With ‘Civilization: The West and the Rest,’ Niall Ferguson described the “killer apps” that Western civilization used to propel itself past its rivals. With ‘The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die,’ he shows readers how quickly the wheels can come off the bus and send all of civil society’s passengers over a cliff.
While Mr. Ferguson’s analysis does not exclusively focus on the U.S., by the time he’s done unsealing the “boxes” of democracy, capitalism, the rule of law, and civil society, it is obvious that America is very, very sick — perhaps terminally ill — and that short of a miracle our experiment in self governance will not end well.
As Mr. Ferguson states:
“Where bad institutions pertain, people get stuck in vicious circles of ignorance, ill health, poverty, and, often, violence. Unfortunately, history suggests that there are more of these suboptimal frameworks than there are optimal frameworks. A really good set of institutions is hard to achieve. Bad institutions, by contrast, are easy to get stuck in. And this is why most countries have been poor for most of history, as well as illiterate, unhealthy and bloody.” Niall Ferguson, The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die (New York: Penguin, 2012), 18.
When the author speaks of the rule of law turning into the rule of lawyers, it’s hard not to think of what America has become. When the author talks about a “corrupt and monopolistic elite” exploiting the system of law and administration to their own advantage, it’s hard not to think of what America has become. When the author talks about public debt being managed to allow the current generation of voters to “live at the expense of those as yet too young to vote or as yet unborn,” it’s hard not to think of what America has become.
Over and over again, ‘The Great Degeneration’ shows that we as a society are creating complex systems that are destined to fail. What makes the story all the more tragic is that it’s all quite predictable.
As Tocqueville said in 1835 with the publication of ‘Democracy in America’:
I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the other: his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him; as for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not see them; he touches them and does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone. …
Above these an immense tutelary power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like that, it had for its object to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood. …
Regular readers of this blog know that a shift in tone began to occur roughly three years ago. That is because I share many of the author’s conclusions about modern-day America and western civilization. Our culture is sick, but it is only willing to talk about its symptoms instead of the disease. The institutions have been compromised, and until they are fixed our slide into irrelevance will continue.
‘The Great Degeneration’ is a rather quick read at 153 pages. If you get a chance, pick it up at your local book store. If for no other reason, it is fascinating to think about some of the events that have occurred since its publication; Mr. Ferguson’s knowledge of the past helps him to accurately predict the future. You’ll give him a round of applause for the effort — after you wipe a few tears from your eyes.