Book Review: Civilization by Niall Ferguson

While I was at Costco a few months back, I spotted a book called Civilization: the West and the Rest, by Niall Ferguson. I’d never heard of the fellow (more a function of my not getting out enough than anything else), and subsequently found out he’s actually written quite a bit. By happy coincidence, my one of my daughter’s classmates got the book for Christmas and was decent enough to lend this cheapskate his copy.

I’m now a confirmed fan. Ferguson is an articulate writer who does his homework;  his books are easy to read and well researched. His impressive background includes  an MA, D.Phil. and  is  Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University. As well, he’s a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a Senior Research Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford.

Civilization asks: Why did the West leap ahead of the rest of the world and become the dominant civilization for the next 500 years? What made them different from the rest?

He then goes on to outline 6 forces which, working together, created a cycle that reinforced and built upon itself, benefitting in particular the West. They were:

  • Competition
  • Science
  • Medicine
  • The Rule of Law, Representative Government and Property Rights
  • Consumerism
  • The Protestant Work Ethic

Of course, there are lessons to be learned, especially in a day and age when so much of what we’ve taken for granted seems to be coming off the rails. Only by thinking through the layers to the bottom can we start to understand where answers might be found, and Ferguson’s book does it with style. Ample citations drive home the point that these six things combined to create a tipping point, a cycle of virtue that has created the affluence we enjoy today.

It also helps us understand why some places in the world just can’t seem to get going while others are starting to move forward. Without these fundamentals in place, progress as a society is next to impossible; once in place, things pick up.

He also asks if the West is losing its edge. The Rest are catching up pretty quick, while we seem to have lost our own sense of direction. Is this prosperity is a zero-sum game? Will the Rest forge ahead at our expense, or is there room for all to prosper? Ferguson suggests that everyone can win, but stresses the need to return to the values that made it possible in the first place.

I love this sort of stuff: it’s like getting under the hood of the whole world. It’s easy to forget that our present society is the healthiest, best fed, longest lived society that has ever existed. His book suggests we’d better not take it for granted; a civilization that’s lost its way can, and usually does, disintegrate in a matter of decades.

I found this volume a handy companion to Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat, which explains a lot about how the Rest are catching up. Read them together if you can.