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The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die

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  • Posted June 18, 2013

    *A full executive summary of this book will be available at newb

    *A full executive summary of this book will be available at newbooksinbrief dot com, on or before Tuesday, June 25.

    The main argument: Over the past half-millennium the West has built up a substantial lead over other parts of the world when it comes to both economic power and material standard of living. Now, however, this lead is slipping away. Indeed, developing nations led by such powers as China and India are quickly closing the gap, as they are experiencing impressive economic growth, while the West is stagnating. Many argue that this is the natural result of globalization (and the fact that major corporations are taking advantage of cheaper labor in developing nations). For Harvard historian and writer Niall Ferguson, however, there is something deeper going on here. For Ferguson, the closing of the gap between the West and the Rest has less to do with the rise of the Rest, as the decline of the West, and particularly Western institutions.

    Ferguson identifies 4 primary institutions that account for the West's success over the past half-millennium: 1. Democracy; 2. Capitalism; 3. The Rule of Law; and 4. Civil Society. Each of these, the author argues, has eroded in the recent past.

    Beginning with democracy, Ferguson argues that the deterioration of democracy in our time has not so much to do with the break-down of the social contract between the individual and the state, as the break-down in the contract between the present generation and future generations. Specifically, by taking on the astronomical amount of public debt that many Western governments have taken on over the past half-century, we have undermined our own growth and unjustly put future generations in hock. We have lived well at the expense of our progeny, and have set them up for failure.

    With respect to capitalism, where once Western institutions led the world in making it easy for businesses to start-up and operate efficiently, now heavy and overly-complex regulations stifle new businesses and send domestic corporations overseas. Western banks and financial institutions, the author argues, are not under-regulated, but poorly regulated. And what's more, they are not made to pay for their transgressions when they do breach the law (as witnessed, most recently, in the financial crash of 2008), thus they are invited to behave irresponsibly.

    When it comes to the rule of law, where once the West did well to protect contracts and property rights, now tort law has allowed civil suits to run amok and choke the legal system. Meanwhile, copyright law now deeply favors the established over the up-and-coming, which has stifled innovation and progress. The Rule of Law has become the Rule of Lawyers.

    When it comes to civil society, where once most Western citizens freely donated their time and money to worthy causes and charities, and flocked to join associations, clubs and organizations that promoted both civic-feeling and the public good, now citizens largely hide behind their televisions and computer screens and wait for the government to take care of the less fortunate and any and all public goods.

    For Ferguson, unless we reverse the current deterioration of our institutions, we can expect our stagnation to continue (and we also run the risk of having our societies crash outright).

    A full executive summary of the book will be available at newbooksinbrief dot com, on or before Tuesday, June 25. A podcast discussion of the book will be available shortly thereafter.

    22 out of 23 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 28, 2013

    Niall Ferguson┬┐s The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay

    Niall Ferguson’s The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die is intriguing since the title reflects what should be an obvious connection: Social institutions do affect economies.
    The noted British historian’s latest book is a compelling demonstration of his thesis. He lays out all the symptoms caused by decaying institutions: slowing growth, crushing debts, aging populations, and an uncivil society. It is clearly a degeneration, and even a great degeneration.
    We can only admire Ferguson in his quest is to go beyond media hype and find out what really went wrong in the West. He rightly claims that “until we understand the true nature of our degeneration, we will be wasting our time, applying quack remedies to mere symptoms.”
    In this short essay, Ferguson lists the four principal institutions which he affirms are in decline: representative government, the free market, the rule of law and civil society. The author masterfully shows how each one is suffering in our days. These are themes that have long been discussed by scholars over the decades. Ferguson provides urgency and context to our present decline. He provides insight and excellent observations that should serve as a warning long overdue. His style is clear, engaging and at times witty.
    And yet, in his search for answers, we are left wondering if the author has dug deep enough.
    The work suffers from its limitations as an essay. The 152-page text is taken from his 2012 BBC Radio 4 “The Reith Lectures” which limits the depth of his analysis since the book’s tone is light and slightly entertaining. There is no time to develop in depth those pressing questions that might be found in a more imposing tome with full bibliography and index.
    However, there are other questions that might be raised. We are told how the institutions decayed but not why they decayed. Institutions simply don’t self-decay. We should be able to trace this decay to a decadence in men. There is little in the book to indicate what forces were at work in the depths of men’s souls that caused them to abandon these essential pillars. We are also given little clue as to what moral force might be employed to regenerate that which has degenerated.
    The problem stems from the fact that Ferguson’s worldview is that of the Scottish Enlightenment when he felt the four pillars now in decline had reached their harmonious apogee. He thus works inside a rationalist and secular framework. As an historian, Ferguson must have observed that religious and moral institutions have always served as the most effective means to bring about a regeneration of society. Indeed, the very four pillars he lists as decaying were largely medieval institutions that developed under the tutelage of the Church. Yet he does not make the leap to suggest that a moral or religious regeneration is possible or even desirable. Such an omission is lamentable.
    Despite this omission, the book does have great value in making a link not often made. Economists have so entered into the abstract world of formulae and numbers that simply ignore such social considerations. Historians tend to concentrate on events and dates. Not often do we see those who admit that social institutions do affect economy. Economy need the support of social institutions to thrive. We ignore to our detriment this central fact so well demonstrated in The Great Degeneration. John Horvat, Author of Return to Order: From a Frenzied Economy to an Organic Christian Society

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 3, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    I have to admit that I do not know much about this author, at pr

    I have to admit that I do not know much about this author, at present. But a lame one sentence review that is not a review, does nothing to help.

    I think one small step for a civilized society would be to ban all anonymous posts. Hey, stop lurking behind the shadows and make yourself heard properly! It might help improve the quality of reviews or at least decrease the level of name calling.

    Since I need to give a star rating in order to post and I have to admit to not reading the book as yet, I will give it 4 stars. I would tend to agree with most of the major points raised by the author.

    1 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 31, 2013

    Great Insight

    I enjoyed this book and really like the social aspects of it. It's not just views, but is backed by good research.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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