If parents could get their kids to read only one book on history, decided Niall Ferguson, it would have to be a book that answered why the West rose to preeminence in the past five centuries. And also why it would have to share the podium with others in the century ahead. Civilization: The West And The Rest
is his solution.
It would be pushing it to say that these fast-paced and readable 400 pages would be sufficient history for a lifetime. What Ferguson does succeed in doing is putting together a new and improved theory about the rise of the West.
In conversation and in his book, Ferguson freely admits to standing on the shoulders of other "why-the-West" tomes like David Landes's Wealth of Nations and Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. He incorporates the Landes argument about property rights. Diamond, he argues, "explains why Eurasia does better than other land masses but not why one end of Eurasia does better than the other parts."
Ferguson's argument is that the West developed six "killer apps" that collectively gave it an unbeatable advantage in the Darwinian race between civilisations. App one was a culture of political competition. Two and three are those of science and property rights. Four is medicine - a category Ferguson says "is apart from science". Fifth is the rise of consumer society. The sixth app was the work ethic.
"I concluded it wasn't geography, culture and all the standard reasons," said Ferguson, "It was about institutions." As for imperialism, "it had almost nothing to do with the West's success." The rise of the West preceded the age of empire and continued after the colonial era. The per capita economic divergence between an Indian and Briton was not at its height during the Raj, "it actually peaks in the 1970s".
Many will quibble about Ferguson's theory. It is not clear if "competition" is an institution as much as a consequence, as he admits, of Europe's fragmented geography. But his knowledge of both politics and economics allows him to come up with some original insights. The importance of medicine and consumerism in spurring economic growth and bringing an end to mass poverty is one of them. The other is his argument, not fully proven but intellectually enticing, that there is a positive connection between religiosity and the work ethic.
As in all Ferguson books, much of the enjoyment comes from the thick encrustation of historical trivia that he uses to flesh out his arguments. One is reminded of Benjamin Robins, the English Quaker whose mathematical studies were to ensure the superiority of western artillery for centuries. Or how the colourful hats and shawls worn by Bolivian mountain tribes are not indigenous but copies of Spanish peasantry of a century ago - part of the 19th century spread of western clothing across the world.
The other source of pleasure is his willingness to boldly go and predict the future.
The reason why the Rest is now catching up with the West? "The rest of the world is downloading the same apps." The catch up thesis is sound. One is less convinced by Ferguson's warnings that the West is also giving up on its own winning ways, citing well-worn stats about how Singaporeans do so well in math tests and how addicted Europeans are to leisure.
Throughout the book, the past failure and present-day success of China is posited against the West. He admits China could blow his theory apart. After all, Beijing has declined to download the first and third apps. "I don't see China being able to bridge this contradiction for more than another 20 year or so," Ferguson says. "If it does, a huge part of Western scholarship will be proved wrong."
India has all the six, he says, but hasn't done a great job with them. He continues the computer analogy. "The apps run very slowly in India. It is as if the country needs a better anti-virus programme."