DE HAUT EN BAS: Niall Ferguson, Paul Krugman and John Maynard Keynes

by Mario Rizzo  

Recently Niall Ferguson wrote an interesting op-ed piece for the Financial Times about a debate of sorts he has been having with Paul Krugman on the spike in long-term interest rates and its relation to the large debt the U.S. Treasury must finance.  

In the course of that article Ferguson described Krugman’s attitude toward him (and his knowledge of economics) as de haut en bas. Although my poor French is good enough to know what this means, I still decided to check it out in The Oxford Dictionary of Foreign Words and Phrases. What I found was partly expected. Literally, it means “from above to below” or, in effect, “condescendingly.”  But the really interesting part is the example of use the dictionary gave:  

1995 Spectator Maynard Keynes…had a very de haut en bas view that he knew best what forms of culture should be supported (opera and ballet)…  

Shall we say that the apple never falls far from the tree?

8 thoughts on “DE HAUT EN BAS: Niall Ferguson, Paul Krugman and John Maynard Keynes

  1. Isn’t that attitude built into the original Keynesian system? Modern markets are essentially irrational because entrepreneurs are not married to their capitals. Thus, mass psychology makes investment gyrate about wildly: the finance tail wags the real economy dog. You need economic experts residing above the fray to adjust government spending in ways that correct for these irrational swings. Ultimately, you need a rather comprehensive socialization of investment, which is the only way to put a stop to all that irrational tail wagging. Government experts are in a position to act rationally, investors are not. In Keynes’s rationalist vision of the production and distribution of knowledge in society, crowds are more likely to be foolish than wise; experts are more likely to guide society properly.

  2. Hayek tells how Keynes in conversation would talk as if he could directly “intuit” macro aggregates and their relations across time — sort of like he had a God like vision of the system and a direct god like ability to see things unsee-able by mere men.

    Hayek also describes Keynes as massively chauvenistic and a real British elitist, interested really in advancing his country and his empire, and believing that his class and he himself were the rightful ones to rule the nation which ruled much of the world.

    And Hayek describes Keynes as equally driven by his distastes — Keynes hated and had no interest in anything having to do with the ideas and science and culture of the 1800s — really refused to learn about it.

    So Keynes intellectual and culture elitism extended to a sense of superiority over and disdain for a whole century worth of scientific, cultural, economic, and moral achievements.

  3. Interesting remarks, Greg. Boy, if the sins of Keynes were visited upon his admirers, Krugman would be in big trouble! Lucky for Krugman, that’s not how it works.

    As far as I know, Keynes was worse even than you say, actually. One website ( says he was treasurer of the Cambridge University Eugenics Society. That’s a pretty deep interest in the topic. Apparently, his 1937 “Galton Lecture,” entitled “Some Consequences of a Declining Population,” was given to the Eugenics Society in London and published in _Eugenics Review_. A couple of sites quote him extolling eugenics in 1946, but I don’t know whether that’s for real.

  4. I should be said that Hayek seemed to have really enjoyed Keynes’ company — and forgave Keynes many direct insults and assaults upon him, beginning with the 1929 international business cycle research institute conference where Keynes seems to have attempted to humiliate Hayek, treating him like a Freshman know-nothing via a series of frontal attacks and disrespectful questions when he interacted in conference with Hayek. Keynes came out of it respecting Hayek — because Hayek was able to return every volley.

  5. One wonders if, as treasurer of the Eugenics Society, Keynes would spend the organization’s funds to stimulate aggregate demand for Eugenics conferences.

  6. Actually the best literal translation with little or no loss in meaning would for a “de haut en bas” view is a “top down” view.

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