Niall Ferguson’s bizarre attack on John Maynard Keynes which he has now apologised for — claiming that Keynes’ lack of children led to him taking an irresponsible attitude to the long run — has prompted many apt responses regarding the fact that Keynes and his wife tried multiple times to have children, and that Keynes wrote many works that showed an acute thoughtfulness regarding the long run in essays such as Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren.
But as soon as I heard Ferguson’s remarks, I re-read Keynes’ famous quote in full:
But this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.
Keynes is actually saying the opposite of what Ferguson implied he was saying. Keynes is saying that economists who say that in the long run unemployment will fall and markets will move back toward equilibrium are making themselves useless. That unemployment will sooner-or-later fall is almost inevitable — eventually storms end, and rough seas become calm again.
But when unemployment has been high for years, and when the unemployed become so discouraged that they drop out of the labour force in vast numbers it is useless to merely quip that sooner or later markets will restore equilibrium. Having soaring unemployment, discouraged workers, rusting skills, dilapidated infrastructure, weak growth and idle capital now and potentially for years to come is a grossly and grotesquely irresponsible position. The effects of mass unemployment are damaging and lingering to families:
The stress of unemployment can lead to declines in individual and family well-being (Belle & Bullock, 2011). The burden of unemployment can also affect outcomes for children. The stress and depressive symptoms associated with job loss can negatively affect parenting practices such as increasing punitive and arbitrary punishment (McLoyd, 1998). As a result, children report more distress and depressive symptoms. Depression in children and adolescents is linked to multiple negative outcomes, including academic problems, substance abuse, high-risk sexual behavior, physical health problems, impaired social relationships and increased risk of suicide (Birmaher et al., 1996; Chen & Paterson, 2006; Le, Munoz, Ippen, & Stoddard, 2003; Verona & Javdani, 2011; Stolberg, Clark, & Bongar, 2002).
And damaging to wider communities:
Widespread unemployment in neighborhoods reduces resources, which may result in inadequate and low-quality housing, underfunded schools, restricted access to services and public transportation, and limited opportunities for employment, making it more difficult for people to return to work (Brisson, Roll, & East, 2009). Unemployed persons also report less neighborhood belonging than their employed counterparts, a finding with implications for neighborhood safety and community well-being (Steward et al., 2009).
Keynes’ point in the quote Ferguson was discussing was that economists should seek ways and means to minimise such damaging long-term effects. So whether or not we agree with Keynes’ philosophical and political conclusions, it is absolutely misleading to claim that “in the long run we’re all dead” was a call for hedonism or economic irresponsibility.
Any serious criticism of Keynes’ thought requires that critics have actually read and understood Keynes and not just absorbed second-hand caricatures of his ideas.