Oh, Niall....

Over the weekend Niall Ferguson got himself into intellectual hot water over an off-the-cuff response to a question about Keynes in which he suggested that Keynes didn't value the future too much because he was gay, had no heirs, and therefore didn't care about future generations. Now, Keynes's writings here and here would betray the claim that he didn't care about the future. And the whole "someone who's gay must have a reduced shadow of the future" stereotype is hackneyed in the extreme. So, Ferguson was doubly wrong -- and to his credit, he offered up a real apology (not an "I'm sorry if this offended anyone" variant) pretty quickly.

Critical wounds run deep, however. In response to a lot of online discourse that noted his prior observations on Keynes's sexual orientation, Ferguson penned an open letter in the Harvard Crimson. Some highlights:

I was duly attacked for my remarks and offered an immediate and unqualified apology. But this did not suffice for some critics, who insisted that I was guilty not just of stupidity but also of homophobia. I have no doubt that at least some students were influenced by these allegations. Nobody would want to study with a bigot. I therefore owe it to students—former and prospective—to make it unambiguously clear that I am no such thing.

To be accused of prejudice is one of the occupational hazards of public life nowadays.… 

Not for one moment did I mean to suggest that Keynesian economics as a body of thought was simply a function of Keynes’ sexuality. But nor can it be true—as some of my critics apparently believe—that his sexuality is totally irrelevant to our historical understanding of the man. My very first book dealt with the German hyperinflation of 1923, a historical calamity in which Keynes played a minor but important role. In that particular context, Keynes’ sexual orientation did have historical significance. The strong attraction he felt for the German banker Carl Melchior undoubtedly played a part in shaping Keynes’ views on the Treaty of Versailles and its aftermath.…

What the self-appointed speech police of the blogosphere forget is that to err occasionally is an integral part of the learning process. And one of the things I learnt from my stupidity last week is that those who seek to demonize error, rather than forgive it, are among the most insidious enemies of academic freedom.

Now there are two things going on here. First, to what extent does a person's biography affect his or her role in history? And second, just who are these "self-appointed speech police of the blogosphere"?

Ferguson is correct on the first point in general, though I'm not so sure about this particular instance. I'm in the middle of Jeremy Adelman's magisterial biography Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman, for example. One would be hard-pressed to suggest that Hirschman wrote what he wrote about without paying some attention to his life story. So it is entirely appropriate for a historian to talk about Keynes's personal background in trying to suss out why he argued what he argued.

The thing is, Ferguson keeps eliding important details when he talks about the effect of Keynes's sexual preferences on his policy pronouncements. Take the claim that Keynes's attraction to Melchior affected his views on Versailles. Eric Rauchway points out some additional facts not in evidence:

Keynes made early calculations for what Germany should pay in reparations in October, 1918. In “Notes on an Indemnity,” he presented two sets of figures – one “without crushing Germany” and one “with crushing Germany”. He objected to crushing Germany because seeking to extract too much from the enemy would “defeat its object by leading to a condition in which the allies would have to give [Germany] a loan to save her from starvation and general anarchy.” As he put in a revised version of the same memorandum, “If Germany is to be ‘milked’, she must not first of all be ruined.”

Keynes also worried that too large a reparations bill might distort international trade. “An indemnity so high that it can only be paid by means of a great expansion of Germany’s export trade must necessarily interfere with the export trade of other countries.”

The point of mentioning it is that Keynes developed these concerns prior to going to the negotiations and meeting Carl Melchior.

So even if Ferguson is right on general principle, he's misleading on this particular point.

It's the last paragraph of Ferguson's letter that's quite … quite … 2004 in its formulation. Just who are these "self-appointed speech police of the blogosphere" anyway? The most damning indictments of Ferguson's past discussions of Keynes's homosexuality, Ferguson's more contemporary and woefully wrong economic predictions, and Ferguson's recent intellectual dust-ups come from either Business Insider or the Atlantic. Other prominent online critics of Ferguson over the past week have been Justin Wolfers, Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong, and Rauchway. That's three full professors of economics and a full professor of history.

Ferguson's rhetorical trick here is to try to denigrate the content of their criticisms by pointing to the medium. It's a cute gambit in public discourse, and I suspect it will make him and his acolytes feel better. Intellectually, however, that dog won't hunt.

As much fun as it is to dissect Niall Ferguson -- and I won't lie, I've had a lot of fun at his expense -- this sort of thing gets tedious after a spell. So, please, Niall, try to wade into more interesting intellectual waters the next time you make a mistake.

Oh, and stop claiming "academic freedom" as a shield to protect you from public critiques of something you said at an investment conference. That's not how academic freedom works.

Am I missing anything?


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