In a recent article about American decline—no doubt a marketing tool for his latest book—Niall Ferguson makes some pretty outlandish statements. The first one that caught my eye was that the Roman Empire did not “decline,” it collapsed. He says this happened within a few decades, and a simple reading of history would seem to support this view; however, the sacking of Rome in 476 CE was not a magical date. This event had followed many others that made the sacking of Rome possible, and it did not end the Roman Empire since the center of power had shifted to Constantinople at the beginning of the fourth century, and the emperor Justinian engaged in a short-lived, and temporarily successful, attempt to revive the whole empire in the sixth century.
Okay, so maybe Ferguson is sort of right, at least when it comes to the western portion of the Roman Empire. This still does not explain the continued influence of Roman culture on Western Europe centuries after it officially declined and was replaced by the “dark ages” and feudalism. It completely ignores the Renaissance, a word that means “rebirth.” What was being reborn? Well, Roman culture, that’s what.
As a political entity Rome may have declined, but this took centuries. It began with the death of Augustus Caesar (14 CE), a great political illusionist who while maintaining the outward signs of a republic established an enduring imperial government. Roman society deteriorated over centuries as the Roman Army became instrumental in choosing each successive emperor.
Ferguson bemoans the loss of American competition but ignores the fact that the U.S. military is now providing citizenship as an incentive to keep the military of the American Empire fully manned. Interestingly enough this is exactly what the Romans did for centuries prior to their own demise, because the Romans shared two proclivities with the American people: their unwillingness to work at “demeaning jobs” and their animus toward paying taxes.
Does Ferguson know this history? One would hope a Harvard “don” would have some inkling of the complexities of human history; however, read on in his article and you find a litany of claptrap no better than that which flows from the mind-numbingly utopian pen of Thomas Friedman, or any number of other social and economic utopians who seem to think that the free market is equivalent to the establishment of the millennial kingdom itself.
Ferguson says that the greatness of the West, as opposed to “the rest,” was built on the foundation of six major developments in Western European society beginning in the early sixteenth century: 1) competition, 2) the Scientific Revolution, 3) the rule of law and representative government, 4) modern medicine, 5) the consumer society, and 6) the work ethic.
I hardly know where to begin since European commercial development got going as early as the twelfth century when Italian city-states began participating in a Mediterranean trade that had been denied to them since the eighth century when the Islamic empire dominated the Mediterranean, a development that coincided with an invasion of Spain, Portugal, and southern France. The Islamic empire would not be driven from Europe until the late fifteenth century when the Reconquista was completed by the kings of Spain and Portugal. Coincidence?
By the beginning of the sixteenth century it was not competition but monopoly that allowed the Spanish and the Portuguese to dominate the European trade system for over a century. I wonder if Ferguson mentions the Portuguese cartaz system in his book, a policy which allowed for the interdiction and burning of a competitor’s ships along the African and Indian coasts? Does Ferguson mention the dumping of tons of spices into the ocean in order to increase the price in Europe, or the Dutch tactic of killing Asian farmers who grew too much, or who grew things without permission? Competition? Come on!
I cannot address every point in detail so I will only comment on two other statements made by Ferguson. First of all, medical science, although beneficial—especially the acceptance of germ theory—may have less to do with increased health and longevity than does simple sanitation. If the average modern person were transported to eighteenth century New York City they would likely be appalled by the general squalor and lack of personal hygiene. In short, good urban planning may have been more important to health than any medical advance.
Lastly, I just cannot believe that Ferguson would drag out that old shibboleth about the “Protestant” work ethic. Any first-year graduate student in history could make mincemeat of this argument just by pointing out that most of the wealth created in Western society was either expropriated or obtained through the unjust exploitation of human labor. What about slavery in the United States? What about indentured servitude? What about the tens of thousands of “Coolies” who built the American railroads? What of all the land expropriated from Native Americans, or taken in ginned-up wars of “defense”?
Pointing these things out does not impugn the hard work of the average Iowa farmer in the middle of the nineteenth century. It merely points out that American “greatness” did not come about as the result of hard work alone; it came more often at the expense of others too weak to defend their own interests. It came through the military might of the U.S., which first conquered a continent and then set its sights on the rest of the world.
A realist would argue that the U.S. had to pursue this imperial policy since Britain, France, Germany and others were doing the same at the end of the nineteenth century. I prefer not to judge the dead, especially since there are so many living malefactors to contend with these days: bankers and multi-national corporations, and their political enablers. What we can say, though, is that hagiographic histories of Western society will do nothing to improve our chances of building a better world.
Were we to follow Ferguson’s suggestions for restoring greatness to the United States, and Western society in general, we would more likely increase our problems rather than diminish them. The main problem with Ferguson’s view of the past is that he wants to impose it on the future. If we were to do so it would mean an increase of injustice not prosperity, since he has completely ignored the large role that simple theft played in the growth of the West.
If we want a better world for Americans and the West we will have to have a paradigm shift, and that paradigm will have to recognize the limitations of simple macroeconomic metrics. For, what good is a long life when it is lived in debilitating and inescapable poverty, poverty necessary to keep a few from ever soiling their hands with work?
Ferguson is wrong in his interpretation of history but what is more disturbing is his cynical patronization of that particular individual who sees everything in black and white, those who believe that every solution merely requires that we change one thing–or six things–in order to make everything better. No thinking adult should believe such fairy tales.