Harvard professor Niall Ferguson’s belief, caught on the hop, that John Maynard Keynes’s homosexuality and lack of children led to recklessness when it came to the effects of his economic theories is widespread among conservatives, though few are foolish enough to express it out loud. At a conference in California last week, the prolific contrarian Ferguson “asked the audience how many children Keynes had. He explained that Keynes had none because he was a homosexual and was married to a ballerina, with whom he likely talked of ‘poetry’ rather than procreated.” Keynes’s lack of children and grandchildren, Ferguson implied, is why he blithely proposed large-scale long-term debt.
After a barrage of complaints, Ferguson – an economic adviser to John McCain, a conservative Newsweek/Beast blogger (typical headline, “Hit the Road, Barack”) and, between book tours and big-fee speaking engagements, sometime history professor at Harvard – was obliged to issue an abject apology. “It is simply false to suggest, as I did, that [Keynes’s] approach to economic policy was inspired by any aspect of his personal life,” he bleated. “My colleagues, students, and friends – straight and gay – have every right to be disappointed in me, as I am in myself. To them, and to everyone who heard my remarks at the conference or has read them since, I deeply and unreservedly apologize.” Brenda Lee could not have sung it better.
Ferguson’s retraction appeared to be more to save his skin than to confess his many errors. While Harvard may tolerate an historian who regularly misrepresents macroeconomics, to smear the greatest economist of the twentieth century for being gay and without issue may well jeopardize his valuable tenure. (Ferguson can afford to lose both gigs: his jobs portfolio also includes: a chair at the Harvard Business School; membership of the faculty of Harvard’s Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies; a chair at Oxford University; a fellowship at the Hoover Institution at Stanford; a post with the British Conservatives advising on history syllabuses in schools; and an “advisory fellowship” at the Barsanti Military History Center at North Texas University.)
Ferguson’s “apology” is hard to credit because he has suggested before that Keynes’s economic advice to a succession of British prime ministers over 30 years was inspired not so much by the brilliance of his mind but by his homosexuality. Ferguson wrote that Keynes’s private opposition to World War One – despite his distaste for the slaughter, Keynes loyally worked for the British Treasury throughout, negotiated American loans that funded the Allied war effort, and advised against the disastrous Treaty of Versailles – was because “the war itself made Keynes deeply unhappy. Even his sex life went into decline, perhaps because the boys he liked to pick up in London all joined up.” The problem with flip history is that eventually those who hold the purse strings catch up with the backlog of nonsense. Cheap shots can turn out to be expensive.
So, what’s the truth? For the first half of his life, Keynes was exclusively homosexual. Notwithstanding the illegality of all gay acts in the UK at the time, he was promiscuous. He used to keep a book in which he listed boys he had had and boys he would like to have. He did not disguise his tendencies and the political leaders he mixed with knew he was gay.