Perhaps Niall Ferguson Had A Point About Keynes
If you pay attention to economic debates you know by now that a celebrity historian named Niall Ferguson made some off-hand comments at a financial conference in which he linked John Maynard Keynes’ homosexuality to some flaws in his economics. The story was picked up by Financial Advisor Magazine in an article which took a strong stance against Ferguson’s remarks. The story was picked up by the mainstream press, ran like wildfire burning with angry denunciations, and Ferguson predictably confessed and recanted.
The signals have been sent: the Keynes/homosexuality/theoretical distortion theory is not only wrong, it is blasphemy, punishable by instant anathematization and career immolation, at least as far as academic and corporate life are concerned. Even some conservative commentators have denounced Ferguson and, to the degree that he has found ‘defenders’ on the right such as Mark Steyn, their contributions have been more along the lines of pointing out the thought-police-like response to Ferguson than actually defending the theory itself.
But fear not, Grand and not-so-grand Inquisitors, your wood pile will not go to waste. I intend to defend the notion that Keynes’ sexual outlook is likely to have distorted his views of economics. So light your matches, I’ll don my asbestos pajamas and we can get started.
Future orientation…in the long run we’re all dead.
This is one of the weaker versions of the philoandrogenic theory of Keynesian error. Austrian economist Hans-Herman Hoppe proposed this idea during a class lecture, and was chastised by the university for which he works. Lew Lehrman, the legendary entrepreneur and gold standard advocate, has also made the same argument, but he’s a bit too big to bully. I’ve made this point too, but I’m too small to bother to try to bully.
Critics have immolated various straw man versions of the argument, such as the idea that it implies that homosexuals can’t care about future generations, or the fact that Keynes as a middle aged man, to the shock of his coterie of friends and lovers (basically the same list,) married and perhaps even tried to have a child. Or that since gay people have higher savings rates than straight people it must be that they are at least as concerned about the future as straight people. And finally, there is the unusual call that when evaluating the political philosophies of at least this one dead white European male, we must leave his personal life out of the discussion. And another group, which apparently didn’t get the memo about the untouchability of personal lives, went on to describe Ferguson’s divorce and remarriage in salacious detail.
But only among the chattering classes would it appear to be perfectly clear that having children has no effect whatsoever on one’s long-term view. Speaking for myself, I really grew up at age 23 when I first became a father. We’ve had long discussions in the library, on the porch and on the patio with other couples who all say the same thing: having children changes everything, and it starts with your view of the future. Of course people can become connected to the future by other means, and unmarried or childless people are not predestined to inevitable generational solipsism, but it’s just plain ideological blindness to think that this comes as easily or as often without family formation and children.
Now, I can see the left having some trouble with this; it has long had an ambivalent relationship with fertility, but the right has long talked about the way in which children form future orientation. Whittaker Chambers’ Witness and his conversion away from communism both begin with the contemplation of his newborn son’s ear. Supply-side founding father George Gilder first suggested in the 1970s, and continues to suggest, that women civilize men through the institution of marriage, and children give them an enhanced long-term perspective.
The fact that some gays adopt now, bond with their adopted children and by so doing are helped to connect themselves with future generations is beside the point. The point is not how it works now, but how it worked then. Keynes did not adopt and there is no record that he attempted to. His sexual diary (yes, he kept an extensive sexual diary) includes references to liaisons with “boys” well into his adult years and in at least one case the age is specified at 16.
There are also approving witticisms in correspondence in which Keynes urged his lover and protégé Lytton Strachey to tour Tunis “where bed and boy are also not expensive.” Keynes and his sexual circle often toured those nations which were well known as sexual tourism locations for Westerners interested in pederasty with child sexual slaves. This kind of bonding with future generations we don’t need.
Now, of course, the suggestions of some commentators might have been wrong. Keynes’ exploits with underage boys may not have included child prostitutes. It is also true that Thomas Jefferson may not have had sex with his slave Sally Hemmings (the DNA proves only that a member of the Jefferson family, not he himself impregnated her.) My suggestion is that unproven, though circumstantially strong, speculations about sex with slaves be treated the same way for Mr. Jefferson as for Mr. Keynes.
Then, of course, there is the matter of Keynes’ late in life marriage to the Russian ballerina, Lydia Lopokova, which biographer (Judith Mackrell) thought proved that it is “Hard to count the ways in which Niall Ferguson was wrong” about all of this. Lopokova and Keynes said that they wanted to have a baby but did not succeed. Some biographers say they conceived and then miscarried, though Mackrell disagrees arguing that despite their active sex life it never evidenced itself in a conception because Keynes was in his mid-40s and a smoker. Or maybe because Lydia had multiple early abortions.
None of this seems iron clad enough for the tone of chastisement against Ferguson. Yes, maybe they really were sexually active and that being 44 and a smoker somehow acted as a powerful contraceptive. But all of this really misses the point, doesn’t it? If Keynes really did switch from homosexuality to bisexuality in mid-life (even Mackrell is clear that Keynes and Lopokova clashed over his desire to have an open bisexual marriage), what does that have to do with the earlier period in which the distinctive tenets of Keynesianism were formed? At the time of his revolt against classical economics, he was deeply ensconced in a thoroughly bohemian homosexual subculture.
If later in life he decided to commence “starting to work on population,” how does this prove that Keynes earlier homosexuality did not influence his economic theory? On the contrary, Keynes change of heart may even support the Homosexual/Keynesian link by explaining reports that the middle-aged Keynes began to be concerned about the phenomenon of Keynesian models being taken too far by zealous disciples giving carte blanche to government spending and other market distortions. There are reports that some of his disciples thought that he had gone senile and that he told Hayek that he had been rethinking many of these ideas, not long before he died. Whether Keynes’ marriage and procreative attempts helped him to reform his views in mid-life or not, it seems odd to think that somehow those changes prove that there can be no possible link between his exclusive homosexuality and his economics twenty years earlier.
Misogyny and the Higher Sodomy
But as I said, I don’t think that the lack of procreation is really the strongest link between Keynes’ sexual views and his economics, anyway. To understand this one must first understand the nature of Keynes’ sexual philosophy. He was not ‘gay’ in the modern sense of the world, fighting against prejudice and bullying from a bigoted establishment. Keynes and his circle were the establishment, whose prejudice led them to bully others. The Cambridge Apostles is the definitive book on the group in which Keynes lived and moved and had his being. He and his circle embraced what they called ‘the higher sodomy’ which was based on the idea, not just that sodomy should be tolerated, but that everything else was inferior. The philosophy of the higher sodomy held that the highest form of human relations was one in which men of refinement, intellect, class and aesthetic superiority combined their male friendships with sexual relations. To go to the club and converse with men of high intellect and then to have to go home to the little woman is a lower life, a falling short of the higher sodomy.
As Strachey’s biographer put it:
“They thought that love of young men was a higher form of love. They had been brought up and educated to believe that women were inferior —in mind and body. If from the ethical point of view . . . love should be attached only to worthy objects, then love of young men was, they believed, ethically better than love of women.”
We have to avoid anachronisms here: Keynes was not the friend of the bride in a modern rom-com, who loved to gossip with the girls. He was drenched in, and in some ways intensified, a culture of misogyny which was characteristic of both his particular era and of his academic milieu. The movement to sexually integrate British universities was a matter of great debate during Keynes’ time at Cambridge. The intensity of feeling is hard for modern people to imagine: Dorothy Sayers’ excellent mystery, Gaudy Night, uses this as the backdrop to a series of crimes and provides Sayers, a Christian feminist (and the only female member of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien’s famous Inklings literary society,) with the opportunity to make the case for women’s equality. Keynes himself actively criticized integration, at least in his own case, opposed having women in his classroom. He went so far as to say that he found female modes of thinking repellant:
“I think I shall have to give up teaching females after this year. The nervous irritation caused by two hours’ contact with them is intense. I seem to hate every movement of their minds. The minds of the men, even when they are stupid and ugly, never appear to me so repellent”
Now if Keynes were just the president of the He Man Woman Haters Club, Cambridge Chapter, he would just be unlikeable as a man, but not as an economist. The problem is that Keynes had an unusual habit of thinking of economic theory in sexual and gender terms.
According to my friend Mark Skousen in his classic The Making of Modern Economics:
Historians Elizabeth and Harry Johnson even went so far as to suggest that Keynes’s misogynistic attitude extended to his theories about saving and investing. The Johnsons noted that Keynes and his followers often referred to savings as female and investment as male. Female saving was usually seen in a negative light and male investment in a positive way. The maleness of investment is attested to by among other things the frequent references by Joan Robinson and other Cambridge writers to ‘the animal spirits’ of entrepreneurs; the femaleness of savings is evident in the passive role assigned to savings in the analysis of the determination of employment equilibrium.” (Johnson 1978: 121). Keynes himself wrote in his Treatise on Money “Thus, thrift may be the handmaid and nurse of enterprise. But equally she may not.”(1930, 2: 132).
He was committed to the theories of Sigmund Freud, which held that even the most rarified heights of intellectual life were the sublimated effects of subconscious sexual impulses. For Keynes, savings was a distinctively feminine preoccupation. Women, guardians of hearth and home, were the advocates of thrift, whereas active investment (driven by animal spirits) and expenditures were a masculine matter. Beneath all of this economic activity were sexual drives, ‘the fetish for liquidity’, the ‘neurosis’ of money getting.
Keynes was a man who exhibited what most of us would see as an almost pathological preference for exclusively male intellectual and sexual companionship specifically because of the great admiration for the male mind and disdain for the female one, who disapproved of the presence of women in his economics classes, who found women’s thinking patterns repugnant and who associated savings with feminine reticence. Is it really such an unforgiveable sin to take these facts and to surmise that his odd sexual views might be related to his odd economic views? Is it really right that anyone who suggests that they are connected should be drummed out of polite society?
The revolt against “Puritanism”.
Then, as now, the question of homosexuality was intimately connected with the question of God. Lytton Strachey, for whom Keynes was a long-term lover, close friend and benefactor, described him as “a liberal and a sodomite, an atheist and a statistician.” There are few who knew Keynes as well as Strachey, who basically ran the Bloomsbury Circle which Keynes funded. Bloomsbury saw all of these things as related, so who are modern progressives to retroactively go back and declare that there was some sort of hermetically sealed distinction between ideas and private lives? There was nothing private at all about the ‘higher sodomy:’ Strachey openly declared that the goal of their work was to take these ideas, including homosexuality, and promote them through their intellectual and literary output. For free-market (and fellow atheist) economist Murray Rothbard, Keynes’ rather idiosyncratic sexual life was related to his rather idiosyncratic views on statistical theory. According to Rothbard’s biography of Keynes, his treatise on statistics seemed to be designed to stop the formation of chains of causation and to sever actions from consequences.
Atheism was central to the identity of the Cambridge Apostles. Their creed, according to one of their more prominent members, was, “In the beginning was matter, and matter begat the devil, and the devil begat God.” The club once debated whether to permit God as a prospective member as though He were a freshman trying to join. He was rejected and the club, Keynes included, chanted “God out! God out!” Keynes’ generation of the Apostles produced some of the most influential atheists of the 20th century including GE Moore and Bertrand Russell as well as Keynes himself.
From a 1938 paper by Keynes:
“In our opinion, one of the greatest advantages of his [Moore’s, atheistic] religion was that it made morals unnecessary….We entirely repudiated a personal liability on us to obey general rules. We claimed the right to judge every individual case on its merits, and the wisdom to do so successfully. This was a very important part of our faith, violently and aggressively held, and for the outer world it was our most obvious and dangerous characteristic. We repudiated entirely customary morals, conventions and traditional wisdom. We were, that is to say, in the strict sense of the term, immoralists.”
What has all this to do with economics? Plenty. If there is one element of Keynesianism which stands above the rest as constituting a break with classical economics it is the rejection of the morality of spending self-discipline. Keynes argued for the idea which he called ‘the paradox of thrift,’ which held that accumulation of savings, which had been thought of by the Victorian generation (which Keynes and his circle rejected) as a virtue, was in fact harmful. Principles like thrift should be rejected in the modern world. Principles in general were to be repudiated. Concerns about spending and debt were rejected by Keynes who called them “puritan.” Is it really so unthinkable that Keynes and his circle’s rejection of God, virtue, and sexual puritanism outside of economics was related to his rejection of fixed principle, virtues such as thrift and puritan ethics in the practice of managing economies?
Clearly Ferguson did not present this wide array of pieces of evidence to support his thesis, and perhaps he was unaware of all of this. Or perhaps he simply did not have the stomach for this fight. I got to know Ferguson as a guest on my radio program and in some correspondence after. This was before he was a full-on celebrity intellectual. I’ve followed his career since then. It’s perfectly clear that he is a Keynesian himself, though somewhat on the right wing of Keynes rather than his left wing. Having not made a decisive break with the Keynesian establishment himself, what would be the point of waging war with it, and being expelled? Guys who do that may well shield themselves from the errors of Keynesian economics, but they don’t get asked to produce documentaries for PBS.
The world which Keynes built dominates academic economics. It is a world in which the vast majority of our business economists and analysts have been trained, and has been the basis of monetary policy during most of the Fed’s history. But as for the large large swaths of the world which do not believe in atheism and the ideals of the higher sodomy, don’t we have the right to think out loud and express concern about the possibility that the world built by Keynes is a world built on one man’s idiosyncratic personal religious and sexual views, which most of us do not share?
Article originally published on Forbes.com.