When someone questions the effectiveness of Keynesian economics, the obvious reply is: Remember World War II?
The British economist John Maynard Keynes argued that there is a role for government intervention when aggregate demand for goods and services drops, as it did during the Great Depression. Without increased public spending to make up for decreased private spending, he said, an economy will slide into a vicious circle of low demand and low output, ensuring a prolonged period of high unemployment. Government thrift at such times will only deepen the problem. "The boom, not the slump," said Keynes, "is the right time for austerity."
In 1939 dark clouds of war were gathering over Europe, but Keynes saw a silver lining: an opportunity to prove his theory correct. He believed that the massive government-funded war mobilization would finally give sufficient stimulus to end the Great Depression. On May 23 of that year Keynes gave his famous BBC radio address, "Will Re-armament Cure Unemployment?" He said, in part:
It is not an exaggeration to say that the end of abnormal unemployment is in sight. And it isn't only the unemployed who will feel the difference. A great number besides will be taking home better money each week. And with the demand for efficient labor outrunning the supply, how much more comfortable and secure everyone will feel in his job. The Grand Experiment has begun. If it works--if expenditure on armaments really does cure unemployment--I predict that we shall never go back all the way to the old state of affairs. Good may come out of evil. We may learn a trick or two, which will come in useful when the day of peace comes.
When the day of peace did come, the Great Depression was over and England and America were embarked on a long period of rising economic prosperity. In these times of recession and government austerity, it may be good to remember something else Keynes said in his radio address: "If we can cure unemployment for the wasted purposes of armaments, we can cure it for the productive purposes of peace."
You can find Keynes' classic work, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, in our collection of Free eBooks.