In the long run we are all dead

One of the best known John Meynard Keynes quotes is the pithy, ‘in the long run we are all dead’. Many people take the comment to mean something like economists are dangerous short-termists, prepared to plunge us into long-term debt for the benefit of momentary economic pay-offs. The view, popularised particularly by the historian Niall Ferguson, accuses Keynes of reckless economic policy for gains pro tem at the expense of ruinous enduring problems that will damage future generations.

Taken in their wider context, however, the Keynes quote is a little longer.

The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is past the ocean is flat again.

Simon Taylor rightly notes that the view Ferguson advanced was not what Keynes meant. He states:

It should be clear that [Keynes] is not arguing that we should recklessly enjoy the present and let the future go hang. He is exasperated with the view of mainstream economists that the economy is an equilibrium system which will eventually return to a point of balance, so long as the government doesn’t interfere and if we are only willing to wait. He later challenged that view in his most important work The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1935). arguing that the economy can slip into a long term underemployment equilibrium from which only government policy can rescue it.

Far from espousing reckless abandon, Keynes was arguing that without proactive economic intervention the long-term effects of doing nothing could be ruinous. He was not advocating short-term comfort at the expense of future generations; Keynes was arguing for pro-active intervention to avoid the devastating effects of laissez-faire economic policy. Waiting for things to right themselves on their own may mean we leave it too late to act. If rot has set in, there is a point of no return. After all, in the long run we are all dead.

There is a clear application for those of us tasked with leading local churches. There is a danger that we simply hope the problems in our particular church will right themselves and we will, eventually, return to some sort of steady state. Whilst not in any way denying the vital importance of prayer, all too often we spiritualise our inaction and claim we are relying on God when really we are refusing to trust him by acting in faith upon his Word. It is something of a Gideon-type problem.

We insist upon the supernatural intervention of the Lord, whilst ignoring the ordinary provision of God – namely the office God has granted to us and the specific gifts he has given to us for the task – to avoid doing that to which we have been called. Such laissez-faire leadership can lead to precisely the same sort of problem for the church as Keynes saw for the economy. If we simply wait to act, relying upon the dawn of a near future that will be fair and bright, we are probably on a hiding to nothing.

Christian leaders need to act in faith upon the Word of God before the rot sets in. Failing to act will see the closure of our churches and yet more handwringing of once-thriving ministries going by the wayside. To paraphrase Keynes, the long run is a misleading guide to church affairs. In the long run we are all dead.