The decline of the West is something that has long been prophesied. Symptoms of decline are all around us today, it seems: slowing growth, crushing debts, aging populations, anti-social behaviour. But what exactly is amiss with Western civilization? The answer, Niall Ferguson argues, is that our institutions – the intricate frameworks within which a society can flourish or fail – are degenerating. Representative government, the free market, the rule of law and civil society: these were once the four pillars of West European and North American societies. It was these institutions, rather than any geographical or climatic advantages, that set the West on the path to global dominance after around 1500. In our time, however, these institutions have deteriorated in disturbing ways. Our democracies have broken the contract between the generations by heaping IOUs on our children and grandchildren. Our markets are increasingly distorted by over-complex regulations that are in fact the disease of which they purport to be the cure. The rule of law has metamorphosed into the rule of lawyers. And civil society has degenerated into uncivil society, where we lazily expect all our problems to be solved by the state. “The Degeneration of the West” a powerful – and in places polemical – indictment of an era of negligence and complacency. While the Arab world struggles to adopt democracy, and while China struggles to move from economic liberalization to the rule of law, Europeans and Americans alike are frittering away the institutional inheritance of centuries. To arrest the degeneration of the West’s once dominant civilization, Ferguson warns, will take heroic leadership and radical reform. This book is based on Niall Ferguson’s 2012 BBC Reith Lectures, which were broadcast under the title “The Rule of Law and Its Enemies”.
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5.0 out of 5 stars The partnership between the generations October 19, 2012
By Daniel Weitz VINE™ VOICE
This is a review of “The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die” which is the kindle title of this work, and is no longer available on kindle.
The author is concerned about the “Degeneration of the West” into a “Stationary State” similar to that of China during the previous centuries. This he believes is due to the weakening of traditional civil institutions, crony capitalism, inefficient bureaucracy, and the decay of our legal system. Needless to say, this has drastic political and economic consequences for our society, with the widening gap of economic inequality being a symptom of the problem. Other symptoms are the rise of a welfare state that exploits those who work for those that have become “entitled”. The abandonment of what Edmund burke called “The partnership between the generations”, is also the abandonment of what is our true social contract. The excessive public and private debt is a symptom of a deeper problem; the breakdown of the generational social order.
For the rise of Europe Ferguson rejects the theories of Diamond (geographic factors), North and Wallace (transition to open access society), Max Weber (Protestant Capitalism) and Pomerants (“ghost acres”). The author argues that it is not so much as geographic and cultural factors (citing the two Koreas and the city of Nogales on the US-Mexican border), but rather the role of an inclusive elite vs. an exclusive elite with extractive institutions. He agrees with the argument of De Soto that dysfunctional institutions force the poor to live outside the law without title to the property they often “own”. This is “dead capital” that cannot be used to increase wealth.
Ferguson argues that the cause of the economic meltdown of the banks was not lack of regulation but rather the inefficiency of the current laws and regulatory system that failed to give jail time to the miscreants that violated the laws. He also believes that greater expertise is needed by the regulators rather than strict rules; we need an experienced pilot with good judgment, not a mandatory auto-pilot that follows pre-programed rules and cannot adjust to changing conditions in an unknowable future.
Other chapters deal with the importance of a good legal system and the need to maintain a civil society. We seem to have done our best to kill a civil society by replacing it with a cradle to grave government welfare system, the danger of which was pointed out by the prescient De Tocqueville almost 200 years ago.
The author’s conclusions are troubling, with a final reference to President Obama, as the “stationary mandarin” (the famous “you didn’t build that” speech) who feels that government institutions and bureaucracies are the key to growth and not individual initiative supported by a good legal system, civil institutions, and competition. Other problematic issues raised is the enormous debt-burden in the West.
A major strength of this work is the extensive documentation cited in the notes.