Edmund Burke to Niall Ferguson: You know nothing of my work. You mean my whole theory is wrong. How you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing.

A minor footnote to the controversy over Niall Ferguson’s homophobic remarks about John Maynard Keynes. Ferguson claimed that the key to Keynes’s economic philosophy is a selfishness and short-termism rooted in the fact that Keynes was gay and had no children. No kids=no future=big deficits.

What is supposed to have prompted Ferguson to these meditations was a question comparing Keynes to Edmund Burke. According to the main report, “Ferguson responded to a question about Keynes’ famous philosophy of self-interest versus the economic philosophy of Edmund Burke, who believed there was a social contract among the living, as well as the dead.” As Ferguson explained in the apology he subsequently issued, “The point I had made in my presentation was that in the long run our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are alive, and will have to deal with the consequences of our economic actions.”

You’d think, for Ferguson’s claim to work, Edmund Burke would have sired a boatload of kids, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. In actual fact, he had one child, which, if my math is right, is only one more than Keynes had.  Not exactly the stuff of which allegedly grand differences of economic philosophy (self-interest versus the social good) are made. And that one child—Edmund’s son Richard—died in 1794, three years before Burke died. In other words, Burke left no one behind.

Maybe that’s why Burke’s economic philosophy put such stress on the vile self-interested short-termism Ferguson is supposed to have detected in the childless gay Keynes. As he wrote after his son died:

There must be some impulse besides public spirit, to put private interest into motion along with it. Monied men ought to be allowed to set a value on their money; if they did not, there would be no monied men. This desire of accumulation is a principle without which the means of their service to the State could not exist. The love of lucre, though sometimes carried to a ridiculous, sometimes to a vicious excess, is the grand cause of prosperity to all States. In this natural, this reasonable, this powerful, this prolific principle, it is for the satirist to expose the ridiculous; it is for the moralist to censure the vicious; it is for the sympathetick heart to reprobate the hard and cruel; it is for the Judge to animadvert on the fraud, the extortion, and the oppression: but it is for the Statesman to employ it as he finds it; with all it’s concomitant excellencies, with all it’s imperfections on it’s head. It is his part, in this case, as it is in all other cases, where he is to make use of the general energies of nature, to take them as he finds them.


  1. jonbutter2 May 4, 2013 at 7:58 pm | #

    It’s almost impossible that Ferguson really believes there is a direct causal relationship between one’s having children, and one’s economic ‘probity’ (or whatever); he surely would not affirm, if cornered, that a childless heterosexual couple would necessarily be profligate or selfish in…er..an economic policy sense. Clearly he means that homosexuals by nature lack common humanity – lack the capacity of having the full, mature, humanity that Normal people do (they probably can’t help it, poor buggers). Nice Niall.

    BTW, around the same page in Ferguson’s book, he ascribes to social pressure from the Bloomsbury cabal Keynes’ growing unhappiness about the course of hte Great War and Britain’s prospects therein. Yeah, it HAD to have been pressure from the Bloomsburys! Nothing depressing about the war itself, of course. Niall also makes sure to get in there that Keynes unhappiness was also due to the fact that the ‘young boys he favored’ were no longer available, since they had all ‘joined up’.

    Dissipated; fey; solipsistic; molesting. You know how those finoccios are…

    What an unbelievable pig Ferguson is. yow.

    • jonbutter2 May 5, 2013 at 8:18 am | #

      Shame on me for not reading Ferguson’s full apology before commenting. Not that the apology makes sense.

      Andrew Sullivan is knitting his eyebrows furiously over this one. ‘How can Ferguson be friends with me, an HIV positive gay man, and yet flog homophobic crap in his books and on the speaking circuit?’ (paraphrase). How indeed, Andrew? If Sullivan really understood the ideology he claims as his own, he would notice that modern reactionaries are generally quick to show that they don’t have problems with individual gay or black or [fill in the blank] people (some of their best friends are..!). Left unsaid is that they exploit general racial/sexual/ethnic fear and loathing constantly, but cooly – for career purposes. Surely that’s morally worse than bovine, but honest, bigotry.

  2. Maddy May 4, 2013 at 8:41 pm | #

    How Niall Ferguson ever got to be called a ‘historian’ is astounding. This is just further proof that he only writes pseudo-historical populist drivel that has no basis in fact.

    • Dafydd Roberts May 5, 2013 at 4:13 pm | #

      The same way as the Harvard “intellectual historian” Peter E. Gordon, who has opinions on a great number of subjects but a very shaky grasp on intellectual history:


      • stephenkmacksd May 5, 2013 at 5:36 pm | #

        Dafydd Roberts,
        Thank you for posting this. I was just reading Professor Gordon’s review at The New Republic. I thought his book Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos was exceptional in every way. The lesson might, at least for the wise academic, be to not stray too far from one’s area of specialization.

  3. Glenn May 4, 2013 at 11:10 pm | #

    “Many right wingers tend to minimize [Milton?] Freidman’s subsequent role in advising the Pinochet dictatorship. Ferguson celebrates it. We see the economist counseling the dictator that “the end of inflation,” to be achieved through massive cuts in social spending, “will lead to a rapid expansion of the capital market, which will greatly facilitate the transfer of enterprises and activities still in the hands of the government to the private sector.” Ferguson concedes that University of Chicago-trained economists made a “huge moral gamble” by “getting into bed with a murderous, torturing military dictator.” But this paid off marvelously, at least if you believe that “economic reforms helped pave the way back to a sustainable democracy in Chile”–albeit seventeen years and thirty thousand tortured citizens later.”


    • jonbutter2 May 5, 2013 at 7:56 am | #

      Have to admire the Chicago Boys for having the courage to make this huge moral gamble with somebody else’s country, a gamble which so obviously ‘paid off’ in the proverbial ‘long run’.

  4. BillR May 5, 2013 at 10:43 am | #

    Niall Ferguson has always been a nasty “Raj” chauvinist as an Indian pointed out (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n21/pankaj-mishra/watch-this-man) but he had the chutzpah to marry a black African woman–albeit one who specializes in anti-Muslim scare-mongering and has a record of fabricating her entire life-history: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z82C10myBmM . But, like the Neocons of yore, his supremacist writings went entirely undetected by his fellow whites, even if they were obvious to everyone else, but then he got cocky and started giving freer vent to his bile and was caught out:


  5. stephenkmacksd May 5, 2013 at 11:31 am | #

    In an interview some years ago in The Guardian Prof. Ferguson made some very nasty remarks about Britain, and bragged that his children were born in America, and therefore had no tie to his home country. An echo of ‘a bitch gone in the teeth’? Perhaps his hasty and rather disingenuous apology is simply CYA, in the interest of protecting his professorship at Harvard. Even though his record of homophobia is well documented. Isn’t it all about the care and maintenance of academic respectability, without regard for those unpleasant historical facts, in texts and the memories of colleagues?

  6. bevin May 6, 2013 at 11:51 am | #

    You are right: what is interesting about Ferguson’s entirely predictable Blimpish homophobia is that it reveals his complete ignorance of Burke, a figure who ought to loom large in the history of Empire.
    Actually Burke’s rather sad and undignified attempts to preserve his line, through his son Richard (he had another Christopher who died infancy) was exemplified both in the way poor Richard was pushed far beyond his capacity or, I suspect, his wishes and in the pretentious lifestyle he maintained on his farm. None of which was unrelated to the affected ruthlessness of his economics and his legitimism.
    Then there is the relationship with his “cousin” Richard, a very different sort of man

  7. Administrator May 7, 2013 at 11:37 am | #

    Niall Ferguson in ’95 saying Keynes opposed Versailles Treaty in part because he had the hots for German ambassador http://t.co/6fps2nHrZZ (via @resnikoff)

    Read this link tweeted by Ned Resnikoff before reading NF’s apology.

  8. John May 11, 2013 at 6:41 pm | #

    Using the same “logic” re not having children and therefore being hostile towards the future the same should be said of celibate “catholic” priests and nuns, including of course the pope. So too with members of lay outfits such as opus dei, the senior members of which choose to be celibate.
    And how much concern for the future do the many homosexual “catholic” priests have? Some of which even live in the rats nest called the vatican.
    How much concern for the future well-being of their many victims did all of the paedophile and child-abusing “catholic” priests have.
    Needless to say Ferguson is quite chummy with right-wing “catholics”. Indeed they have been his loudest supporters in this this incident.

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