In June 1933, William Beveridge, the director of the London School of Economics, organized a mock trial of economists to benefit the King Edward’s Hospital Fund.
With the world mired in the Great Depression, the seriocomic proceedings illuminated a fierce and deepening public anxiety over the role economists had played in shaping government policy.
"There was never a time when the advice of the economic expert was so often asked and so seldom followed," the Economist magazine wrote.
Four prominent academics, including Beveridge, were charged with "conspiracy to spread mental fog." Minister of Agriculture Walter Elliot presided, and Robert Boothby, a member of Parliament, led the prosecution.
While three of them pleaded "not guilty," Beveridge instead passed a note to the judge that said he had "absent-mindedly left his voice somewhere in the building, probably in the library." Once it was retrieved, he said, he was "not guilty, but not so guilty as the others."
The prosecutor presented his argument:
The case that I have to bring before you today is no ordinary case. ... The men before you are not ordinary men; they are economists. ... And as Walter Bagehot said long ago, "No one is ever really sorry when an economist dies."
The charge I shall bring before you today is that of a concerted, deliberate and malicious attempt to wreck the government of our country by confusing, by fustigating, by reducing to pulp the minds of its rulers.
Boothby indicted the economists for being "unintelligible." Worse, he said, they had been proven wrong, disagreed among themselves and changed their arguments. He particularly attacked "the gang which calls itself J.M. Keynes" for its contradictory opinions, which he said had nearly driven the minister of agriculture mad.
John Maynard Keynes, the country's most prominent economist, had a reputation for altering his opinions as conditions changed. Economists in the early 1930s disagreed both among themselves and, as Keynes did, with themselves about the causes of, and remedies for, the Depression.
A defendant asked that "conspiracy" be defined.
Boothby: "'Conspiracy' means agreeing to do anything the government may not like."
Defendant: "Did you ever know any two economists to agree upon anything -- whether the government liked it or not?"
Boothby: "On my oath, never!"
Defendant: "Then I plead that the indictment is bad and the case should be dismissed."
Boothby: "Every economist is in himself a conspiracy or worse. Generally much worse."
After much improvised tomfoolery, Beveridge called 10 students in gowns as witnesses. They responded to the question, "What is the state of your mind?" with a song:
Though I listen to lectures from morning to night,
My mind remains perfectly clear
Of theories wrong and theories right,
Of medians and weights
And the function of States,
Of the law of Sea-carriage,
And Triobrand marriage,
Of returns that decrease,
And trade routes to Greece --
And just when and how democracy died.
Yes -- my mind remains perfectly clear
For whatever I hear
Comes in at this ear
And goes out on the opposite side.
The judge concluded that the defense's case was untrue and the prosecution's needless. The economists then returned to advocating free trade and being ignored by Parliament.
(Philip Scranton is a Board of Governors professor of the history of industry and technology at Rutgers University, Camden, and the editor-in-chief of Enterprise and Society. He writes "This Week in the Great Depression" for the Echoes blog.)
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