Niall Ferguson’s latest gaffe is of course laughable. It goes like this.
Keynes was gay, he didn’t have children, so he couldn’t care about the future; thus he urged us to squander our resources in the name of immediate gratification rather than long-term growth. His economic theories promoted moral dissolution as well as economic dissipation.
That’s my paraphrase and amplification, to be sure, but my experience with the other side—the folks who believe fervently in more saving, increased private investment, and less government spending as the obvious cures for what ails us—convinces me that, Ferguson’s abject apology notwithstanding, there is a connection here between the economic and the moral planes of his statements which is worth tracing.
To put it more plainly, when Ferguson reduces Keynesian political economy to the personal life of John Maynard Keynes, he’s developing, not inventing, long-standing tropes that treat macroeconomic problems as moral calendars to be cleared by the decisions of individuals—as when politicians and theorists alike equate government spending and family budgets.
Just take a look at Paul Ryan’s proposals to dismantle the welfare state. You can’t read them as the idiosyncratic ravings of a 19-year old high on Atlas Shrugged, because the Republican Party as such endorsed them, before, during, and after Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. The prefaces are full of statements like this: “A government that buries the next generation under an avalanche of debt cannot claim the moral high ground in the world.” And this: “From a moral perspective, these [entitlement] programs are failing the very people they are intended to help.”
I’m not trying to remind you that Adam Smith was a moral philosopher, or that economists can’t escape the moral implications of their spreadsheets. I’m reminding us that in the last election season, Ferguson praised Ryan in the most effusive manner possible, in the infamous Newsweek cover story (“He blew me away”), and in doing so indicted America—his adopted country—as the “50/50 nation,” where, enabled by the welfare state, half the people had sunk to the level of the dole. Notice: more than 47% of the population were mere hedonists, glad to be getting something for nothing, happily wasting resources that future generations will need.
But Ferguson’s apology makes it clear that his conscience was animated because his unconscious first got the better of him—in a truncated, grotesque, inarticulate form, he expressed the moral philosophy that is both premise and product of the economic theories he sponsors: Without saving or thrift, there can be no future, so Keynes obviously didn’t care about the future (meaning he didn’t care about the grandchildren) because he opposed the deferment of gratification we call saving or thrift. Ferguson and countless others have said this many times before now.
There’s nothing new here, in other words, except the almost explicit correlation with homosexuality; but the connotation of decadence, a word that has no meaning without its sexual implications, has been there all along. And why wouldn’t it be? If you’re locked into the equation of macro and micro—the public good is the sum of private decisions—how do you explain the apparent decline of the work ethic except as a matter of moral decadence, assisted, as in suicide, by the state? And how else to reverse the decline except by recourse to state power?
People with families and children are more likely to sacrifice present desires and needs in the name of the future because they have to, of course, but also because they want to, because they get pleasure from doing so, by observing and validating, in a word reliving, what they have relinquished—the insane and unruly needs of infancy. That is why gay marriage is such a good bet on the future of capitalism; that is why the power of the liberal state will soon be on the side of homosexuality insofar as it can be disciplined by the rituals and vows of monogamy, which permit family as well as children (you can produce the latter without the former).
Still, what Ferguson said was egregious and embarrassing, even in view of what we might call, with apologies to Judith Butler, the new homo-normativity. But he has characterized his own extemporaneous remarks as “doubly stupid,” and pronounced himself “disappointed”—in himself. Why, then, did he make them in the first place, if they were so obviously a violation of his own standards?
Finally, I get to play psychoanalyst. Niall, you couldn’t help yourself. The repressed will always return with a twist, with a vengeance, and usually, if Freud is right about jokes and their relation to the unconscious, they will return with a shocking, comic flourish. Whatever you have repressed, no matter how trivial, will become a big secret, the kind that bursts forth under the most unlikely circumstances. An ex-girlfriend put it this way: “Secrets always have coincidence at their disposal.”
The secret in your case, Niall, is the suppressed rage you feel against all those who are getting something for nothing—consuming without producing—by way of “entitlements” or fake disability claims. You believe these people are using up the resources that future generations will need. You don’t think it, you believe it. You believe that spending without regard to the compound interest that saving provides is like seeking pleasure without a higher purpose, like having sex without any reproductive resolve. You believe that these are not just dangerously hedonistic pursuits, mere spastic moments in the elaboration of consumer culture—like Paul Ryan, you think they’re quite possibly immoral acts.
Now, Niall, you’re an historian, clearly you know that court society and its idiot offspring, our contemporary aristocracy of celebrity, are predicated on indiscretion, in both senses of the word—unlicensed sexuality and unbridled gossip, each an empty category without the other. If kept private, discreet, and titillating, all hedonistic acts—seeking pleasure without a higher purpose—remain random events. They’re just clandestine love affairs without effect on the larger (bourgeois) culture; indeed they validate the moral standards of that culture insofar as they remain “transgressive,” that is, exceptions to the rule. When they become not just public but normal, lacking cultural or legal sanction, they become the rule. That’s what you’re up against. Are you getting this?
Look, the decline of civilization itself must follow, as you, Niall, have tried to prove in your last two books! Meanwhile, though, blame—always remember, it’s the last resource of the dying animal—must be placed. “What caused this?” That’s the question consciousness makes us ask. That’s the question you were answering when you made those stupid impromptu remarks.
But now you need to turn it around. Ask yourself, “Do I really want to place all my bets on the integrity of the family, knowing what I know (as an historian) about its extreme variability over time and its present state? Do I really want to reduce the macro to the micro, the public to the personal, and deduce universal moral principles from this conflation?”
Because if you do keep doubling down on this long shot, in the familiar manner of your conservative colleagues, you’ll keep saying things you will have to admit are stupid, after the fact. You’re behind the times, Niall. Civilization is not at risk because John Maynard Keynes makes more sense of the world—the future—than Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman. Civilization is not at risk because sexuality finally begins to conform to the variety of human experience. You know this at some level of your being, but you can’t admit it except when you’re apologizing, after the fact. Beware, then: this awful knowledge will keep erupting from your unconscious in flagrant ways until you have become the Rush Limbaugh of academe, a bully without a pulpit, a minor disgrace.
So, my advice to you is very simple. Shut the fuck up.