Harvard historian Niall Ferguson apologized Saturday for having said that economist John Maynard Keyes did not care about future generations because he was gay and had no children.
The question I want to raise here is the over-all logic of Ferguson’s underlying reasoning. What makes him continually make embarrassing and simple errors of fact, as with his attack on Obama last summer, which Newsweek did not bother to fact-check before publication.
I would argue that the reason that conservatives like Ferguson hate Keynes is that Keynes demonstrated conclusively that when the economy goes into a deep recession or depression, the only way to get back out of it is for the government to increase spending. Contemporary conservatives do not want to admit that government plays an indispensable set of economic roles. They want to believe that the corporations can get along just fine without the state. Economists and economic historians often take money from corporate interests to address them or even write studies that flatter their prejudices. Paul Krugman once wondered, after the 2008 meltdown, why so many academic and professional economists are so anti-Keynesian, given the impressive record of correct prediction attendant on the Keynsian enterprise. I am more cynical. I don’t have to guess. I think some, or many, are corrupted by the big money that flows from upholding the independent role of capital and from belittling government efforts.
Ferguson’s outrageous polemic is an example of the ad hominem fallacy. Instead of demonstrating that Keynes’s theory is faulty (which no one has yet done), Ferguson attempted to smear Keynes and deprive him of standing in intellectual debate by calling him a deviant. That is what many conservatives after all believe gays are, and the childlessness charge is a none too subtle reference to the supposedly ‘unnatural’ character of homosocial love, which is ‘childless,’ in contrast with the biblical injunction ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (which, however, is manifestly very bad advice.
Why does conservatism even have the implicit category of the deviant lurking in the back of its collective mind?
Contemporary Conservatism erects a social hierarchy, with wealthy heterosexual Westerners (and their compradors) at the top, and other groups queuing behind them from below. The wealthy Western heterosexuals are autonomous wealth-creators, constantly dragged down by the foolish impulse to regulate inherent in the government, which in any case represents the unwashed hoi polloi.
Ferguson’s remarks come on top of another conservative Harvard scandal, as a 2010 paper by economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff , which argued that deficit spending by governments hurt growth. The incorrect paper has been widely cited by proponents of ‘austerity’ (cutbacks in government spending in bad economic times, the opposite policy of the one Keynes found essential), including by Paul Ryan. Once the authors’ errors are subtracted, it becomes clear that Keynes was once again right. Governments have to spend their ways out of deep recessions and depressions. Austerity policies produce economic basket cases like today’s Spain. But, they protect the capital of the 1%, which is all that matters to the lapdogs of the one percent.
Ferguson is so tied to the demonstrably false Reinhart-Rogoff paper that he continues to defend it even after its own authors are backpedaling furiously, and continues to attack Paul Krugman, whose papers won him a Nobel prize; they noticeably lack glaring excel spreadsheet errors. (Excel? Seriously?)
The hierarchies are not only economic or rooted in style of life. Ferguson’s Western triumphalism is well-known. I was at a conference where his comments about the (perfectly nice) Oxford Islamic Center was brought up, and he shouted, “They’re in Oxford!” Ferguson thinks it was a good thing for Oxford graduates to run, and loot, Muslim countries at gunpoint during the past two centuries, but is appalled that Muslim intellectuals might turn up for peaceful academic discussions in the old college town. He was all for the Iraq War and only carped that it couldn’t be successful unless the US committed to run Iraq for decades. Presumably this is because Iraqis (Muslims after all) are juveniles that need the firm adult Western hand. The Conservative fascination with reviving a long dead and impracticable Empire is just one more manifestation of a desire for social hierarchy. The imperial masters are on top.
The creation of social hierarchies, with people with ‘good’ attributes on top and others seen as somehow incomplete or deformed, is central to contemporary conservative social thought. Christians (or, in some versions, Christians and/or secularists)? Good. Heterosexuals? Good. Muslims and gays? distinctly inferior. Moreover, the government is the mechanism whereby the second-class citizens can engineer changes in regulations that rein in the alleged money-makers, and so it is intrinsically problematic and should be crippled as much as possible.
In contrast, progressive thought sees all human beings as equally worthy with regard to their ascriptive or primordial identities. They see the state as a necessary guardian of the welfare of the 99%, who otherwise will be systematically taken advantage of by the super-wealthy or other dominant elites. For progressives, the question isn’t whether someone is gay or Muslim but whether someone is a self-absorbed prima donna who stands in the way of others bettering themselves.