastiest men somehow or other work for the best results in the best of all possible worlds’, and in this sense, at least, capitalism is dead, for the individual’s striving for his own gain, without an equal emphasis on the welfare of others, no longer automatically brings good to the community.

In 1959 the saying appeared in a journal published by the School of Business of Baylor University Texas. But this quotation was within an extended extract from the 1954 book by Brown [BBK].

In 1993 the variant of the saying with the adjective “wickedest” instead of “nastiest” appeared in the Usenet newsgroup alt.quotations. This was discovered by the exceptional researcher Barry Popik who has a webpage about this quotation [AQK] [BPK]:

Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone

-keynes

In 2009 the author Steve Cotler posted an article about the exploration he performed concerning this maxim and its variants using the terms “nastiest” and “wickedest”. He solicited the opinions of several Economics Professors who were knowledgeable about the work of John Maynard Keynes regarding the attribution to Keynes. Cotler records that none of the professors supported crediting Keynes and several expressed incredulity by using words such as “bogus, “fictions”, and “fabricated” [SCK].

In conclusion, there is no direct evidence that Keynes employed this quotation in either variant. The variant with “wickedest” appears to have been concocted many years after the death Keynes. E. Austin G. Robinson, a close colleague of Keynes, did employ a version of the quote (with “nastiest”) in a book published in 1941 while Keynes was alive.

QI suggests that Robinson should be credited with the words that he used. Thanks for a fascinating question.

(Many thanks to Mike/Celeste Culpepper whose email question provided the motivation for this investigation.)

[WJK] Wikiquote website, John Maynard Keynes: Attributed section: “Capitalism is ‘the astonishing belief'”. (Accessed 2011 February 16) link

[CHR] 1951 (reprint 1952), Christianity and Human Relations in Industry by George Schuster, Page 109, Epworth Press, London. (Verified with scans; Great thanks to the librarians at the Smith Library of High Point University, and thanks also to the helpful librarian at the Columbia Theological Seminary)

[ERM] 1941 (reprint 1948), Monopoly by E. A. G. Robinson (Edward Austin Gossage Robinson), Cambridge Economic Handbooks, Page 276, [Nisbet & Co. Ltd, London.] Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. (Questia; Verified on paper in 1948 reprint)

[ARI] 1993 June 5, The Independent (UK), “Obituary: Sir Austin Robinson” by G. C. Harcourt, London. (Accessed website independent.co.uk on 2010 February 23) link

[SPI] 1954, The Social Psychology of Industry: Human Relations in the Factory by J. A. C. Brown, Page 305, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, England. (Questia)

[BBK] 1959 March, The Baylor Bulletin: Baylor Business Studies, Social Responsibilities of the Certified Public Accountant by Roderick L. Holmes, Page 12, Number 10, The School of Business, Baylor University, Waco, Texas. (Google Books snippet; Verified on microfilm) link

[AQK] 1993 May 26, Usenet newsgroup: alt.quotations, Subject: “capitalism”, Sender: William D Muscato. (Google Groups archive; Accessed 2011 February 23) link

[BPK] Barry Popik website, Entry from July 19, 2010, “Capitalism is the belief that the wickedest of men will do wicked things for the greatest good”, Entry in progress. (Accessed barrypopik.com 2011 February 23) link

[SCK] Steve Cotler blog, Entry dated July 7, 2009, John Maynard Keynes: Capitalism and the “Nastiest/Wickedest of Men”. (Accessed stevecotler.com 2011 February 23) link

5 thoughts on “Capitalism: The Nastiest of Men for the Nastiest of Motives Will Somehow Work for the Benefit of All

  1. Hello,

    thanks a lot for your very useful site although I did not find anything regarding another of John Maynard Keynes quotations that reads as follows:

    “The avoidance of taxes is the only intellectual pursuit that carries any reward”.

    I need rather urgently to find out on which occasion the above quotation was said and if there is any reference material (f.e., if it was ever published and date of publication, or whether he said it on occasion of a speech, etc.)

    The same goes for a quotation by Jean-Baptise Colbert about taxation which states:

    “The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest amount of feathers with the least amount of hissing”.

    In this case too, it would be truly helpful if you could help with some some kind of reference to hook the quotation to. In other words, is there a precise event or occasion in which he stated the above quotation or any writing referring thereto, i.e., chronicles of his times.

    The matter is rather urgent and any help would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks a lot in advance.

    Tonia Cistulli

  2. Tonia Cistulli: I regret that I have a large number of pending tasks and I typically cannot perform research quickly enough for an urgent request. Here is a very quick and incomplete response for the Colbert quote.

    Jean-Baptiste Colbert lived between 1619 and 1683. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations has the saying below listed under Colbert’s name. But the sentence is labeled attributed and no date or citation is given.

    The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing.

    The Yale Book of Quotations has the saying below attributed to Colbert with this cite: “Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Mar. 1919″:

    The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to procure the greatest quantity of feathers with the least possible amount of hissing.

    In 1886 a version of the quotation was attributed to Colbert in a book on Political Science. Note that all of these attributions occur many years after the death of Colbert, so they do not provide solid evidence that he actually said the words. A citation to the original statement in French, if it exists, in the appropriate time-frame would be more persuasive. But this is the best I can offer on short notice. Best wishes.

    Cite: 1886, Cyclopaedia of Political Science, Political Economy, and of the political history of the United States: by the best American and European writers, Volume 3, Edited by John Joseph Lalor, Taxation, Page 871, A.H. Andrews & Co., Chicago. (Google Books full view)

    … as Colbert, the celebrated finance minister of Louis XIV., is reported to have expressed it, in saying “that the act of taxation consists in so plucking the goose [i.e., the people] as to procure the largest quantity of feathers with the least possible amount of squealing.”

    Here is a link to the quotation in the 1886 work:
    http://goo.gl/NLJW6

  3. Tonia Cistulli: Here is some information about the other quote in your inquiry. John Maynard Keynes lived between 1881 and 1946. The WikiQuote entry for Keynes has a citation for the saying that interests you:

    The avoidance of taxes is the only intellectual pursuit that still carries any reward.

    WikiQuote claims: As quoted in A Dictionary of Scientific Quotations (1977) by Alan L. MacKay, p.140

    I have not verified this citation in the 1977 edition mentioned, but I did look at the 1991 edition, and the saying is listed under Keynes but no citation is given. Here is a link to the WikiQuote entry for Keynes.

    A quick incomplete search for the Keynes quote shows the following 1970 attribution. The author Dennis Gabor uses the word “award” instead of “reward”.

    Cite: 1970, Innovations: Scientific, Technological, and Social by Dennis Gabor, Chapter: Social Innovations, Subsection: Monetary and Economic Reforms, Page 94, Oxford University Press, London. (Verified on paper)

    Even in Britain, where direct taxation has long reached the stage at which, as J. M. Keynes said ‘the avoidance of taxes is the only intellectual pursuit that still carries any award’ and where private households save now only 6 per cent of their income, direct taxation brings in only 40 per cent of the public revenue, which is 38 per cent of the G.N.P.

    This attribution occurred many years after the death of Keynes, and I have not yet found this statement in the works of Keynes.

  4. Surely this was meant to be a sarcastic statement & as such, has, in this modern world, sort of come true (the sarcasm part). And today, it seems “working for the benefit of all” has yet to appear in our capitalist society here in America

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