Saturday, January 29, 2022

Why Civilizations Fail: Niall Ferguson Sounds A Wake-Up Call

I just finished reading, for the second time, The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die, by Niall Ferguson. Ferguson, who hails from Scotland, is one of the world's foremost historians. He's a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute, Stanford University, and a faculty fellow at Harvard. 

The titles aren't what make his writing interesting. Rather, it is the clarity of thought and the scope of his ideas. To best understand what is happening in the world today, historians help bring perspective that most everyone has lost sight of because they are so focused on being "up to the minute," making sure we're in the loop with the latest statements or faux pas of the politicians we love or hate. 

One of the matters that this book addresses has to do with Western Civilization. Since there have been all kinds of civilizations over the ages, why do some rise up above the rest at various times? And how did Western Europe grow in strength and influence so that it came to dominate the world? 

There has been a lot of well-deserved criticism of the evils committed by the nations of Western Europe, not the least of which was the slave trade and exploitation of others' natural resources. Ferguson's book provides insights on how Western Civilization achieved the power that it did, and why this occurred in Europe and not elsewhere. 

Explaining the Great Divergence

People suggest a variety of explanations for the divergence in outcomes in quality of life for various people groups. For Ferguson, "Institutions, more than geography, natural resources, climate or even the incidence of disease, have a greater impact on societal outcomes."

Why did Western Civilization fair so much better than other civilizations? Ferguson writes that from the 1500s to the late 1970's there was an astonishing diverging in global living standards.

"As of 300 years ago the average Asian achieved the same as the average Westerner. As of 1978, the average American was 22 times richer. Why?"

Not only in wealth but also in health did we see this. In 1960, life expectancy in China was in the late 40s, whereas in the U.S. it had reached 70.

"A minority of mankind had both a material and political dominance over the rest. Why?" 

It had nothing to do with racial superiority, he notes. Nor did it have to do with natural resources, geography, climate or topography.  In other words, there were no outward signs to indicate Europe would outshine the great Oriental empires. 

Nor can the achievements of Western Europe be explained in terms of imperialism. Other empires did plenty of that as well. 

In point of fact, from 500 to 1500, which we now refer to as the Dark Ages, there was really nothing to suggest that this corner of the world would break out and expand its rule over a majority of the known world.

Ferguson believes that the reason for disparity in the great divergence between the Western end of Eurasia and the Eastern end has to do with the institutions that developed.

England was the first nation to embrace pluralistic rather than extracted political institutions. Spain was not and as a result, the political systems exported to the New World (North and South America) produced different outcomes. Protestantism was also a part of this influence.

Institutions are what matter. 

Here are a few points he makes early in the book:

--Dysfunctional institutions are what force the poor to live outside the law.

--The "rule of law" has no analogue in the non-human world.

--Good institutions are hard to achieve. Bad institutions are easy to get stuck in.

And then there's the big question that seems to be the overarching theme of this book: WHY DO INSTITUTIONS FAIL? 

* * * 

Niall Ferguson concluded that the rise of the West was due to four things, which he calls the Four Black Boxes. The bulk of this book is comprised of a deep dive into the meaning of these four elements.

1. Democracy -- the consent of the governed.

2. Capitalism -- and the vibrant society healthy markets produce.

3. Rule of law -- secure property rights, fairness and (in theory) equality.

4. Civil society -- how we treat one another.

The book was published ten years ago, and much of what we're seeing today is the crumbling of our culture. A very real degeneration is occurring right before our eyes. For the past half century we have been in decline and the evidence is all around us. 

Here are four areas where we have been failing.

--Failure to enforce property rights.

--Failure to uphold the rule of law

--Failure to understand economics, and defend the wealth creation capabilities of Capitalism.

--Failure to support the foundations of civil society.

As time permits I hope to share a more details regarding the Four Black Boxes of Civilization and why we need to wake up. To defend what really matters we need to understand what's really happening.   

* * * 
Related Link
Decline of the West: Historian Niall Ferguson Sounds Wake Up Call

No comments:

Popular Posts