In my ongoing reading about World War I, the epochal cataclysm that opened the last century and whose residue still leaches into this one, I decided to check out John Maynard Keynes' Economic Consequences of the Peace. The economist now remembered (or forgotten) for his understanding of how unregulated capitalism drove economies off a cliff in Great Depression of the 1930s was a whiz kid economic advisor to the British delegation to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. He was sure his political bosses were making a mess of things and quickly returned home to write this small volume, much of which has held up rather well.
One aspect of his argument that caught my attention was centrality of demographic concerns -- how many people were jostling each other in competition for resources -- to the way he understood societies.
He views pre-World War I Europe as an anomaly in human history because population growth had supported rising wealth rather than leading to catastrophe.
In its essence, Keyne's post-Paris screed argues that the job of the victorious statesmen was to try to restore this happy prosperity to the world's shattered economies. Instead they had preoccupied themselves with retribution, boundary disputes and obscure nationalisms. They didn't understand that a world where people couldn't trust where their next meal was coming from would be unstable and potentially disastrous.
Along the way, Keynes offered some relatively light-weight but interesting observations on Russia where, most visibly, the 1914-18 war had overturned what had seemed unshakable verities. He thought expanding human numbers explained a lot of the inexplicable.
He doesn't fully develop this suggestion -- I'm not at all sure it could be developed fruitfully. But it is a significant marker of how one very smart guy thought about human numbers.
The image of Keynes is from a portrait by Duncan Grant, who, along with Keynes, was part of the Bloomsbury circle.
World War I still matters far more than we realize when we think about the contours of the contemporary scene. Previous posts on this history appear here, here and here.