Who is an economist? Here is Keynes’ answer

John Maynard Keynes
John Maynard Keynes

In 1924 John Maynard Keynes wrote an obituary essay for a prominent economist Alfred Marshallone of the founders of the English neoclassical economics and Keynes’ former tutor and academic patron. In this fascinating piece of work Keynes astoundingly mulls over Marshall’s scholarship and intellectual life. Joseph Schumpeter, in his eulogy of Keynes, called this obituary “the most brilliant life of a man of science I have ever read.” (2003: 271).
At the beginning of this essay, Keynes deliberates on what makes a great economist, he sketches the “ideal type” of an economist, outlining his preferable professional features and personal characteristics. So, who is an economist according to Keynes? Here is his abundant answer:

The study of economics does not seem to require any specialized gifts of an unusually high order. Is it not, intellectually regarded, a very easy subject compared with the higher branches of philosophy or pure science? An easy subject at which few excel! The paradox finds its explanation, perhaps, in that the master-economist must possess a rare combination of gifts. He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher—in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words. He must contemplate the particular in terms of the general and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought. He must study the present in the light of the past for the purposes of the future. No part of man’s nature or his institutions must lie entirely outside his regard. He must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood; as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near to earth as a politician.” (Keynes 1924: 321-322)

Alfred Marshall
Alfred Marshall

Would you like to evaluate now the suitability of contemporary mainstream neoliberal economists to this profile?.. Well, please do not waste your time. Better read this informative, very interesting, from many perspectives, and beautifully written paper (free access):
Keynes, John M. 1924. “Alfred Marshall, 1842-1924.” The Economic Journal 34 (135): 311-372.

Schumpeter, Joseph. 2003. Ten Great Economists. Simon Publications.

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  1. Ronald Coase, in Chapter 9 of _Essays on Economics and Economists_, points out that Keynes’ account of Marshall’s ancestry is far from accurate. It’s an entertaining and detailed account.

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