The Great Books Translation Problem

It turns out that yesterday Robert Waldmann posted a great example of the great books problem I was discussing. Waldmann is explaining Keynes’ account of the classical account of unemployment and reveals that what we call “involuntary unemployment” nowadays was considered voluntary by Keynes:

When contemporary economists speak of “involuntary unemployment” we mean that there are three agents, a worker, an unemployed person and an employer, that the unemployed person would be glad to work for a wage lower (perhaps slightly lower) than the one paid to the worker and the employer would be glad to employ the unemployed person at that lower wage (perhaps laying of the worker). With this definition, involuntary unemployment can occur because labor unions force employers to pay a high wage even if there are people who would accept a lower wage. This case is an example of the “Insider/outsider” model of involuntary unemployment.

Keynes meant something else. He would have called that unemployment voluntary because “labour as a whole” or the workers or the working class were unwilling to supply labour at a lower wage.

To the modern ear, it simply seems absurd to characterize this form of unemployment as “voluntary” since, after all, “labor as a whole” is not an entity to which it makes a great deal of sense to ascribe volition. Equally confusing, as Waldmann explains the “classical” economists Keynes was criticizing held a view on this subject more similar to today’s “new Keynesian” economists than to today’s “neo-classical” economists.


None of this is anyone’s fault, as such, but you probably wouldn’t spend your time reading a lot of 70–100 year-old economics books and when you pick one up out of context the terminology turns out to be very at odds with contemporary practice. The dispute over whether unemployment is “voluntary” or “involuntary” doesn’t even really make sense in today’s context where unemployment is deemed involuntary by definition.