Unlike the movies, life rarely permits second takes. But the Second World War gave John Maynard Keynes, the patron saint of government activism, and Friedrich Hayek, the Cassandra who warned of the state’s destructive potential, just such opportunities.
The greatest debate in the history of economics began with a simple request for a book. In the early weeks of 1927, Friedrich Hayek, a young Viennese economist, wrote to John Maynard Keynes at King’s College, Cambridge, in England, asking for an economic textbook written 50 years before: Francis Ysidro Edgeworth’s exotically titled “Mathematical Psychics.” Keynes replied with a single line on a plain postcard: “I am sorry to say that my stock of ’Mathematical Psychics’ is exhausted.”
In January 1919, as the Allied leaders met in Paris to hammer out a treaty ending World War I, famine and pestilence raged from St. Petersburg to Istanbul. To the Britons and Americans who came to survey the damage, the whole continent seemed to be in extremis.