The nature of the problem and politicians: lessons from J.M. Keynes

The electioneering bell soon to go off, politicians in this clime would be at their ‘best’ behaviour as we are already beginning to see. Subliminally, the people to whom the deeds are done launder the dirty behaviours of the political class to lull their immediate disquiet. But democracy is mob rule. And politicians have mastered the arts of demagoguery. They know what to say and where to say it. As well as they do not themselves understand the nature of the problem (in Nigeria); they know too that the masses do not understand the nature of the problem.

But understanding the nature of the problem is pertinent to understanding the solution. The man, who understands the problem, speaks of the solution in the light of the problem. It is easy to garner attention based on mudslinging and stirring up emotions, but it would not last. You may even be lucky to win an election, but you will be overwhelmed by the stark nature of the problem – in which you are poorly knowledgeable. Is it not amusing how these candidates speak of the same things as the problems and upon assumption into office become all of a sudden befuddled by the realities? They simply become overwhelmed and do not know where to start. As citizens, we have to be armed with a clear understanding of the nature of the problem to guide our choices.

What is the nature of the problem?

Fundamentally, I do not agree with the many challenges often highlighted in the media as the problem of the economy. The problem has to be greater, more encompassing and systemic than the mere symptoms – poverty, unemployment or even corruption – often diagnosed. In ‘The Means to Prosperity’, Keynes argued:

“If our poverty were due to famine or earthquake or war—if we lacked material things and the resources to produce them, we could not expect to find the Means to Prosperity except in hard work, abstinence, and invention. In fact, our predicament is notoriously of another kind. It comes from some failure in the immaterial devices of the mind, in the working of the motives which should lead to the decisions and acts of will, necessary to put in movement the resources and technical means we already have. It is as though two motor-drivers, meeting in the middle of a highway, were unable to pass one another because neither knows the rule of the road. Their own muscles are no use; a motor engineer cannot help them; a better road would not serve. Nothing is required and nothing will avail, except a little, a very little, clear thinking.”

You see? Graciously different administrations have boasted about the richness of our lands; they described it as land of milk and honey. We are not ravaged by natural disasters, neither by material resources. A history of our political instability is a history of self-aggrandisement – one man, irrationally wanting all to himself. Keynes continues:

“So, too, our problem is not a human problem of muscles and endurance. It is not an engineering problem or an agricultural problem. It is not even a business problem, if we mean by business those calculations and dispositions and organising acts by which individual entrepreneurs can better themselves. Nor is it a banking problem, if we mean by banking those principles and methods of shrewd judgement by which lasting connections are fostered and unfortunate commitments avoided. On the contrary, it is, in the strictest sense… a problem of the political economy.”

We have very young and vibrant population demographics, our banks are very innovative, our lands are fertile, businesses can function, schools can be built, and we have natural endowments on which our industries can thrive. What is lacking is the coordinating mechanism that works to optimize welfare from these human and material endowments. It is a problem of the political economy. Keynes:

“I call attention to the nature of the problem, because it points us to the nature of the remedy. It is appropriate to the case that the remedy should be found in something which can fairly be called a device. Yet there are many who are suspicious of devices, and instinctively doubt their efficacy. There are still people who believe that the sway out can only be found by hard work, endurance, frugality, improved business methods, more cautious banking, and, above all, the avoidance of devices. But the Lorries of these people will never, I fear, get by. They may stay up all night, engage more sober chauffeurs, install new engines, and widen the road; yet they will never get by, unless they stop to think and work out with the driver opposite, a small device by which each moves simultaneously a little to his left.”

We could tinker our agricultural system, educational system, banking, technology; they might function distinctively as we have it, but the expected economy-wide effect would be distorted and we would always speak in terms of growth potentials instead of growth advancement. We must discuss the basis of our co-existence, enliven the social contract, and secure our democracy, not by military’s monopoly of weaponry but by the supremacy of the law and unflinching regards for democratic institutions. The pomposity inherent in the military must be dispelled as popular nonsense. The inconsistencies and biases in the constitution must be resolved. Unity as the soul of the nation must be imbibed in all practice and at all levels. The politics and the economics must be co-reinforcing. It is superior to live in a country where one has an identity and lives freely without infrastructure, than in one where one’s identity and freedom is denied and the abundance of infrastructures lull one in subtle ways the urge to take one’s life.

To conclude with a final one from Keynes:

“It is the man who tells us that there is no means, consistent with sound finance and political wisdom, of getting the one to work at the other, whose judgement we should instinctively doubt. The calculations which we ought to suspect are those of the statesman, who, being already burdened with the support of the unemployed, tells us that it would involve him in heavy liabilities, present and to come, which the country cannot afford, if he were to set the men to build the houses; and the sanity to be questioned is his, who thinks it more economical and better calculated to increase the national wealth to maintain unemployed shipbuilders, than to spend a fraction of what their maintenance is costing him, in setting them to build one of the greatest works of man.”



Find more latest news and headlines from the newspaper