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The Children of Men

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.