The British historian’s new book makes a compelling case for what he believes ails the western world. There’s more to it than economics.
My boss recommended Niall Ferguson’s latest to me a couple of weeks back. The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die is a very readable 153-page essay on what he believes is troubling the west, in particular the U.S. (The short answer is an over-reliance on government, mostly). But this is no small-government-is-better lecture. The west’s decline can be reversed, Ferguson argues, provided we reign in the legal and regulatory systems, deal once and for all with profligate government spending and rebuild the role private organizations used to play in civil society.
I am ambivalent toward Ferguson’s work. He’s clearly among the world’s brightest historians. I’ve enjoyed a couple of his books and look forward to reading more. I find his television appearances equally worthwhile. But to be honest, he is often too far to the right politically for me. I’m not naïve enough to argue that historians should be unbiased. But on more than one occasion I’ve found his politics disorienting. I feel the need to look past his personal views in order to fully appreciate his insights. Ferguson’s pre-election takedown of U.S. President Barak Obama is an example.
I’m not making an anti-conservatism point here. I am equally turned off by commentators who see the world too strictly from either end of the political spectrum.
I raise politics because The Great Degeneration is less overtly political than it sounds. At least it’s not political in a hackneyed right- versus left-wing sort of way. Ferguson essentially ignores the now overdone austerity debate. He’s got bigger plans for us.
“So what exactly is going on?” writes Ferguson, about the decline of the west. “As we have seen, narrowly economic explanations that focus on the impact of financial forces (‘deleveraging’), international integration (‘globalization’), the role of information technology (‘off-shoring’ and ‘outsourcing’) or fiscal policy (‘stimulus’ versus ‘austerity’) do not offer sufficient explanations.”
By not pinning all our hopes on economic fixes, Ferguson offers a more useful blueprint for what ought to come next.
None of what he argues is particularly novel. If anything, Ferguson is calling for a return to fundamental values that relate to how societies are supposed to work. What impresses me about the case he makes is that he’s moved beyond the relatively simple question of how governments should manage their economies. It’s not just a matter of the role government plays. What counts is the role everyone plays.
It’s a thoughtful, straightforward review of the state of things. It’s also a great relief to hear that there is more to life than economics.
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