Jerry's Reviews > Civilization: The West and the Rest

Civilization by Niall Ferguson
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's review
Jun 30, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: history
Read in June, 2012

In my view this is a very valuable book in that it offers a good explanation of why the West dominated the world over the past five centuries. An understanding of this is important to continuing the advancement of civilization. The author offers a different perspective that supplemented what I have learned from Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel; Ridley’s The Rational Optimist; and Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order. By the way, there is a PBS video series based on this book.

The author cites six “killer apps” that enabled the West to dominate after 1500: Competition, Science, Property Rights, Medicine, The Consumer Society, and The Work Ethic.

“The critical point is that the differential between the West and the Rest was institutional. Western Europe overtook China partly because in the West there was more competition in both the political and the economic spheres. Austria, Prussia and latterly even Russia became more effective administratively and militarily because the network that produced the Scientific Revolution arose in the Christian but not in the Muslim world. The reason North America's ex-colonies did so much better than South America's was because British settlers established a completely different system of property rights and political representation in the North from those built by Spaniards and Portuguese in the South. (The North was an 'open access order', rather than a closed one run in the interests of rent-seeking, exclusive elites.) European empires were able to penetrate Africa not just because they had the Maxim gun; they also devised vaccines against tropical diseases to which Africans were just as vulnerable.”

The West no longer has a monopoly on the six killer apps. Also, some of the apps, such as the work ethic, have declined somewhat in the west. But only the west has all six. “The Chinese do not have political competition. The Iranians do not have freedom of conscience. They get to vote in Russia, but the rule of law is a sham. In none of these countries is there a free press.”

The author worries that one of the dangers for the West is education that doesn't teach and value Western civilization. The current fad in education to disrespect Western Civilization and suggest other civilizations are morally equivalent or even superior neglects to see the benefits that Western Civilization has afforded society.

In reflecting on the recent movement of American culture towards the characteristics of the French I was particularly taken by the author’s quoting Tocqueville’s observations on differences between American and French society and revolutions:
1. France was increasingly centralized, whereas America was a naturally federal state, with lively provincial associational life and civil society.
2. The French tended to elevate the general will above the letter of the law, a tendency resisted by America's powerful legal profession.
3. The French revolutionaries attacked religion and the Church that upheld it, whereas American sectarianism provided a bulwark against the pretensions of secular authorities.
4. The French ceded too much power to irresponsible intellectuals, whereas in America practical men reigned supreme.
5. The French put equality above liberty.

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