Niall Ferguson’s history with Keynes

By Felix Salmon
May 7, 2013

Brad DeLong has found a 1995 article by Niall Ferguson which pretty much puts the lie to Ferguson’s claim about his take on John Maynard Keynes. Here’s what Ferguson now says:

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.

And here’s what he wrote in 1995:

Research in German archives shows that Keynes’s critique of the Versailles Treaty was based on anything but dispassionate economic analysis. Few, if any, of its readers can have appreciated how far the ideas contained in The Economic Consequences of the Peace — the book which made him a celebrity — were actually inspired by members of the German peace delegation at the Versailles conference. Still fewer knew that their appeal to him owed as much to his homosexuality as to his Germanophilia.

Ferguson writes that “the attraction Keynes felt” for the German representative Carl Melchior “strongly influenced his judgment”, and adds for good measure that “those familiar with Bloomsbury will appreciate why Keynes fell so hard for the representative of an enemy power”. Here’s the whole thing:

This is a slightly different argument, of course, to the idiotic remarks Ferguson made at a conference in California last week, where he said that Keynes didn’t care about future generations because he was gay and didn’t have children. If those remarks were, in Ferguson’s own words, “doubly stupid”, then maybe his Spectator article is maybe only singly stupid. Except it was carefully written, edited, and committed to print: Ferguson can’t claim that his article was merely a regrettable “off-the-cuff” error.

At first blush, Ferguson’s apology is full and unqualified. But in light of this and other information, it seems that Ferguson has rather more to apologize for than a single verbal response to a question from Paul McCulley. Either Ferguson still believes today what he wrote in 1995, or else he has changed his mind and now believes that what he wrote back then is “simply false”. It’s about time he clears this up.

Update: It seems we can’t take Ferguson’s apology at face value after all. In an ill-tempered letter written to the Harvard Crimson, Ferguson says that he can’t be prejudiced because he has a Somalian wife and a gay friend; says that “the strong attraction Keynes felt for the German banker Carl Melchior undoubtedly played a part in shaping Keynes’ views on the Treaty of Versailles and its aftermath”; and adds that Keynes and the other members of the Bloomsbury Group “had no doubt at all that sexual orientation had a significance beyond the narrow confines of the bedroom, and that intellectual life and emotional life were intertwined”. I guess it’s not “simply false” after all to suggest that Keynes’s approach to economic policy was inspired by any aspect of his personal life.

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