January 20, 2012


Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The West and the Rest (New York: The Penguin Press, 2011) ("In this book I want to show that what distinguished the West from the Rest--the mainsprings of global power-were six identifiably novel complexes of institutions and associated ideas and behaviours. . . . To use the language of today's computerized, synchronized world, these were the six killer applications -the killer apps- that allowed a minority of mankind originating on the western edge of Eurasia to dominate the world for the better part of 500 years. . . . 1. Competition - a decentralization of both political and economic life, which created the launch-pad for both nation-states and capitalism[;] 2. Science - a way of studying, understanding and ultimately changing the natural world, which gave the West (among other things (a major military advantage over the Rest[;] 3. Property rights - the rule of law as a means of protecting private owners and peacefully resolving disputes between them, which formed the basis for the most stable form of representative government[;] 4. Medicine - a branch of science that allowed a major improvement in health and life expectancy, beginning in Western societies, but also in their colonies[;] 5. The consumer society - a mode of material living in which the production and purchase of clothing and other consumer goods play a central economic role, and without which the Industrial Revolution would have been unsustainable[;] 6. The work ethic - a moral framework and mode of activity derivable from (among other sources) Protestant Christianity, which provides the glue for the dynamic and potentially unstable society created by apps 1 to 5." "Make no mistake: this is not another self-satisfied version of 'The Triumph of the West'. I want to show that it was not just Western superiority that led to the conquest and colonization of so much of the rest of the world; it was also the fortuitous weakness of the West's rivals. In the 1640s, for example, a combination of fiscal and monetary crisis, climate change and epidemic disease unleashed rebellion and the final crisis of the Ming dynasty. That had nothing to do with the West. Likewise, the political and military decline of the Ottoman Empire was internally driven more than it was externally imposed. North American political institutions flourished as South America's festered; but Simon Bolivar's failure to create a United States of Latin America was not the gringo's fault." Id. at 12-13. "Civilizations are complex things. For centuries they can flourish in a sweet spot of power and prosperity. But then, often quite suddenly, they can tip over the edge into chaos." Id. at 44. America early twenty-first century? Food for thought! Also see Donald Kagan, "A Good Run," NYT Book Review, Sunday, 11/27/2011.).