Niall Ferguson, a prolific purveyor of financial history, is nothing if not counterintuitive.
As markets swooned in 2008, the Harvard professor published “The Ascent of Money,” a paean to bankers and credit. As Greece struggled to elude debt default in 2010, he brought us “High Financier,” a biography of Siegmund Warburg, promoter of European economic integration.
Now we get “Civilization,” a brawny study of how the West came to dominate the globe over 500 years. This might sound like an odd theme to trumpet amid China’s relentless rise and America’s descent into financial purgatory. In truth, the timing makes it a must read.
Ferguson is aware that the West risks going the way of Rome. Civilizations, he argues, are complex and asymmetrically organized systems: Operating between order and disorder, they can look stable then suddenly collapse, like a sand castle. The Incas were crushed in less than a decade, he notes; Ming China slid into anarchy almost as fast. The French Bourbons, the Ottoman Sultans and the British Empire -- all came unstuck with surprising rapidity.
So it’s good to be reminded that Western civilization as a whole has gone from strength to strength since the late 15th century, when a throng of small European states rose to dominate the world. If we can explain how that happened -- and why others are assiduously copying Western methods today -- we might shape a prognosis for the West’s future, Ferguson says.
The West rose, he argues, because it developed six overpowering advantages as its rivals grew weak. These “killer apps,” as he calls them, were competition, science, property rights, medicine, the consumer society and the work ethic.
To drive the point home, Ferguson takes us on an ambitious and engaging tour, showing Portuguese sailors rounding the Cape of Good Hope, conquistadors plundering Latin America, and Britons reaching North America as indentured servants. He recalls George Washington’s property speculation and Frederick the Great’s disdain for regal trappings: To him, a crown was “a hat that let the rain in.”
By “competition,” Ferguson means the decentralization of political and economic life that motivated hundreds of competing European states to seek opportunities in distant lands, invent military technologies and break financial barriers. Ships became flying fortresses, Italians experimented with new forms of government borrowing, and the Dutch cooked up joint-stock companies. It was “divide and rule” with a twist.
“Being divided themselves,” Ferguson writes, “Europeans were able to rule the world.”
Across Europe, rulers promoted science to safeguard national interests. Thus Frederick the Great was quick to commission a German translation of a groundbreaking work on ballistics by Benjamin Robins of the East India Company. Though born a Quaker, Robins recommended that gun barrels should be rifled and bullets egg-shaped.
Chinese and Islamic innovators, who gave us breakthroughs including movable type and algebra, were meanwhile stifled as their civilizations turned inward -- the one banning oceanic voyages, the other demolishing an Istanbul observatory.
Ferguson is at his best when exploring how property rights bolster economic success. Here we find a cogent explanation for why North America became a powerhouse while Latin America labored under poverty and inequality. Iberians came as elites bent on extracting gold; Britons arrived as settlers hungry for land and imbued with powerful ideas about how people should rule themselves -- through property rights protected by representative government.
On medicine, Ferguson is less persuasive, partly because his chapter on the subject digresses. We get some 20 pages on the French Revolution -- a bloodletting that says too little about the triumph of science over disease. He also dwells on the pseudoscience of eugenics, notably Germany’s gruesome experiments on natives in the concentration camps of South-West Africa. (The Reichskommissar of the colony was Heinrich Ernst Goering, father of Hermann.)
The author slips back into his narrative groove with the birth of the consumer society -- the magical spot where worker and consumer become one and the same -- and the work ethic, the Protestant marriage of hard labor and thrift.
As German sociologist Max Weber assumed, Protestant countries did tend to grow faster than Catholic ones after the Reformation. Why? One explanation lies in how Protestantism encouraged literacy (for reading Scripture) and printing. This gave a fillip to human capital and scientific study.
Protestantism is, curiously, now mushrooming in China, home to the world’s biggest Bible printer, Ferguson says. That may offer a clue to the West’s future.
“The biggest threat to Western civilization is posed not by other civilizations,” he concludes, “but by our own pusillanimity -- and by the historical ignorance that feeds it.”
Has China become more Western than the West?
“Civilization: The West and the Rest” is from Allen Lane in the U.K. (402 pages, 25 pounds). It will be published by Penguin Press in the U.S. in November.
(James Pressley is a book critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)