Squaring Off

How the West Won

Niall Ferguson Explains the Rise and Fall of Civilization as We Know It


In Squaring Off, Zócalo invites authors into the public square to answer five questions about the essence of their books. For this round, we pose questions to historian Niall Ferguson, author of Civilization: The West and the Rest.


Ferguson tackles the modest topic of “Civilization” over the past five centuries, positing that there were six “killer apps” that allowed “the West” to overtake “the Rest”-competition, science, property rights, medicine, consumerism, and a certain work ethic. But these apps are also why the days of Western predominance are numbered: the Rest have downloaded these apps, while the West has lost faith in its own power.

1) In discussing why the Ottomans didn’t keep up with the West in advancing scientific knowledge, you talk about “the unlimited sovereignty of religion” in the Muslim World. Which begs the question: was Europe’s Protestant Reformation, undermining the unlimited sovereignty of Roman Catholicism, the most indispensable event in assuring Western dominance?

I am hesitant to award anything the accolade “indispensable event.” Catholic Europeans were already exploring, trading, and conquering with unusual ambition decades before Luther’s religious revolution. And the Renaissance was already breaking new ground. But I do see the Reformation as a precondition for the Scientific Revolution, not only because it weakened Papal authority but also because it led directly to an upsurge in literacy and printing. It’s worth admitting that I myself come from a Calvinist background, but I was raised by my scientist parents to be an atheist. As I grow older I feel a growing respect for what Weber called the Protestant ethic.

2) Discussing “the West” versus “the Rest” runs the risk of implying that “the West” is a monolithic entity. But you dwell on the divergent paths and fortunes of English colonies in North America and Spanish colonies to the south (California retroactively having migrated from the latter camp to the former). Why didn’t our entire hemisphere benefit equally from the West’s six killer apps? Was Latin America, with its mineral riches, an early victim of the resource curse, or did English colonies have a leg up on account of the private nature of their endeavor and superior legal framework? Or both?

I am not a great believer in the theory of a resource curse-it doesn’t explain much about the 18th or 19th century, for example, when resource-rich countries did pretty well. South America seemed richer at first (at least in terms of gold and silver), but of course there was even more wealth under the North American ground, to be discovered later. The key difference was not the resource endowment but the radically different institutions the different sets of settlers brought with them. British migrants arrived with the common law, representative legislatures, and, of course, Protestantism. Spaniards and Portuguese arrived with different ideas that proved to be less good for economic and political development.

3) Let’s move on from the meta to the concrete. Clocks, for instance … Apparently the West got its act together earlier because it was better at keeping track of time?

Well the West didn’t invent the clock, much less time-keeping. Chinese water clocks were far superior to anything in Europe in the 11th century. But from the late 13th century, European mechanical clocks began to surpass their Oriental counterparts. And the spring-driven clocks that emerged in the 15th century were better still. Crucially, Europeans believed in disseminating time-keeping, so it was in Europe that the idea of domestic and later portable clocks developed. Historians from David Landes to Edward Thompson agree that accurate and socially widespread time-keeping was an essential precursor of the Industrial Revolution.

4) When we hosted you at Zócalo in the halcyon days of October 2006, we basked in the fact that it was a time of global prosperity, of rapid, sustained growth. Um, what happened?!

I am pretty sure that I wasn’t the one encouraging the basking. Most of my work in 2006 was focused on the dangers posed to the global economy by excessive leverage in the public and the private sector. It was in late 2006 that I wrote an article called “When a Black Swan Lands on Lake Liquidity” that accurately warned of the dangers of a liquidity crisis. What happened is described in detail in my last book, The Ascent of Money: over-leveraged banks, dodgy AAA-rated securities, excessively loose monetary policy, derivatives craziness, political meddling in the mortgage market, and “Chimerica” (the flow of Asian savings into the US)-these were the factors which, together, caused the crisis.

5. And the crisis is symptomatic of a relative decline of the West as posited in Civilization. Your book argues that after five centuries, the torch is being passed in some respects from the West to the Rest, and that China’s emergence is evidence of this shift. But isn’t China’s rise an affirmation of Western values, insofar as it was triggered by its abandonment of Marxism orthodoxy (at least Mao’s idiosyncratic take on it) and embrace of property rights, trade, and entrepreneurial spirit?

Up to a point. Of course Marxism itself was a Western export-the achievement of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, two Germans based in mid-19th century England. And what the Chinese did to Marxism was to give it Chinese characteristics. Guess what? They’re doing the same to capitalism. You mentioned their “embrace of property rights.” I must have missed that, because in reality property rights remain far from secure in the PRC, and the legal system is clearly under the sway of the Party. This is capitalism without freedom; and that is something very different from what we have seen in the West.

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*Photo courtesy of arsalank2.