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]