John Maynard Keynes? Norman Angell? Carter Field? Lionel Robbins? Malcolm W. Bingay? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: With time and effort it is possible to bamboozle people, i.e., to fool or mislead them. Unfortunately, this process of deception can be so thorough that it is impossible to debamboozle them, i.e., to convince them of the truth. I think the prominent economist John Maynard Keynes said something like this. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: John Maynard Keynes did employ an expression of this type, but he was specifically referring to the thoughts and actions of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson who was a participant in the Paris Peace Conference at the end of World War I.
World leaders met in the Palace of Versailles after Germany signed an armistice agreement. French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, and Wilson were the most powerful figures. Keynes believed that the demands placed upon Germany by the triumphant leaders were too onerous. He feared that Germany’s economy would collapse and harm all the countries in the region.
Initially, Wilson also believed that provisions in the Treaty of Versailles were too harsh. Yet, during the months of negotiation other leaders convinced Wilson to support the treaty. Keynes published in 1919 “The Economic Consequences of the Peace” which criticized the accord and included the following passage. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1
To his horror, Mr. Lloyd George, desiring at the last moment all the moderation he dared, discovered that he could not in five days persuade the President of error in what it had taken five months to prove to him to be just and right. After all, it was harder to de-bamboozle this old Presbyterian than it had been to bamboozle him; for the former involved his belief in and respect for himself.
The terms to “debamboozle” and to “unbamboozle” have been used as synonyms. Also, both terms have been hyphenated sometimes: “de-bamboozle” and “un-bamboozle”.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Keynes’s remark was memorable, and in 1920 a newspaper in Saskatoon, Canada printed the following paraphrase: 2
Professor Keynes in his recent book says something to the effect that the Peace Conference found it easier to bamboozle President Wilson than to debamboozle him later on when they found they had gone too far; the government apparently finds itself in the same position with regard to the Senate.
English journalist and politician Norman Angell is best known for winning a Nobel Peace Prize. He applied the expression under examination to the “common people” in his 1927 book “The Public Mind: Its Disorders: Its Exploitation”: 3
It was evidently true, not merely of “the old Presbyterian,” but of that common people about which he talked so much and understood so little, that it is easier to bamboozle than to debamboozle. And if we encourage folly for the purposes of the War, then the policies of the peace must be written in the terms of that folly.
In 1934 leading British economist Lionel Robbins published “The Great Depression”, and he applied the expression to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt: 4
It was too late. As on an earlier occasion, it had been easier to bamboozle a President than to debamboozle him.
In 1936 journalist Carter Field used an instance in a Mansfield, Ohio newspaper: 5
Followers always stick to a cause or a position taken by their leaders long after the leaders have negotiated a peace treaty. It is just human nature. It is much easier politically to “bamboozle” than to “un-bamboozle.”
Norman Angell employed a version of the saying again in his 1938 book “Peace With the Dictators?”: 6
Again and again in history the demagogue has discovered that it is far easier to bamboozle than to debamboozle; and that governments become at times helpless in the presence of the public passions the governments themselves have created.
In 1945 columnist Malcolm W. Bingay employed a version while writing in the “Detroit Free Press” of Michigan: 7
The difficulty is that it is easier to bamboozle people than it is to unbamboozle them.
In conclusion, QI believes that John Maynard Keynes originated this family of sayings. Initially, Keynes applied the saying to Woodrow Wilson. The expression has evolved over time, and it has been applied to others such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and to people in general.
Image Notes: Public domain illustration by Albrecht Durer titled Das Narrenschiff (The ship of fool). Image has been resized, cropped, and retouched.
(QI has received many requests to examine a quotation attributed to Mark Twain about fooling people. While investigating the Twain attribution QI encountered this family of sayings which led QI to formulate this separate question and perform this exploration.)
- 1919, The Economic Consequences of the Peace by John Maynard Keynes, (Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge), Chapter 3: The Conference, Quote Page 50, Macmillan and Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1920 June 3, The Saskatoon Phoenix, Still Scared, Quote Page 6, Column 1, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1927 Copyright, The Public Mind: Its Disorders: Its Exploitation by Norman Angell, Part 1: A Picture of the Public Mind, Chapter 6: The Mechanism of Press Demagogy, Quote Page 132 and 133, E. P. Dutton & Company, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1934 (1971 Reprint), The Great Depression by Lionel Robbins, Chapter 6: International Chaos, Section 5: America leaves the Gold Standard, Quote Page 124, Books for Libraries Press, Freeport, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1936 June 8, The Mansfield News-Journal, New York Seen as ‘Pivotal’ State This Year by Carter Field, Quote Page 4, Column 7, Mansfield, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1938, Peace with the Dictators? by Norman Angell, Second Edition, Chapter 3: The Englishman Replies, Quote Page 33, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1945 January 23, Detroit Free Press, Good Morning by Malcolm W. Bingay, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Detroit, Michigan. (Newspapers_com) ↩