We had some interesting comments on our recent reflections on Niall Ferguson’s ill-chosen remarks in which he attributed Keynes’s economic views (I don’t actually know exactly what Keyesianism is, but I think a key part is for the government to run surpluses during economic booms and deficits during recessions) to the Keynes being gay and marrying a ballerina and talking about poetry. The general idea, I think, is that people without kids don’t care so much about the future, and this motivated Keynes’s party-all-the-time attitude, which might have worked just fine for Eddie Murphy’s girlfriend in the 1980s and in San Francisco bathhouses of the 1970s but, according to Ferguson, is not the ticket for preserving today’s American empire.
Some of the more robust defenders of Ferguson may have been disappointed by his followup remarks: “I should not have suggested . . . 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. . . . 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.” It’s tough to try to defend a statement that was disowned by the person saying it.
But the question then arises: What’s so horrible about what Ferguson said? After all, it’s not unreasonable to think that someone’s personal circumstances will affect their political attitudes and their views on economic policy. And certainly no one doubts that Keynes’s background as an upper-class British backgrounds was relevant for understanding his views.
So what was up?
I think the problem was that Ferguson did not seem to be engaging with an open mind but rather seemed to be just trying to throw mud at Keynes as if he (Ferguson) were operating a political campaign rather than engaging in academic inquiry. If Ferguson were to give a talk all about the connections between the personal circumstances and political beliefs of historical economists, I don’t think people would have a problem with it. He could mention Keynes’s sex life, Adam Smith’s pets, and anything else that might be relevant. Ferguson is a historian (or, as I assume he would say, an historian), and he’d be highly qualified to do that sort of thing. But to just throw culture-war words at his audience in an attempt to vaguely disparage Keynes, that’s just stupid. Again, nobody’s perfect, and Ferguson himself recognized the stupidity of his remarks. I don’t think this will, or should, deter historians from connecting the lives and ideas of famous thinkers. But it doesn’t look like that’s what was being done here; rather, Ferguson was doin some insinsuatin as a way to discredit a political opponent, which works better on the campaign trail than when coming from a scholar.
Regarding Ferguson himself, I hold with my view from last year that he is the victim of the paradox of influence:
No, I think what Ferguson is looking for (as am I, in my scholarly domain) is influence. He wants to make a difference. And one thing about being paid $50K for a lecture is that you can assume that whoever is paying you really wants to hear what you have to say.
The paradox, though, is that Ferguson gets and keeps the big-money audience is by telling them not what he (Ferguson) wants to say—not by giving them his unique insights and understanding—but rather by telling his audience what they want to hear. . . .
The paradox is that the anticipated influence becomes valueless if you end up saying whatever it takes to keep it.
In this case, I think Ferguson went too far when he threw in some crowd-pleasing anti-Keynes remarks that didn’t please his crowd so much. Ferguson took his bad-boy stance a bit too far.
As usual in such cases, I see a gap between what this guy is doing and what he has the potential to do. The Kenyes-is-a-poof remarks would’ve been unremarkable had they been made by a comedian or a politician or talk-show host. A historian can and should do better, and Ferguson himself recognized this by characterizing his remarks as “stupid.”
P.S. Yes, I know I’m violating the title of this post from a couple years ago. On the plus side, I’m posting this on a weekend, which is pretty much the time of minimum readership. So, with luck, nobody will notice what I’m doing here.