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Sunday, 5 May 2013

Niall Ferguson, John Maynard Keynes - and an Offence too Fast?

The historian Niall Ferguson is in hot water for saying that John Maynard Keynes' economic theories were influenced by the fact that he was gay and childless. This then suggests that we should read his famous statement, "In the long run, we are all dead" as an expression of lack of interest in the future - and occasioned by the fact that, having no children, he had no stake in the future. Apparently, Ferguson is not the first person to advance this idea - though he has done so in reply to a conference questioner rather than a developed essay.

If someone had put this idea to Keynes, my guess is that he might have replied, "That's interesting but I don't think it's true. After all, when I handle investments on behalf of my College, I am often thinking of the long term".  He could also have replied, "That's a bit offensive. It's like saying that because I am gay I am uncaring." A lot would depend on the tone of voice: there is some difference between a polite  "Professor Keynes, do you think your economic theories are influenced by the fact ....?" and a rather aggressive, "You only think that because you're gay and childless" (And note that "You only think that because ..." is the kind of thing which people in intimate relationships sometimes hurl at each other).

I am not sure that he would have got into a tizz and demanded Retraction! Apology! which is what has been demanded of Ferguson (who has done both).

There is something wrong with a political correctness which has only one response to a thought which it doesn't like : Retract! Apologise! Grovel! It sometimes looks like simple intolerance of difference - in this case, different ways of viewing the world.

Now I am pretty sure that different ways of viewing the world are going to be around for some time yet. Best to get over it. Some people are going to go on being wrong-headed whether you like it or not and we have to find a way of living with them. I don't think outraged Tweets are the answer. They just sound like unpleasantness to me - but then I am not a Tweeter. [ See footnote below]

Political correctness plays a vital role when it puts a stop to prejudice and discrimination which condemn other people to lives which are lesser than they could and ought to be. And over a few decades, political correctness has worked: people who were once excluded and limited by an enormous weight of false opinion and institutional discrimination are now included and free to make the most of their lives.

Ironically, some of those who benefit from political correctness promptly sign up to Conservative political parties and ghastly institutions like the Roman Catholic Church - rather as the children of immigrant refugees sometimes become vocal opponents of immigration. Am I being intolerant if I raise my eyebrows at that?

From that thought, I draw the conclusion that at one time or another, on some issue or another, we all behave like Pots and Kettles. I don't see an easy solution. But even if prudence dictates a measure of silence on some subjects, I take comfort  that - unlike Keynes - we're not living in the 1930s and are therefore free to tell Stalin jokes.

Footnote added 7th May 2013: Judith Mackrell, biographer of Keynes's wife, Lydia Lopovka, offers a reasoned rebuttal of Ferguson in today's Guardian. She points out that he was bi-sexual rather than gay, and that he and his wife wanted children. In addition, she reminds us of Keynes's self-sacrificing efforts through the early 1940s to lay the foundations of a post-war world economic order, eventually formalised in the Bretton Woods agreement. It is commonly thought that Keynes hastened his own death by overwork.

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