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How Institutions Decay and Economies Die

By Niall Ferguson

Pub Date: June 13th, 2013
ISBN: 978-1-59420-545-3
Publisher: Penguin Press

As Oswald Spengler’s massive 1918 classic Decline of the West approaches its 100th anniversary, announcements of the apocalypse continue to pour off the presses. Readers could do much worse than read this one from the prolific Ferguson (History/Harvard Univ.; Civilization: The West and the Rest, 2011).

Unlike Spengler, Ferguson requires a mere 150 pages to describe four splendid Western institutions whose decline he deplores. The first is democracy. Led by Ferguson’s native Britain, democracy produced governments that operated with the consent of the governed, secured property rights, and aimed at fairness and (in theory) equality. All this is now threatened by crushing national debts, mostly the result of social programs such as pensions and health insurance. Readers unfamiliar with Ferguson’s political views will now see the light. The author’s second essential is capitalism, now in its fifth year of crisis provoked by deregulation, according to liberals but not Ferguson, who blames bad regulation. No. 3, the rule of law, a glory of Western democracy, is now decaying into the rule of lawyers growing fat on litigation and government over-regulation. Especially disturbing to Ferguson is the decline of No. 4, “civil society,” voluntary associations of citizens with an objective other than private profit—clubs, PTAs, sports leagues, town meetings and more. Many observers believe that the Internet serves as well but not the author. Ferguson mentions the growing income disparity between rich and poor, crumbling infrastructure, poverty, irresponsible financial entrepreneurs, and their compliant regulators, but these are liberal priorities, not Ferguson’s.

The author’s apocalypse will result from conservative bugaboos, and he delivers an entertaining, often convincing polemic.