Researcher and Writer in Washington, DC

Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The West and the Rest (Penguin Press, 2011)

Civilization: The West and the Rest
By Niall Ferguson
Penguin Press, 2011, 402 pp., $35.00

Niall Ferguson is the bane of much of the academic world.  His crimes are many.

Whereas most academics toil in anonymity, glacially plopping out inscrutable, esoteric articles for little-read academic journals, Ferguson is a supernova.  He has joint appointments at Harvard’s department of history and business school, and he is a fellow at Oxford’s Jesus College and Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.  He has written an armload of books, penned innumerable op-eds (Financial Times, Newsweek, etc.), starred in documentaries based upon his best-sellers (Cash Nexus, War of the World, etc.), and has a Twitter feed that details his jet-setting (Seoul, Zambia, etc.) and hobnobbing (Bill Clinton, Bob Zoellick, etc.) lifestyle.  He is a mere 47 years old.

Adding further salt to the professoriate’s wound, Ferguson comes off as a conservative. Ferguson regularly bloodies the noses of liberals, like Paul Krugman and Jeffrey Sachs, and he has outraged academics by arguing that colonialism had some positive effects.  Ferguson writes of money, war, and power, and does so without a drop of sentimentality.  Unabashedly, he looks to the past for wisdom.  He adores Margaret Thatcher.

Despite the Ivory Tower grumbling over Ferguson’s popular appeal, his academic achievements are real and earned. His Paper and Iron: Hamburg Business and German Politics in the Era of Inflation, 1897-1927 (1995) was published by the heady Cambridge University Press.  Ferguson’s two-volume history of the Rothschild banking dynasty runs more than 1,200 pages and utilized a trove of archival resources.  And he works like a dog.  Some years ago he declared, “I am Max Weber’s Protestant work ethic, for better or for worse.  I think it makes me an impossible person because I don’t feel happy if I haven’t done at least 10 hours work a day. I work, therefore I am. I have no hobbies.”

So it is with dismay that I must report that Niall Ferguson has laid an egg.  Civilization: The West and the Rest is a half-baked hodge-podge that reads as if it was dashed off during his transoceanic flights.  It is scholarly in mien only.

Which is a pity, because the book’s topic is fascinating.  Ferguson enticingly sets it up: “Just why, beginning around 1500, did a few small polities on the western end of the Eurasian landmass come to dominate the rest of the world, including the more populous and in many ways more sophisticated societies of Eastern Eurasia?”  At the time Beijing had at least 600,000 denizens.  Its mind-bogglingly large imperial Forbidden City, with its 980 buildings, had been constructed in 15 years by 1 million laborers.  China was revered in the West for its wealth, arts, and technological prowess.  Similarly, Arab civilizations were renown for their mathematical and scientific discoveries.

The West, meanwhile, was a decidedly mixed bag.  The Renaissance had been on since the 14th century, but much of it involved recovering knowledge lost since antiquity.  On the whole, Europe was struggling both economically and politically.  One hundred and fifty years earlier, the Black Death had halved its population, and internecine religious and political battles left the continent a poor, mishmash of unstable principalities.  The West’s biggest cities Paris and London had, respectively, only 200,000 and 50,000 inhabitants.  America at the time was a backwater.

So how was it that by 1900 the West dominated the globe?  Ferguson gives a positively Thomas Friedman-esque answer: Western civilization developed six “killer apps”: competition, science, property rights, medicine, consumer society, and the work ethic.

Labeling half-millennium old phenomena with a 21st century term is anachronistic and  unbecoming of a historian. This metaphor obscures more than it reveals. An app (short for application) is a piece of software that enables a person to direct hardware (a smart phone or tablet computer) to perform a specific task (keep a shopping list, read a book, play Angry Birds, etc.)  How exactly is competition, which Ferguson broadly defines as “a decentralization of both political and economic life,” an app?  If one wanted to be charitable to the author, one could say that competition is part of Western man’s operating system. But one could more persuasively argue that Western decentralized political institutions and capitalism (as opposed to North Korea’s unitary communist system) are more like hardware—they are the enduring means through which Western societies can allot resources to attain diverse goals.

The book’s problems do not end there.  Although Ferguson here tackles a new (for him) question, it appears he has answered it by drawing upon his previous research. The result is a book filled with erudite digressions that do not address the subject matter.  Chapter four on medicine is especially disastrous.  The reader might have expected a history of Western medicine and its salubrious effects.  Instead, he gets a grab-bag of stories about the French Revolution, European colonial activities in Africa, and nasty Nazis.  His entire analytic framework is rickety—he calls his apps “institutions” even though consumerism and competition are behaviors and processes. Deus ex machina, Ferguson cites education as a factor in the recent rise of East Asian nations.  Is this a seventh app that might have had a role in the ascendance of the West?

Ferguson’s use of a computer metaphor leads him unable to say much about the critical interplay between people and institutions proper. Apps and computers do not alter one another—but people make institutions, and institutions shape people.

Much of the reason the West has been successful is its relationship between the government and the governed.  For one, republican government enables Western societies to vote out of bad leaders before they mortally wound their nations.  Assuredly, the priapic Silvio Berlusconi sullied Italy, and George Papandreou often appeared hell-bent on bankrupting Greece.  But they were pikers compared to non-Western nation-wreckers like Zaire’s Robert Mugabe and Libya’s late Muammar Qadaffi.  And Berlusconi and Papandreou both were booted from office; non-Western despots seldom leave power still living.  For another, republican governance has greatly fostered Ferguson’s six killer apps.  It protects property rights, thereby enabling competition and rewarding the work ethic, which makes for advances in science, medicine, and the development of consumer society.

In considering the rise of the West, Ferguson also asks, “If we come up with a good explanation for the West’s past ascendancy, can we then offer a prognosis for its future?”  Perhaps we can, but Ferguson does not.  He talks around the question and little engages the academic studies on international power and hegemony.  Ultimately he proffers that the greatest peril to the West is “our own loss of faith in the civilization we inherited from our ancestors.”

There is something to this notion, but a bit more thinking might have produced a more nuanced and satisfying answer.  Ironically, at least one of his lauded killer apps—medicine—might play a role in the decline of the West.  Thanks to the pill and other medical advances, first-worlders are having fewer children and living longer.  Consequently, nearly all Western nations are being financially bled by skyrocketing medical and pension costs.

For years, Ferguson has said he has been working on a biography of Henry Kissinger.  One hopes that he will turn off his Twitter account, cut back on the newspapering and speeches, and get back to the books.  He owes it to his subject and his readers.

Kevin R. Kosar is the author most recently of Ronald Reagan and Education Policy (Scribd, 2011).

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