Niall Ferguson provoked a public furor (and soon apologized) for repeating a wheeze I’ve been hearing from conservatives since I first studied economics, the one about how John Maynard Keynes supposedly didn’t value the future because he didn’t expect to have kids. [Kathleen Geier, Washington Monthly; Waking Up Now; Andrew Sullivan; Jonah Goldberg; more, Memeorandum]
It always revealed more about the speakers’ prejudices than anything else. Whatever its failings, Keynes’ theory gives as much weight to the welfare of future generations as do rival theories; the “long run = all dead” snippet seized on by conservative critics does not assert what they imagine it does; and relevantly, if anecdotally, it’s our own libertarian/free-market side that can offer a more noteworthy concentration of childless economic theorists (which also doesn’t refute libertarian/free-market views).
Economic discourse is relatively good at identifying and rejecting prescriptions (eat the seed corn, grab the furniture for use in the fireplace on a cold day) that demonstrably rob later generations of prosperity. The divisions within the discipline arise from unavoidable disagreements as to which prescriptions will in fact result in such prosperity, not from the presence of major schools that lack enthusiasm about that goal.
Why then does the meme live on through generations of conservative commentators you’d think might know better, from Gertrude Himmelfarb to Mark Steyn? Perhaps because it is easier, or more rhetorically effective, to paint our adversaries as having weirdly deformed psyches rather than as sharing our broad goal of future improvements for the human condition but disagreeing on how best to get there.
It might also be mentioned that at least one of the major religions of the world imagines that forbidding its clergy to become parents better trains their minds on Eternity.