04 May 2013
Idiot of the week: Niall Ferguson
Political conservatives tend to dislike John Maynard Keynes because they tend to be fiscal conservatives and dislike the idea of deficit spending under almost any circumstances. Conservative economists have theoretical issues with Keynesianism and have warned since Keynes's own time of dangerous long-term consequences of deficit spending designed to stimulate demand. Keynes himself famously shrugged off with the aphorism, "In the long term we are all dead." For some observers, an inferred refusal to think in the long term -- defenders say this is a misinterpretation of Keynes -- reveals a character flaw in the economist. Neocon historian Niall Ferguson specializes in economics, but in an unguarded or unexpectedly recorded moment this week he assailed Keynes in ad hominem terms. Though long married to a Russian ballerina, Keynes is understood to have been bisexual if not essentially homosexual. For Ferguson, this means that Keynes was indifferent to the long term because he had no interest in future generations, since he had no interest in reproduction. A magazine editor called Ferguson out for his homophobic commentary, and the chagrined historian has apologized. While retaining his prerogative to criticize Keynes's economic theories, Ferguson acknowledges that his remarks linking them to Keynes's sexuality were "stupid" and "insensitive." It may be unfair to designate him Idiot of the Week after that, since he has shown more conscience and contrition than most previous nominees, but those comments were really, really stupid, and they don't just vanish after you apologize. They illustrate perfectly the ad hominem tendency of many conservatives -- there is arguably a similar tendency on the left to attribute conservatism universally to greed -- to assume that thoughts contrary to theirs aren't just wrong but wicked, that to be other than conservative, whether on questions of politics, sexuality or economics, is a character flaw. However disciplined their intellect or rigorous their scholarship, they seem to have an irrepressible impulse to take their disagreements out of the realms of intellect and scholarship. I'd call that a character flaw if it didn't look hypocritical. But if there are such things as character flaws, that's more likely to be one than homosexuality.