Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Niall Ferguson Plays Soothsayer Again


In his latest column at the Daily Beast, historian Niall Ferguson lays out a brief history of collapsing civilizations, the reasons for Western civilization dominance, and a somewhat tearful prayer that the the end is not nigh for America (he pretty much writes Europe off, completely).

Full disclosure: Ferguson is one of my favorite historians and writers, right up there with Robert Kaplan. I've read all of his offerings and am particularly enamored of his The Pity of War and The Cash Nexus. In the latter--published in 2002--he predicts, or at least suggests, the political repercussions of globalization the world has experienced in the last few years.

As to the arguments in this latest pieces, Ferguson is of the opinion that civilizations/empires--when dominant--don't just gradually decline, but tend to go off cliffs. As evidence, he cites Rome, the Incas, the Ming Dynasty, and the Soviet Union. And he's got a fair point. We view the decline of the West through a total European prism, more often than not, and that's both flawed and pretentious. Europe is not a single entity and it never has been. Within the regions, individual players have indeed risen, then falllen (collapsed) dramatically. Their salvation from total collapse and disappearance was the commonality of European interests and the familial ties of the Royals.

The Europe of today, however, is a different sort of beast. It is much more of a single entity than it has ever been, yet it is simultaneously composed of nations with no binding feudal--if you will--obligations to other nations. Instead, the obligations are economic and social, involving entire populations, and thus far more costly. The collapse of one cannot be so easily written off, then simply refashioned, as has happened in the past.

Ferguson's argument for Western dominance over "the Rest" since early modern times is boiled down into six points:

1. Competition. Europe was politically fragmented into multiple monarchies and republics, which were in turn internally divided into competing corporate entities, among them the ancestors of modern business corporations. 
2. The Scientific Revolution. All the major 17th-century breakthroughs in mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology happened in Western Europe. 
3. The Rule of Law and Representative Government. An optimal system of social and political order emerged in the English-speaking world, based on private-property rights and the representation of property owners in elected legislatures. 
4. Modern Medicine. Nearly all the major 19th- and 20th-century breakthroughs in health care were made by Western Europeans and North Americans. 
5. The Consumer Society. The Industrial Revolution took place where there was both a supply of productivity-enhancing technologies and a demand for more, better, and cheaper goods, beginning with cotton garments. 
6. The Work Ethic. Westerners were the first people in the world to combine more extensive and intensive labor with higher savings rates, permitting sustained capital accumulation.
Note how the feudal structures of Europe--which had long dragged on economic development--suddenly create an advantage in market economies. This is no small point and drives home the idea that Western dominance is--in some ways--a product of unplanned development. China had similar feudal structures much earlier than Europe, but China was unified and the top-down controls worked against market development.

Now while I like Ferguson's list, I think he makes two major errors. First, he fails to separate out the English and Dutch from the rest of Europe, for it was these two groups that really drove the expansion and growth of the West. Second, he fails to note what was different in the above from the remainder of Europe (i.e. why England and the Netherlands, why not Spain and France?): property rights. In both England and the Nethelands, the concept was developed and expanded, pushing aside Feudal and archaic notions of rights and ownership. True, there is a relationship in the above to Law and Government, as Ferguson notes. But the concept has broader implications in market economies and very much needs to be singled out, in my opinion. Moreover, the last point on the list is also dependent on the changes in the notions of property and ownership. In fact, so are points one, two, four and five.

Far be it from me to over-simplify a complex process, but there's not much of a choice here. It all started with property rights. It really did. But that is--I guess--a bit of a nit that I'm picking.

Ferguson's reason for listing these points is to show change: the nations that once led in this regard do so no longer. Many are barely in the game. Instead, Asian economies--like China, South Korea, and Japan--have growing consumerism, have competition, have the real work ethic. And they will--in the near future--drive out the current top-tier nations, unless some things change.

Ferguson writes off Europe completely, with regard to the chances of nations there holding on, but--Amerophile that he is--he holds out hope for the United States:
I refuse to accept that Western civilization is like some hopeless old version of Microsoft DOS, doomed to freeze, then crash. I still cling to the hope that the United States is the Mac to Europe’s PC, and that if one part of the West can successfully update and reboot itself, it’s America.
It's a good read, but I think Ferguson may be a little ahead of the curve. We'll see.

Cheers, all.

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