Op-ed: Conservatives' Misread of Keynes Reveals Unconscious Bias

A backhanded insult to gays and revered economist John Maynard Keynes proves that those who are only fiscal conservatives and not social conservatives can still be homophobic.



At left: Niall Ferguson


Still, it’s a particular sin of American conservatives, who have a long history of defining gays (and liberals) by their immorality, specifically their supposed inability to control their desires. This is probably an important source of conservatives’ newfound hatred of deficits: the need for a scapegoat for their doctrinaire belief that America is ever threatened by untamed desire.

In a revealing National Review piece, Jonah Goldberg, a Fox News contributor, provided a number of instructive examples of conservatives identifying Keynes’s economic beliefs with his suspect sexuality. Gertrude Himmelfarb, he points out, claimed that Keynes’s views had “an obvious connection with his homosexuality” and his “childless vision,” which she also linked to the “Keynesian doctrine that consumption rather than saving is the source of economic growth.” She found a “discernible affinity” between Keynes’s “premium on immediate and present satisfactions” and Keynesian economics, which, she (wrongly) claimed “is based entirely on the short run and precludes any long-term judgments.”

Calling Keynes “a Bloomsbury aesthete and a practicing homosexual,” George Sim Johnston wrote in 1986 that the economist “did not believe in self-denial” nor that he “had any obligation to posterity,” adding that was only natural “if you have no children and don’t want any.” If Keynes had disclosed all this, complained Johnston, “we might have lower federal deficits.” One editor even theorized that Keynes’s sexual morality led him to reject the gold standard.

Critics of Keynes are fond of citing his own self-description as an “immoralist” to justify their distaste for his allegedly hedonistic theories. But they consistently quote him out of context — or genuinely misunderstand his principled moral critique. Goldberg maintains that “Keynes himself” described the mindset of his peer group “as a rejection of all standards” and quotes the following: “We repudiated entirely customary morals, conventions and traditional wisdom. We were, that is to say, in the strict sense of the term, immoralists,” recognizing “no moral obligation on us, or inner sanction, to conform or to obey.”

What Goldberg leaves out is a key phrase just before the ones he quotes: “We claimed the right to judge every individual case on its merits, and the wisdom, experience and self-control to do so successfully.” You might call this arrogant, but it’s simply not a rejection of morality, per se. It’s a rejection of mindless conformity, in favor of a deliberative, particularized assessment of what is ethically obligatory in a given situation. Indeed, the passage was part of an earnest and tough-minded effort to think rationally about moral obligations, a project that’s far more admirable than the simple process of following rules drilled into you on your mother’s knee. Keynes wanted to subject the rules of tradition for tradition’s sake to the light of reason.

Elsewhere I’ve written of a growing body of evidence that homophobia operates in subconscious regions of the brain and that the stories told by antigay people about gay people are efforts to rationalize intuitive antigay sentiment. By all accounts, that appears to be happening here. Keynes’s support for deficit spending is cast as a product of his hedonistic sexuality, while Adam Smith’s virtually identical praise for self-interest and the virtues of consumption are simply empirical observations about the natural processes of the invisible hand. Keynes is viewed as a dangerous champion of debt and consumption when, as Paul Krugman points out this week, Ronald Reagan and the two Bushes were the only presidents of the last 10 who left office with a higher debt ratio than when they came in. And Keynes is cast as a lover of debt while critics entirely ignore the critical other half of his philosophy: that while you should run deficits in hard times, you should pay them down in good times. As Matthew Yglesias writes in Slate, the idea that Keynes was a short-term thinker is absurd, as he was “one of the deepest thinkers about the long-term economic trajectory of all time.”

Getting Keynes this wrong is no small matter, because it raises the distinct possibility that even “serious” thinkers are pouncing on a narrative that confirms their antigay biases but does little to advance the truth. It’s a damning pattern of conservative thought we’d do well to call out when it happens. Not so we can censor its expression, but so we can guard against dubious policy conclusions, and — if we’re lucky — so we can nudge people to examine their own harmful biases.

The point is not that all conservatives are homophobes, but that a persistent feature of both fiscal and social conservatism — what ties them inextricably together into one worldview — is a deep distrust (one might call it a fear) of desire, a sentiment that harks back to our founders’ concerns that stability in a democracy relied on citizens’ ability to keep their impulses in check. This may or may not be a valid concern in the 21st century. But one thing that should be clear is that gay people have no more trouble controlling their desires, or acting responsibly toward the future, than anyone else. Suggestions to the contrary say far more about the psychology of straight people than the reality of gay people.

Unfriendly Fire, is a visiting scholar at Columbia's Center for Gender and Sexuality Law and a frequent contributor to Slate.

Tags: Commentary