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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Civilization’

- - Monday, May 14, 2012

CIVILIZATION: THE WEST AND THE REST
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.

Mr. Ferguson, a conservative, quotes Bill Clinton's old tutor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, Carroll Quigley, that each civilization has a life cycle where it "enters a period of vigorous expansion, increasing its size and power ... until gradually a crisis of organization appears. When this crisis has passed and the civilization been reorganized ... it becomes stabilized and eventually stagnant. After a Golden Age of peace and prosperity ... the civilization grows steadily weaker until it is submerged by outside enemies, and eventually disappears."

The trouble with this analysis is that it mistakes structure for system. What sets the West apart from the rest is not the structure of our governments - whether we have presidents or prime ministers, parliaments or congresses - but how the system functions to maximize the energies of the individual while at the same time maintaining that fragile stability of the whole society so the individual can move freely within it.

Mr. Ferguson to his credit does not disagree with that view. But he is nonplussed by the current global financial crisis and at the rapid statistical gains being racked up by challenger states like China, India and Brazil. After more than 300 pages of laserlike historical focus, his nerve fails him and this is where my objection comes in.

Mr. Ferguson's final conclusion is a bit flat to my mind. "Today ... the biggest threat to Western civilization is posed not by other civilizations, but by our own pusillanimity - and by the historical ignorance that feeds it." Well, yes.

But place the current climate of crisis and doubt against a similar period - the decade between 1929 and 1940 known as the Great Depression. That period is now seen as the greatest period in history for technical innovation and scientific advance in electronics, chemistry, air and ground transportation, communications and political thought. Those advances set the stage for the next 40 years of unparalleled prosperity.

As unseemly as the political turmoil of the West appears, contrast it with the challenges to stability going on in China, the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere. Now ask, which system is better positioned to adapt?

Still, this book provides the reader with a historical context lacking in most of today's analysis. Mr. Ferguson makes one think hard about what's going on and in that regard, this book is a valuable and highly readable excursion.

James Srodes is author of "On Dupont Circle," which will be published by Counterpoint in August.