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Niall Ferguson Briefly Humbled By Dead Gay Economist


Niall Ferguson, one of Harvard’s best known professors, seems to be suffering from a case of foot-in-mouth disease. At a conference earlier this week, the following happened:

Speaking at the Tenth Annual Altegris Conference in Carlsbad, Calif., in front of a group of more than 500 financial advisors and investors, Ferguson responded to a question about [John Maynard] Keynes’ famous philosophy of self-interest versus the economic philosophy of Edmund Burke, who believed there was a social contract among the living, as well as the dead. Ferguson asked the audience how many children Keynes had. He explained that Keynes had none because he was a homosexual and was married to a ballerina, with whom he likely talked of “poetry” rather than procreated. The audience went quiet at the remark. Some attendees later said they found the remarks offensive.

It gets worse.

Ferguson, who is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University, and author of The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die, says it’s only logical that Keynes would take this selfish worldview because he was an “effete” member of society. Apparently, in Ferguson’s world, if you are gay or childless, you cannot care about future generations nor society.

Ferguson has issued an unqualified apology and deserves credit for not trying to dance around what he said. The grain of truth in Ferguson’s ugly rant is that unless people care deeply about the wellbeing of those who will come after us, they will make poor choices about policy. While this is an important point and needs to be made, anyone with much experience in life knows that while raising children provides a deep and valuable moral experience for many people, there are selfish and shortsighted people with children and generous and magnanimous people without them.

Keynes, one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century (and with the exception of the General Theory, a genuinely good writer) can justly be criticized for the pro-consumption bias that he shared with many in his generation. But he was never a radical and he tended to become both more socially and politically conservative over the course of his career. Many of his Bloomsbury and leftie connections thought of him as an establishment sellout rather than a gay rebel—more the W.H. Auden of economics than the Oscar Wilde. When performer Quentin Crisp spoke of the “stately homos of old England,” Lord Keynes was very much the kind of person on his mind.

In any case, as Ferguson in his wiser moments knows, the way to make policy arguments is not to attack Keynes (or any other thinker for that matter) over personal conduct or to engage in idle speculations about their psychological makeup. Policy arguments are true or false regardless of who makes them, and if Ferguson wants to attack Keynesian economics he should leave personalities to one side.

[Niall Ferguson photo courtesy of Getty Images]

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  • Lorenz Gude

    Very fond of the Lord Keynes myself as I grew up with his ideas around the dinner table. By seeking a middle way between Marxism and laissez faire capitalism, he created the economic framework for what you call the Blue Model. And it created the whole postwar economic boom now in some difficulty. Maybe we ought to replace Bernanke with a ballerina who has a brilliant gay husband to fix things up.

    • Tom

      Errr…no. The postwar economic boom was caused by A. a world that needed rebuilding and B. a nation that was effectively intact.

      • Corlyss Drinkard

        You’re right of course. Lornez’s fond childhood memories notwithstanding, he needs to go read Amity Shlaes’ The Forgotten Man for a perspective adjustment.

    • Andrew Allison

      Well yes, but the topic was Fergusen’s homophobic ad hominem attack on Keynes, not Keynes’s theories.

  • Pete

    A person is a person, and their so-called private life is indeed reflected in their public life.

    And as politically incorrect as it may sound,
    homosexuals do tend to live for the day, while people in the traditional families show greater concern for the future where their children and grandchildren will live.

    If you disagree with this reality, ask yourself why the euphemism ‘gay’ is used almost universally when referring to homosexuals and their lifestyle.

    • Luke Lea

      Agreed. Those raising a stink should grow up and get real.

  • Andrew Allison

    Ferguson said it best: “But I should not have suggested – in an off-the-cuff response that was not part of my presentation – that Keynes was indifferent to the long run because he had no children, nor that he had no children because he was gay. This was doubly stupid. First, it is obvious that people who do not have children also care about future generations. Second, I had forgotten that Keynes’s wife Lydia miscarried.
    My disagreements with Keynes’s economic philosophy have never had anything to do with his sexual orientation. It is simply false to
    suggest, as I did, that his approach to economic policy was inspired by any aspect of his personal life.”

    • Jim Luebke

      The second point shows how he crossed the line and needed to apologize.

      His first point in this apology is just as much of an unsubstantiated generalization as his original statement.

      I know quite a number of people who don’t have kids and don’t care about future generations. Their economics and personal lives (more money and free time for them) are in complete agreement.

      Keynes’ remark, “In the long run we’re all dead” deserves to be slammed, hard, as a stupid and selfish thing to say. It has done immense damage to my generation and my kids’ generation. As such, in a better world Keynes would have been pressed to apologize for it even more than Ferguson was pressed to apologize for his.

  • Corlyss Drinkard

    Too bad he apologized. Effete doesn’t have to be a code word for gay. It’s a perfectly good word for elites of the last 100 years, esp. the ones that whored after redistributionist economic models, whether thru ignorance or sincere belief that such models were more just or at least could be made to appear more just while actually fleecing the public.

  • NoNewt

    I agree that it’s unfair to discredit all homoesexual or childless thinkers/writers by saying they aren’t invested in the future, or to give special credence to thinkers/writers with children. However, on balance it’s fair to ask whether homosexuals overall are less likely to be concerned about the future. I think that’s a reasonable argument to use – especially as regards Keynes, famous for stating his lack of concern about the long term by saying, “In the long run, we’re all dead.”

    Here, what’s interested is how quickly what leading academics and thinkers openly wrote just a few years ago is now pretended to be beyond any and every pale – National Review compiled just a few of the very many statements over the years making the exact same point as Ferguson, namely that Keynes did not care about future generations, evidenced in part by his sexual orientation. The eminent individuals and publications that made this same observation in years past didn’t face the public excoriation Ferguson has:

  • John Burke

    I’m disappointed that Mead doesn’t see the disturbing tendency in this incident and so many others toward forced public recantations of incorrect, unapproved, or unfashionable views or remarks. Ferguson was making an oft-made point about unconcern for the future, and as an intellectual, deployed a prosaic anecdote about Keynes that has been used by academics and writers for 50 years or more.

  • circleglider

    Here’s hoping that this posting was made by one of Via Media’s younger interns. Criticism of Keynes’ policy prescriptions because of his homosexuality is neither new nor outlandish.

    For someone who preaches the importance of history, this outbreak of radical political correctness is an unwelcome development.

  • Jim Luebke

    “Anyone with much experience in life knows that while raising children provides a deep and valuable moral experience for many people, there are selfish and shortsighted people with children and generous and magnanimous people without them.”

    I would not question our host’s dedication to future generations, even though there is no evidence on this site (that I’ve seen) that he has kids of his own.

    However, when I get into conversations with childless people I work with about having kids, more often than not they justify that choice on the basis of how much more money and free time they have. Some of them even have the poor taste to present themselves as superior and wise people for their self-admittedly selfish decision.

    This, in a world where greying populations are a serious and growing problem… this, in a country where raising kids is a tremendous expense, borne primarily by parents, and where those kids are expected to cough up for massive social programs to support elderly people whether or not those elderly people went to the trouble and expense of raising the kids that keep those systems afloat.

  • wigwag

    If Ferguson thinks that it is appropriate to reflect on how Keynes supposed peccadilloes impact his intellectual work, aren’t we entitled t reflect on how Ferguson’s intellectual work is impacted by his personal life?

    After all, Ferguson unceremoniously dumped his wife, the British journalist, Susan Douglas (with whom he had three children) after he met and fell in love with a much younger woman, Ayan Hirsi Ali. Ironically, the two met at a party also attended by a close personal friend of Douglas’s, the man who would later become Prime Minister of Britain, David Cameron. Hirsi-Ali (who I have great respect for) became pregnant by Ferguson and she gave birth to their child in December, 2011. Ferguson married Hirsi-Ali two months before she gave birth.
    t would be interesting to psychoanalyze Ferguson to dissect how this history has impacted his debates with Paul Krugman, his views on Islam or his rantings about the history of money.

  • cubanbob

    This business of gays not caring about future generations is silly. First some do have children and those that don’t do have nephews and nieces that they care about. The problem with Ferguson’s comment isn’t that Keynes was queer but that his ideas are queer. After more than 70 years his ideas haven’t been demonstrated to work and even if they could be made to work (by actually reducing debt in good times) political realities being what they are they will never been properly implemented.

  • wigwag

    The fact that Ferguson had to recant so quickly does make quite a statement about how views about bigotry towards gay people have changed in a short period of time.

    Some people find it remarkable that less than two decades after the United States Congress passed the “Defense of Marraige Act” gay marraige is being enacted in state after state and the opponents of gay marrage are in full retreat. The Republican Party, which once viewed opposition to gay marraige as part and parcel of its strategy to appel to conservative and main stream voters now finds it’s hostility to gay people to be less of a political solution and more of a political problem.

    But the rapidity with which attititudes about homosexuality have changed shouldn’t be surprising; there is a precedent for it. In 1895, one of Great Britains greatest modern authors, Oscar Wilde was humiliated, castigated and thrown in prison for committing “the crime that dare not speak it’s name.” His two year sentence of hard labor turned out to be capital punishment for Wilde; conditions in prison were so bad that his health deteriorated rapidly and he died within two years of his release penniless and forgotten.

    Yet less than two decades later, in the same country that mocked and tortured one of its cultural icons, John Maynard Keynes could live more or less openly as a homosexual. Keynes was 13 when Wilde was imprisoned; presumbly at just the age when he would have started to be aware of his own sexual proclivities Keynes must of heard about Wilde’s trial; after all, it was a sensation. By the early 1900s attitudes in Great Britain had changed so suddenly that Keynes felt perfectly free to engage in numerous homosexual encounters and not feel the need to go to great lengths to hide them.

    It wasn’t only Keynes; other famous friends of his in the Bloomsbury Group were perfectly happy to advertise their sexual adventurism, including Virginia Wolfe who famously had a lesbian affair with Vita Sackville-West.
    Given the pace of change, it wouldn’t be surprising for the United States to elect an openly gay President far sooner than most people may think possible. I wonder if the prospect frightens Ferguson. Perhaps he can speak to his wife about the virtues of tolerance; she’s written quite a bit about the superiority of liberalism. Given her first hand experience with intolerance in Somalia, perhaps she can give her husband a lesson or two.

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