Gay-Baiting Keynes: An Old Conservative Habit Burns Niall Ferguson

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.

15 Comments for “Gay-Baiting Keynes: An Old Conservative Habit Burns Niall Ferguson”

  1. posted by Houndentenor on

    Sullivan’s response was pathetic. I don’t care if he and Furgeson are old friends or not or even that he is Furgeson’s child’s godfather. Plenty of people are a little bit racist while having a minority friend or a lot homophobic while accepting their gay son (Phyllis Schafley, et al.). It’s a homophobic comment and an absurd one.

    I don’t know about the rest of you but I have nieces and nephews. Perhaps that’s not the same as having children but I am concerned about what kind of world they will live in when they are my age. Everyone has younger relatives or has friends with children. Keynes comments were taken out of context. It’s also cruel, even after so much time, to fault someone for not having children when they tried to have children and couldn’t. (Keynes’s wife miscarried.) Meanwhile I can think of plenty of people who DO have children and grandchildren who think nothing of trashing the environment and leaving behind huge financial issues for future generations to deal with. Regardless of one’s political views, it’s easy to think of someone who obviously thinks their heirs will inherit enough money and power so as not to have to deal with the deluge that is eventually coming. Having children and caring about future generations just do not correlate.

  2. posted by Tom Scharbach on

    It is always easier for academics to make supposedly clever quips than to think.

    Refuting Keynes ideas — backing up the claim, for example, that Keynesian economics mortgage the future for the present in a way that other economic theories do not — requires complicated analysis and rigorous thought. It is a lot easier to try to sound clever with a sound bite than it is to do the work.

    And, of course, it gives the droolers a useful sound bite.

    • posted by Houndentenor on

      As if one’s sexuality or fertility has anything to do with the validity of his ideas. Cheap shots like this are an admission that the speaker is not up to the task or critiquing the person’s achievements. He’s obviously in over his head. Harvard charges their outrageous tuition for students to listen to hacks like this?

  3. posted by Don on

    I think it is more a function of projection. Or the bias of one thinking others to think like oneself. How I frame a problem, is not how someone else would. But I am likely to suffer from the biases of my worldview and expect others would approach life in a similar vein. i.e. If I didn’t have children, there is no way i’d be recycling. Or voting for tax increases to pay down my generation’s debt. what have you. but because I do have children, I can’t bring myself to be that selfish. so, those without children are undoubtedly as selfish as I would like to be but can’t without hurting my own children.

    I don’t think that way. But many straight people with children do. They believe the only impulse saving us from ruining the next generation is our selfish investment in our “legacy.”

    I look at nature, my city, and my country as a whole and think to myself “is this place better at all because I was here or worse?” that is all the selfish interest I need to motivate me. but many people aren’t really moved by that.

    my father has lamented frequently that conservatism has become bankrupt in its current form. deficits and stripping our country of its natural resources today with no concern for tomorrow as the antithesis of conservatism. its what the name means for crying out loud. (he says angrily) and yet here we are at “drill, baby, drill” and republicans rejecting eco-friendly labels on products they would otherwise buy.

    I believe this greedy bias some have is a frame of understanding one’s fellows. “I wouldn’t save the planet if my offspring weren’t around” is just not a mindset everyone shares. But I am fairly certain it is one that Niall Ferguson shares.

    Still not convinced? Take a look at how many genuinely straight anti-gay crusaders have sex issues, infidelity and the like. They race to reign in other people’s “unnatural impulses.” It appears clear they know a thing or two about raging “unnatural impulses.”

    • posted by Houndentenor on

      My parents are small-c conservatives. They’ve recycled their whole lives. They started recycling newspapers, glass, metal, etc. when they were small children during WW2 and just never stopped. They go out of their way not to be wasteful. They never littered even when it was standard practice to just throw trash out the car window while driving down a highway. They can’t stand waste and make an attempt never to leave any place or situation in worse shape than they found it. (Preferably they’d leave it better than they found it but at least as good is the bottom line.) Although they identify as conservative still, they have very little in common with what passes for “conservative” in modern politics which often seems to be a gleeful wastefulness just to “piss off Al Gore” or some other nonsense. That’s just assholery, not conservatism. How did we get to this point as a society where people do things not in their own self-interest or in the interest of anyone else just because they think someone on the other end of the political spectrum will disapprove? This is madness.

  4. posted by Don on

    obviously your parents are commie pinkos who hug trees and hate America. i’m sorry to hear you grew up in such a horrible environment.

    I just don’t know how we got here, either. How is there another side to the rape “debate?”

    How is there a “torture debate?” Reagan didn’t think there was one. Why do we think there is one now?

    Drill, baby, drill horrified me. Not because I oppose drilling at all. or reflexively support all renewable energy or even “climate change” But chanting to exhaust our national resources as quickly as possible? Um, hello? Something is seriously wrong here.

  5. posted by razib on

    the only thing that comes to mind in terms of the reaction is that many people are referring to this gay-baiting, if you accept it as gay-baiting, as an *old* conservative habit. strictly true, but gay-baiting was also an old liberal habit. the main difference between the left and right is that the left in the last 10-20 years has turned its back on gay-baiting, while the right has not (it probably will do so within the next 10 years).

  6. posted by May 7 roundup - Overlawyered on

    […] didn’t care about the future” wheeze long predates Niall Ferguson [Kenneth Silber; my new post at IGF, where I've also been posting lately on the topic of […]

  7. posted by Throbert McGee on

    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

    I’ve heard this “wheeze” from some conservatives about gays in general — that we don’t care about the future because we don’t usually procreate.

    My response is that I’d be happy to concede this point if conservatives concede that this line of reasoning must also apply to the Catholic clergy and the Apostle Paul…

    • posted by Throbert McGee on

      this line of reasoning must also apply to the Catholic clergy and the Apostle Paul…

      Yeah, I know that Walter’s post already referred to clerical celibacy in the RCC. But I wanted to throw in that point about Paul, because it’s worth making the point again and again that essentially zero percent of conservative Christian parents ever say to their straight children: “Oh, your father and I just wish ever so much that you could ‘abide’ and stay celibate your entire life like St. Paul did — heterosexual marriage is for people who have no self-control!”
      [1st Corinthians 7:8-9]

      • posted by Throbert McGee on

        Just to be clear for non-Christians, the Apostle Paul did NOT prohibit marriage for followers of Jesus; in fact, he specifically said that any such general ban on marriage was itself a heresy [1st Timothy 4:1-3].

        He just thought that marriage was inferior to celibacy — a position that hardly any Christians sincerely believe themselves, or recommend to their kids!

      • posted by Tom Scharbach on

        Paul thought the re-coming of the Jesus was imminent; he did not care much about the future, except in eschatological terms.

        • posted by Throbert McGee on

          Paul thought the re-coming of the Jesus was imminent

          A point on which millions of Left Behind readers agree… yet they still don’t tell their kids “Marriage is for those who cannot abide celibacy.”

          Also, Left Behind readers do not, in general, endorse the view that “It is better to gay-marry than to burn with gay-passion…”

          • posted by Tom Scharbach on

            Far be it from me to suggest that Christians pay any attention to their own theology, or are consistent in applying any of it to their own lives. I was just pointing out that Paul seems to have thought that the future was irrelevant except in eschatological terms, and that would explain his views about the relative importance of marriage and procreation. If there isn’t going to be a next generation, marriage and procreation don’t matter.

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