The Great Degeneration

The Great DegenerationThis evening I read Niall Ferguson’s collection of 2012 Reith Lectures, published under the title The Great Degeneration  How Institutions Decay and Economies Die. By coincidence, Ferguson is in the news for all the wrong reasons at the moment. Present embarrassments not withstanding, I once heard him at Harvard, where he is Laurence A Tisch Professor of History, and found his analyses authoritatively incisive and lucid (his previous published works speak for themselves). When I saw a review of this book, I thought ‘what a great title and fascinating sub-title!’ The blurb is great as well. Symptoms of the West’s decline, long prophesied, are all about us, but what exactly is wrong? Ferguson argues that the four pillars of West European and North American societies – representative government, the free market, the rule of law and civil society – are deteriorating. We have broken our unwritten pact with future generations, burdening them with debt. We over-regulate our markets. ‘The rule of law has metamorphosed into the rule of lawyers.’ And ‘civil society has degenerated into uncivil society.’ (It was this last observation that brought me to the book.) In fact, this book might almost have better been entitled The Great Disappointment. There are some interesting arguments, but they frequently seem to lapse into polemics and frequently they are, well, arguable (as for example, when he argues that the social media undermine traditional associative life in our societies). I suspect it was the lecture format and the need to stay accessible to a radio audience that led Ferguson to adopt a more discursive style. For a quick read and some thought-provoking arguments, this book is very good, but I just wished he’d saved that brilliant title for one of his deeper and more academic works. Perhaps it’s in the pipeline?


  1. Hugo Kijne

    Maybe Ferguson is in the news for all the wrong reasons at the moment, but he made those stupid and some would argue hateful statements about Keynes, didn’t he?

  2. Martin

    He did indeed – and rapidly retracted them.

  3. Hugo Kijne

    Actually, he apologized. Apparently he had forgotten that Keynes was married and that his wife had a miscarriage. Clearly not a historian of family life.

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