What causes rich countries to lose their way? Obvious symptoms of decline, in the West in general and America in particular, abound: slowing growth, crushing debts, increasing inequality, aging populations, antisocial behavior. A significant number of social critics will agree that these are the general symptoms of cultural shifts in the West but few will agree on what has actually gone wrong and what really caused it. The answer, says author Niall Ferguson argues in The Great Degeneration, is that our institutions—the intricate frameworks within which a society can flourish or fail—are degenerating.
The Great Degeneration is based on four lectures that Ferguson gave in 2012 and then revised and edited for this book. Niall Ferguson (b. 1964) is a professor of history at Harvard as well as a research fellow at Jesus College, University of Oxford. Ferguson is also a controversial critic who has engaged in serious research as well as partisan political action. He is known for his provocative views in both history and economics.
Ferguson argues that representative government, the free market, the rule of law, and civil society constitute the four true pillars of West European and North American societies. It was these institutions, rather than any geographical or climatic advantages, that set the West on the path to global dominance around 1500. (He gives no serious credit to the Protestant Reformation in the formation of Western society as we know it.) Ferguson believes that these four institutions have all severely deteriorated in disturbing ways. In the process Western democracies have broken the contract between the generations by piling immense debt on our children and grandchildren. Our markets are hindered by overcomplex regulations that debilitate the political and economic processes they were created to support; the rule of law has become the rule of lawyers. (I think I personally found this argument to be the strongest in the book!) As these pillars have begun to fall civil society has degenerated into uncivil society, where we falsely hope that the state will solve our problems.
The central point of the book is that institutional degeneration lies behind economic stagnation and the geopolitical decline that follows it. Ferguson analyzes the causes of this current stagnation and writes of the profound consequences this will have for our future if we do not deal with the problems now.
The Great Degeneration is an incisive, sharply polemical indictment of an era of negligence and complacency. While the so-called “Arab Spring” gains our interest, and the wider world struggles to adopt democracy, the West is failing. As China struggles to move from economic liberalization to the rule of law, our society is squandering the institutional inheritance of five-plus centuries. Ferguson argues that it will take heroic leadership and radical reform to bring about change. One of the more compelling arguments he makes is that we can best address these problems through social networks that are rooted in relationships with real people. He rightly says these cannot simply come about via the Internet.
It is this particular point that intrigues me since I believe the church must address its breakdown in the West in the same way. I call this way missional-ecumenism.
Over the past 500-years the West built up a substantial lead over other parts of the world in economic power and its material standard of living. Now the West’s lead is slipping away. Most of us are aware that developing nations such as China and India are quickly closing the gap. Many social historians and writers about culture argue that this closing gap is the natural result of globalization but Niall Ferguson clearly believes something much deeper is causing the close of the gap between the West and the Rest. The fundamental change is the decline of the West.
I will take only one aspect of the four major areas that Ferguson addresses to provide a sense of his overall argument. With respect to capitalism, where once Western institutions led the world in making it easy for businesses to start-up and operate efficiently, now heavy and overly-complex laws and regulations stifle new business and send domestic corporations overseas. Ferguson resolutely believes that Western banks and financial institutions are not under-regulated, but poorly regulated. Exhibit A can be seen in the financial meltdown of 2008. Those who took reckless (illegal?) risks are not made to pay for their transgressions. They breached the law and got away with it thus they are inclined to make the same mistakes again, a danger that Ferguson is clearly not alone in being nervous about the future of America.
When it comes to civil society, where once most Western citizens freely donated their time and money to worthy causes and charities, and thus flocked to join associations, clubs and organizations that promoted both civic-feeling and the public good, now citizens largely hide behind their televisions and computer screens and wait for the government to take care of the less fortunate.
This is a small book, less than 150-pages. I listened to it on four audio discs which were wonderfully narrated.
Ferguson’s conclusions are profoundly troubling. Many conservatives will readily agree with him. He makes a closing reference to President Obama as the “stationary mandarin” (based upon his now infamous “you didn’t build that” speech) who feels that government institutions and bureaucracies are the key to growth and not individual initiative supported by a good legal system, civil institutions, and competition. (It should not, therefore surprise anyone that Ferguson was an adviser to the John McCain campaign in 2008 and was also an open supporter of Mitt Romney in 2012.)
With his partisanship freely acknowledged I still found Ferguson’s central argument, namely that the West is losing its way in the world, to be both credible and quite easy to follow. It is in his “answer(s)” that some readers will be more likely to radically differ with him. I found myself saying, here and there, “He must be right about this point.” Then, I would say a few minutes later, “How can he draw that conclusion?” It strikes me that he is two parts convincing and one part overly impressed with his own sense of what is happening and how we should solve it. The most glaring absence is his complete failure to see the Christian faith as having an particular contribution in solving our major cultural concerns. In such a short book the author is lean on sources for many of his claims, which even further diminishes his otherwise convincing counsel.
Having given all these caveats I have to say, having never read Niall Ferguson previously, I found his book interesting and worthy of serious discussion. If I had five friends, of varying political views, who would read it and discuss it with me then I would enjoy a two-hour debate about his analysis as well as the answers he gives.