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.

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