- - Monday, May 14, 2012

By Niall Ferguson
Penguin, $35, 402 pages

One of the joys of my long life in journalism is spending so much time in the company of smarter people. Even when I disagreed with them, invariably there was something to learn or at least reconsider.

And so it is with this thought-provoking, informative, crisply written examination of that megaconcept known as Western civilization which, according to other popular analysts, is headed into an inevitable decline.

One argues with Niall Ferguson at one’s peril. He is a rigorous intellectual, an encyclopedic historian with solid expertise in economics and, most seductive, he has a sense of puckish humor that sparkles throughout his narrative.

One of the early themes Mr. Ferguson sounds is the West (specifically the United States and the European democracies) for centuries lagged behind other civilizations in accomplishment, wealth, science and power.

He provides lucid histories of those early triumphalist societies - the Ottoman Empire, imperial China, the mighty Aztecs and the Romans. Each flourished for centuries and then decayed and collapsed, giving rise to the popular belief that this is what invariably happens to superpowers and, thus, it is the fate that will befall us.

Yet in just a few hundred years those early top-down power structures that ruled the imperial nations were swept aside and replaced with a Western civilization that differed, the author argues, in six critically important ways.

The six new ideas that transformed the West into an ascendency over what he calls “the rest” of the world, Mr. Ferguson calls the “six killer applications” of history. They are:

Competition that decentralized both political and economic life and made national government and capitalism possible.

Science that provided a more dynamic way of studying and changing the natural world that led to military advantages over the rest.

Property rights and the rule of law that protected individuals and made for more stable governments.

Medicine that was no longer solely committed to improving the health and life expectancy of rulers but of the general populace as well.

Consumerism that became a mode of material living in which the production and use of goods played a central economic role but also fostered industrial progress.

The work ethic that provided a moral framework and a dynamic spark to this new and ever-changing society model.

These six “killer apps” should be kept in mind when dealing with the rest of Mr. Ferguson’s analysis. For at this point he begins to examine the litany of signs and portents that the decline and fall of Western civilization may be at hand.

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