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Global Man, Circa 1913

What was the heyday of the globalized economy of the early 20th century like?

November 17, 2001

What was the heyday of the globalized economy of the early 20th century like?

John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) was a man of many talents. Mainly known for his economic acumen and analytical skills, he was also well-versed in the history of the liberal arts, served as the first Vice President of the World Bank — and even dabbled in farming. Here, he paints a picture of the early 20th century heyday of the globalized economy through tantalizing excerpts of his work, “The Economic Consequences of the Peace.”

What an extraordinary episode in the economic progress of man that age was which came to an end in August 1914!

The greater part of the population, it is true, worked hard and lived at a low standard of comfort, yet were, to all appearances, reasonably contented with this lot.

But escape was possible, for any man of capacity or character at all exceeding the average, into the middle and upper classes, for whom life offered, at a low cost and with the least trouble, conveniences, comforts and amenities beyond the compass of the richest and most powerful monarchs of other ages.

The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole Earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep.

He could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, and share — without exertion or even trouble — in their prospective fruits and advantages.

Or he could decide to couple the security of his fortunes with the good faith of the townspeople of any substantial municipality in any continent that fancy or information might recommend.

He could secure forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate without passport or other formality.

He could dispatch his servant to the neighboring office of a bank for such supply of the precious metals as might seem convenient — and could then proceed abroad to foreign quarters, without knowledge of their religion, language or customs, bearing coined wealth upon his person.

He would consider himself greatly aggrieved and much surprised at the least interference.

But most important of all, he regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain and permanent — except in the direction of further improvement.

Any deviation from it would be seen as aberrant, scandalous and avoidable.

The projects and politics of militarism and imperialism, of racial and cultural rivalries, of monopolies, restrictions and exclusion, which were to play the serpent to this paradise, were little more than the amusements of his daily newspaper.

They appeared to exercise almost no influence at all on the ordinary course of social and economic life, the internationalization of which was nearly complete in practice.

This excerpt is from Chapter 2 of John Maynard Keynes’ “The Economic Consequences of the Peace,” 1920.