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Jim Cullen: Review of Niall Ferguson's "The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die" (Penguin, 2013)

Jim Cullen teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York. His most recent book, Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions, was published earlier this year by Oxford University Press. His next book, A Brief History of the Modern Media,will be published next year by Wiley-Blackwell.

I'm a sucker for lecture series books. For many years, Harvard University Press has published the William E. Massey Lectures in the History of American Civilization, which have included wonderful titles like Lawrence Levine's Highbrow/Lowbrow (1988), Richard Rorty's Achieving Our Country (1998), and Andrew Delbanco's The Real American Dream (1999). Louisiana State University Press's Walter Lynwood Fleming Lecture series is also very good, notable for Drew Gilpin Faust's The Creation of Confederate Nationalism (1989), among other titles. What's nice about these books is that they often distill a cast of mind into highly readable, short volumes that can be digested in chunks. They're typically small in terms of trim size and their number of pages.

What's not typical is for a major commercial press like Penguin to publish a series of lectures. But then Niall Ferguson is not exactly a typical author -- he's an academic superstar with appointments at Harvard, Oxford and Stanford and a veritable journalism and television brand. In The Great Degeneration, he offers a précis of his libertarian brand of thinking with an expansive view of Anglo-American society -- and why it's falling apart. It rests on a key insight, and a questionable prescription.

The insight -- a usefully provocative one -- is to view the United States and Britain (with occasional references to the rest of the West) through the lens of institutions. Actually, it's a little surprising this isn't done more often. In recent years we've tended to focus on things like climate/geography, brilliantly argued in works like Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997) or culture (the orientation of neoconservative intellectuals such as Thomas Sowell). Ferguson instead focuses his four chapters, bounded by an introduction and conclusion, by four institutional forces in everyday life: government, the marketplace, the legal system, and civil society (he's a big Tocqueville fan). In each case, he locates the triumph of Anglo-American life in the last three centuries to the way England and the United States have organized these institutions relative to their rivals. And in each case, he also cites the degeneration of the title, which he captures with brief, vivid strokes (and a few graphs). In diagnosing a problem, he's fairly persuasive.

It's when he starts prescribing a solution that Ferguson runs into trouble. The underlying cause of these maladies, as he sees it, is excessive regulation. It leads to government tyranny, market decay, legal shenanigans (he describes the replacement of the rule of law with "the rule of lawyers"), and the evisceration of the voluntarism that provided the sinews of greatness. The problem is not exactly that he's wrong -- though he certainly has his critics -- so much is that he can't resist potshots that undercut his credibility. So, for example, he complains that the creeping socialistic mentality in the West has led to demands for rights to things like education and healthcare, which he regards as unsustainable. But when he asks as an aside, "Why not a right to a drinkable wine, too?" he trivializes understandable longings with a bon mot that suggests glibness, if not heartlessness.

Other times Ferguson is simply too selective to be taken seriously. When describing his legitimate concern about cost of entitlements for future generations, Ferguson asserts that "if young Americans knew what was good for them, they would all be fans of Paul Ryan." Ryan does indeed want to cut social programs. But since his ardor for cutting taxes and offering benefits to large corporations ultimately outstrips his desire to balance the U.S. budget, it's hard to accept that he's thinking in the long-term way Ferguson advocates. Ferguson fairly notes that deregulation of financial markets has led to substantial growth relative to countries -- notably Canada -- that have been less aggressive in this regard. But he fails to mention that whatever its defects, Canada has not suffered the spectacular failures seen by U.S. and British financial institutions in the last decade. He has some legitimate, even amusing, anecdotes to offer about silly attempts by the government to micromanage the economy. But he never acknowledges that such efforts, however misguided, do not emerge in a vacuum -- they're often a response to the often unrelenting efforts of large corporations to accept any form of accountability, especially in the realm of paying taxes.

Still, Ferguson can't be dismissed out of hand. The vigor and economy of his prose has always been a strength, and they're in sharp focus in a book that began its life as part of a radio series for the British Broadcasting Company in 2012. Ferguson notes in his acknowledgments that he produced the book in the seven months after a newborn son (one wonders how much a distraction the child proved to be). A reference to President Obama's notorious "you didn't build that" speech of last summer suggests the book's perishability. Still, as an introduction to Ferguson's work and a lively, if boilerplate, presentation of libertarian ideology, The Great Degeneration is not a bad place to start. If nothing else, Ferguson frames the problems of our time with the simplicity that is the hallmark of a powerful mind that even his complacency can't completely undercut.