January 7, 2013


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Civilization: The West and the Rest

Civilization by Niall Ferguson

A while back, I discovered Niall Ferguson via a TED talk that he gave on what he called the 6 Killer Apps of Prosperity. It was a fascinating take on why Western Civilization rose to prominence. The last few years I’ve become a bit more preoccupied with history—especially the history of The United States. Change seems to be coming at a rapid rate. A lot of it not so good. The general rationale for the success of the U.S.A runs the spectrum from “American Exceptionalism” and divine providence to exploitation and war. None of those rationales ever really seemed right to me. They are too simplistic.

So when I picked up Civilization, I got to experience a much more in depth explanation of what Niall meant by outlining those 6 integral features to the success of the west. It’s the best rationale I’ve found yet, for how we got here, how we can stay here, and where we are going. Those six features—or apps—are Competition, Science, Property Rights, Medicine, Consumption and Work Ethic. Throughout the book, he gives examples of how each of these traits helped advance the West over competing world powers, cultures and interests.

I’ve pulled three excerpts to illustrate how he makes his case:

Niall sites multiple examples of how various forms of competition(trade, warfare, governments, etc.) helped Western Europeans succeed in trade compared to China.

The political fragmentation that characterized Europe precluded the creation of anything remotely resembling the Chinese Empire. It also propelled Europeans to seek opportunities—economic, geopolitical and religious—in distant lands. You might say it was a case of divide and rule—except that paradoxically, it was by being divided themselves the Europeans were able to rule the world. In Europe small was beautiful because it meant competition—and competition not just between states, but also within states.

A very interesting point—fragmentation of interests competing for each other forces a faster evolution(and quite literally, faster, smaller ships which made a difference in exploration and trade) which gave Europeans an advantage.

The Scientific Revolution (and the subsequent advantages it created) occurred during the rise of the West and was largely concentrated in Europe.

Those who decry ‘Eurocentrism’ as if it were some distasteful prejudice have a problem: the Scientific Revolution was, by any scientific measure, wholly Eurocentric. An astonishingly high proportion of the key figures—around 80 per cent—originated in a hexagon bounded by Glasgow, Copenhagen, Kraków, Naples, Marseille and Plymouth, and nearly all the rest were born winthin a hundred miles of that area. Ottoman scientific progress was non-existent in this same period. The best explanation for this divergence was the unlimited sovereignty of religion in the Muslim world.

Religious institutions being at odds with science. Sounds familiar.

Property Rights
The ability for the individual to own land was something completely unique to the settling of North America. The average man could go from indentured servant to landowner in five years.

The key, in short, was social mobility—the fact that a man like Abraham Smith could arrive in a wilderness with literally nothing and yet within just a few short years become both a property owner and a voter. In seven out of thirteen future American states on the eve of the American Revolution, the right to vote was a function of landownership or the payment of a property tax—rules that remained in force in some cases well into the 1850s.

Nothing quite like social and economic mobility to motivate people to achieve.

There is, obviously, a lot more to this book. What I like best about it is that it doesn’t try to paint a picture of the future. It merely tries to diagnose the past and put the present into perspective.

For that reason alone, you should read it.

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