An excerpt from Niall Ferguson’s ‘Civilization: The West and the Rest’

An excerpt from Niall Ferguson's 'Civilization: The West and the Rest'
An excerpt from Niall Ferguson's 'Civilization: The West and the Rest'

by Niall Ferguson

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 behaviors. For the sake of simplicity, I summarize them under six headings:

1. Competition

2. Science

3. Property rights

4. Medicine

5. The consumer society

6. The work ethic

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.

Now, before you indignantly write to me objecting that I have missed out some crucial aspect of Western ascendancy, such as capitalism or freedom or democracy (or for that matter guns, germs and steel), please read the following brief definitions:

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. This 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.

The critical point is that the differential between the West and the Rest was institutional. Western Europe overtook China partly because in the West there was more competition in both the political and the economic spheres. Austria, Prussia and latterly even Russia became more effective administratively and militarily because the network that produced the Scientific Revolution arose in the Christian but not in the Muslim world. The reason North America’s ex-colonies did so much better than South America’s was because British settlers established a completely different system of property rights and political representation in the North from those built by Spaniards and Portuguese in the South. (The North was an ‘open access order’, rather than a closed one run in the interests of rent-seeking, exclusive elites.) European empires were able to penetrate Africa not just because they had the Maxim gun; they also devised vaccines against tropical disease to which Africans were just as vulnerable.

In the same way, the earlier industrialization of the West reflected institutional advantages: the possibility of a mass consumer society existed in the British Isles well before the advent and spread of steam power or the factory system. Even after industrial technology was almost universally available, the differential between the West and the Rest persisted; indeed, it grew wider. With wholly standardized cotton-spinning and weaving machinery, the European or North American worker was still able to work more productively, and his capitalist employer to accumulate wealth more rapidly, than their Oriental counterparts. Investment in public health and public education paid big dividends; where there was none, people stayed poor. This book is about all these differences – why they existed and why they mattered so much.

From “Civilization: The West and the Rest” by Niall Ferguson. Reprinted by arrangement of Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) 2011 by Niall Ferguson.


Morning Joe Book Excerpt

An excerpt from Niall Ferguson's 'Civilization: The West and the Rest'