Perhaps for comic relief amid a news cycle otherwise full of escalation in Syria, the festering abuses of Guantanamo, and the wake of the Boston bombings, over the weekend pundits swarmed over Niall Ferguson for gay-baiting the long dead John Maynard Keynes. Tom Kostigen, who broke the story, summarized thus: “Ferguson asked the audience how many children Keynes had. He explained that Keynes had none because he was a homosexual and was married to a ballerina, with whom he likely talked of ‘poetry’ rather than procreated.” Ferguson has since apologized, and as several sources pointed out, Keynes and his wife, Lydia Lopokova, did indeed try to have children, and she may have suffered a miscarriage. But Ferguson got a dose of the attention he craves, and pundits pleased themselves with their own moral fury, so everybody’s happy.
Unfortunately, the good name of Joseph Schumpeter has been dragged through the mud by this episode as well. Both Ferguson’s critics and defenders have said, in effect, “Schumpeter did it first.” Schumpeter’s 1946 American Economic Review obituary for Keynes is cited as proof: therein, Schumpeter writes of his subject, “He was childless and his philosophy of life was essentially a short-run philosophy.”
But Schumpeter is not indulging in any sly gay-baiting here—the issue for him isn’t homosexuality, it’s childlessness for whatever reason. The wider context of Schumpeter’s remark is that the “sober wisdom and conservativism” of Keynes’s economic advice was intended for a specific time and place—England after World War I—and was characteristic of the kind of person Keynes was: not homosexual but rather part of “the high intelligentsia of England, unattached to class or party … who rightly claimed, for good and ill, spiritual kinship with the Locke-Mill connection.” Schumpeter continues on this theme:
Least of all was he the man to preach regenerative creeds. He was the English intellectual, a little déraciné and beholding a most uncomfortable [postwar] situation. He was childless and his philosophy of life was essentially a short-run philosophy. So he turned resolutely to the only ‘parameter of action’ that seemed left to him, both as an Englishman and as the kind of Englishman he was—monetary management. Perhaps he thought it might heal. He knew for certain that it would sooth[e]—and that return to a gold system at pre-war parity was more than his England could stand.
If only people could be made to understand this, they would also understand that practical Keynesianism is a seedling which cannot be transplanted into foreign soil: it dies there and become poisonous before it dies. But in addition they would understand that, left in English soil, this seedling is a healthy thing and promises both fruit and shade.
So much for the context. But isn’t the reference to childlessness at least indirectly an attack on Keynes’s sexuality? Probably not. Consider what Schumpeter writes about children and economics, in a clearly heterosexual context, in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy:
As soon as men and women … acquire the habit of weighing the individual advantages and disadvantages of any prospective course of action—or, as we might also put it, as soon as they introduce into their private life a sort of inarticulate system of cost accounting—they cannot fail to become aware of the heavy personal sacrifices that family ties and especially parenthood entail under modern conditions and of the fact that at the same time, excepting the cases of farmers and peasants, children cease to be economic assets.
… In order to realize what all this means for the efficiency of the capitalist engine of production we need only recall that the family and the family home used to be the mainspring of the typically bourgeois kind of profit motive. Economists have not always given due weight to this fact. When we look more closely at their idea of the self-interest of entrepreneurs and capitalists we cannot fail to discover that the results it was supposed to produce are really not at all what one would expect from the rational self-interest of the detached individual or the childless couple who no longer look at that world through the windows of a family home. Consciously or unconsciously they analyzed the behavior of the man whose views and motives are shaped by such a home and who means to work and to save primarily for wife and children. As soon as these fade out from the moral vision of the businessman, we have a different kind of homo economicus before us who cares for different things and acts in different ways. For him and from the standpoint of his individualistic utilitarianism, the behavior of that old type would in fact be completely irrational.
“Individualistic utilitarianism” is characteristic of modern people in general, but it was characteristic first of the English intellectual class to which Keynes belonged. It may have been bad form for Schumpeter to reference the specific fact of Keynes’s childlessness in his retrospective appreciation, but what Schumpeter has in mind is not a criticism of homosexuality in particular so much as modern sexual attitudes—sexual-economic attitudes, more accurately—in general. This was a topic about which Keynes himself famously had much to say.