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The Great Degeneration

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The decline of the West is something that has long been prophesied. Symptoms of decline are all around us today, it seems: slowing growth, crushing debts, aging populations, anti-social behaviour. But what exactly is amiss with Western civilization? The answer, Niall Ferguson argues, is that our institutions - the intricate frameworks within which a society can flourish or fail - are degenerating.

Representative government, the free market, the rule of law and civil society: these were once the four pillars of West European and North American societies. It was these institutions, rather than any geographical or climatic advantages, that set the West on the path to global dominance after around 1500. In our time, however, these institutions have deteriorated in disturbing ways.

Our democracies have broken the contract between the generations by heaping IOUs on our children and grandchildren. Our markets are increasingly distorted by over-complex regulations that are in fact the disease of which they purport to be the cure. The rule of law has metamorphosed into the rule of lawyers. And civil society has degenerated into uncivil society, where we lazily expect all our problems to be solved by the state.

The Great Degeneration is a powerful - and in places polemical - indictment of an era of negligence and complacency. While the Arab world struggles to adopt democracy, and while China struggles to move from economic liberalization to the rule of law, Europeans and Americans alike are frittering away the institutional inheritance of centuries. To arrest the degeneration of the West's once dominant civilization, Ferguson warns, will take heroic leadership and radical reform.

This book is based on Niall Ferguson's 2012 BBC Reith Lectures, which were broadcast under the title 'The Rule of Law and Its Enemies'.

179 pages, Kindle Edition

First published October 17, 2012

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About the author

Niall Ferguson

95 books2,744 followers
Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, former Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University and current senior fellow at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University, a visiting professor at Tsinghua University, Beijing, and founder and managing director of advisory firm Greenmantle LLC.

The author of 15 books, Ferguson is writing a life of Henry Kissinger, the first volume of which--Kissinger, 1923-1968: The Idealist--was published in 2015 to critical acclaim. The World's Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild won the Wadsworth Prize for Business History. Other titles include Civilization: The West and the Rest, The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die and High Financier: The Lives and Time of Siegmund Warburg.

Ferguson's six-part PBS television series, "The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World," based on his best-seller, won an International Emmy for best documentary in 2009. Civilization was also made into a documentary series. Ferguson is a recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Award for Public Service as well as other honors. His most recent book is The Square and the Tower: Networks on Power from the Freemasons to Facebook (2018).

(Source: Amazon)

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 295 reviews
Profile Image for Riku Sayuj.
653 reviews6,945 followers
March 28, 2018
Why Nations Fail

Ferguson tells us that according to Adam Smith himself, countries can be said to have arrived at the “stationary state” when their ‘laws and institutions’ degenerate to the point that elite rent-seeking dominates the economic and political process.

The book makes a case that this is how it is in the Western world today. To illustrate this, Ferguson chooses four important sectors and examines them and shows that each of them is degenerating. There is of course an implicit assumption here of a “golden age”, but let us keep that aside as readers. It is just a trope that is too common to get riled up over.

The Four Black Boxes

To demonstrate the overall degeneration of Western institutions, Ferguson opens up his for sectors, or his Four Black Boxes. The first is the one labelled ‘democracy’. The second is labelled ‘capitalism’. The third is ‘the rule of law’. And the fourth is ‘civil society’. Together, they are the key components of our civilization. Taken together, the erosion of these institutions is what is referred to in this book as the Great Degeneration.

The argument then is that we are now living through this Great Degeneration, through a profound crisis of the institutions that were the keys to our previous success – not only economic, but also political and cultural – as a civilization.

Ferguson invites the readers to ponder these problems and think of ways to reverse the Great Degeneration — primarily by looking to return to those first principles of a truly free society which he tries hard to affirm. Again the “golden age” fallacy creeps up which ignores the fact that society was manifestly less complex in that “age”.

The most fascinating component of the book is the discussion on the various thinkers that Ferguson recruits to give more credence to his arguments. That was a treat, especially when Dickens was called to the stand.

Box 1: Democracy
Case Examined: Public debt
Thinker Enlisted: Edmund Burke
Submission: Public debt – stated and implicit – has become a way for the older generation to live at the expense of the young and the unborn.
Ferguson represents this crisis of public debt, the single biggest problem facing Western politics, as a symptom of the betrayal of future generations: a breach of Edmund Burke’s social contract between the present and the future.

Counterpoint: The question of the betrayal implicit in allocative inefficiencies & inequalities does not figure in the discussion.

Box 2: Capitalism
Case Examined: Regulation
Thinker Enlisted: Walter Bagehot
Sumbission: Regulation has become dysfunctional to the point of increasing the fragility of the system.
Ferguson suggests that the attempt to use complex regulation to avert future financial crises is based on a profound misunderstanding of the way the market economy works: a misunderstanding into which Walter Bagehot never fell. Ferguson instead suggests less regulations and more enforcement of punitive measures.

Counter Point: The question of how to then avert the financial crisis, especially when the “too-big-to-fail” mechanism causes a clear and present case of Moral Hazard is not illustrated.

Box 3: Rule of Law
Case Examined: Complexity
Thinker Enlisted: Charles Dickens
Submission: Lawyers, who can be revolutionaries in a dynamic society, become parasites in an increasingly complex and stationary one.
Ferguson warns that the rule of law, so crucial to the operation of both democracy and capitalism, is in danger of degenerating into the rule of lawyers: a danger Charles Dickens well knew.

Counter Point: The fact that inequality in societies propagate the disparity in legal access in not discussed. That notwithstanding, this is one area where the counterpoint is being made with an admission that this is an urgent requirement by any count. Except that law has a tendency towards complexity, purely because human society has that same tendency.

Box 4: Civil Society
Case Examined: Participation
Thinker Enlisted: Alexis de Tocqueville
Submission: Civil society withers into a mere no man’s land between corporate interests and big government.

Most importantly, Ferguson proposes that our once vibrant civil society is in a state of decay, not so much because of technology, but because of the excessive pretensions of the state: a threat that Tocqueville presciently warned Europeans and Americans against. A “Mandarin State” will crowd out civil society participation.

Counter Point: Ignores the idea that it is not the size of the government but the responsiveness that fuels civic participation. Also ignores the role of education in generating a sense of civic duty. Also ignores the possibilities new technologies provide for increasing civic-government interaction.

All in all, Ferguson makes some important points and nicely redirects Acemoğlu’s discussion from Why Nations Fail by examining the western institutions in isolation. Much of these might be relevant in “developed” economies (though I see no criteria under which to give any economy on this planet that label), but the problem is that as discussed in Tainter’s book, we have created a system that is too complex to simplify without allowing for too many loopholes, which again the privileged will be best-equipped to exploit. Quite a quandary, ha?
Profile Image for Steve Greenleaf.
221 reviews67 followers
January 11, 2014
There seem to be two-- or perhaps more--Niall Fergusons out there. One is a very accomplished historian, who, starting with work on German inflation and a biography of the House of Rothschild and on into The Cash Nexus, established his bona fides as a historian, especially in the financial realm. His The Pity of War and The War of the World move into thoughtful considerations of the great upheavals of the 20th century. In addition the books, he parlayed his work into televised programs. More recently, his work has tended toward more popular, synthesizing works, such as The Ascent of Money and Civilization: The West and the Rest, neither of which break new ground but each addresses a wide scope of history that merits consideration. And finally, especially since his emigration to Harvard, he has become a commentator on the American political and economic scene. His endorsements of McCain and Romney (especially the later in a derided Newsweek cover story) were poorly received (and rightfully so). His forecasts of the economy that cried for austerity have missed the mark (and to his credit, he's admitted as much, even granting some grudging credit to Paul Krugman for getting it right). So here we have the (at least two) Fergusons: one an insightful and energetic historian, and the other, a rather predictable and off-putting conservative hack. (Perhaps a bit harsh, but he can be so predictable.) So which Niall Ferguson wrote this book?

Both. The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die is written on the basis of the Reith Lectures that Ferguson gave on BBC 4, a long running and venerable forum. Ferguson's book based on the lectures is at once topical and historically broad. Ferguson discusses four characteristics that distinguished the rise of the the modern industrial states and made them--especially the U.S. and U.K.--so successful. The list is neither unique nor controversial: democracy, capitalism, the rule of law, and civil society. But as Ferguson's title suggests, he perceives a decline in each attribute. The success or failure (or decline) of any of the institutions and cultures that support and promote the four characteristics will determine the well-being of a nation. Starting with democratic institutions, Ferguson argues, quoting Burke, that the social contract isn't between individuals, but between generations ,and that the current generation (we Baby Boomers) have saddled a burden of debt on posterity. Underlying the capitalism that has fostered our economic growth, we have placed too many restrictions in response to the "Little Depression" , thereby choking our institutions. The rule of law has become, he claims, the "rule of lawyers". And finally, civil society has been largely replaced by the state. Each of these arguments merits serious consideration. When Ferguson takes a long view uses insights from a variety of fields, such as evolution, statistical thinking a la Nicholas Taleb, and he cliodynamics of Peter Turchin to buttress his insights he can prove quite engaging. On the other hand,his arguments about lawyers cites statistics that I suspect come from Chamber of Commerce types, such as the cost of "litigation" on manufacturing. Know this: when it comes to regulation or litigation, no one, but no one, outspends corporate America on whatever it takes to protect their interests.And so it goes, for each insight it seems, we have a pat conservative analysis.

And so it is that Ferguson seems to cite problems and remedies that are all too "conservative", as in pro big business. (Ferguson is not a no-nothing on social issues.) Ferguson can't quite pull back from what seem to be quite pugilistic instincts in politics, a Thatcherite through and through, although Maggie and Ronnie are now long gone. And so Ferguson ends the book by quoting President Obama's "you didn't build that" remarks in the same light as other conservative hacks: Obama is promoting the State (always in caps for this crowd) against "civil society". The great irony here, of course, is that Obama cut his teeth in civil society as a community organizer, and his instincts are amazingly centrist and conciliatory even though the center has moved far right and the Republicans lack anyone with whom he can conciliate. Also, in the context of what Obama said, there is no glorification of the State, only the recognition that the government does provide a crucial avenue for collective action.

In the end, I'd have to say this is more "bad Niall" than "good Niall" but still with flashes of insight that you wish more of. We can only hope that the good Niall comes back.

Profile Image for Gregg.
449 reviews20 followers
April 30, 2017
Short review: I think Ferguson is full of crap.

Moderate, amateur review: I don't have the training or the IQ to debate this guy head to head, but I suspect three-fourths of what he says is crap.

Ferguson's basic thesis is that the West is in a state of "degeneration," or stagnation, due to overregulation, government intrusion into civic life, and a rule of lawyers rather than a rule of law, among other things. Our glory days are over; since we are no longer ascending, we're vulnerable to competition and the innovations of the East and Africa. The financial crisis had less to do with banks swapping mortgages and ripping off the homeowners. It had everything to do with the government choking the infrastructure with laws and deficit spending. Banks, it turns out, are less guilty for giving out loans to people they shouldn't have than the people themselves. By that logic, I guess we start locking up rubes at the county fair instead of the hucksters rigging the tilt-a-wheel.

He builds his arguments on empirical data which, even to a layman like myself, seems selective and unconvincing (Adam Smith, for example, was much more suspicious of the mercantiles' motives and civic-mindedness than you'd deduce from the material pulled from him here). One tiny example: Ferguson rolls out a long list of figures about Americans' lower rates of participation in civic, volunteer and charity organizations, and points to this reduced activism as proof of socioeconomic decline. Unmentioned, of course, is the decline in wages and benefits, and increase in working hours, that could well explain such a decline, though to Ferguson, corporations and employers are rarely as guilty of malfeasance as the government or community.

Another tiny example: If we allowed the markets, banks and financial institutions to operate according to the laws of Darwinism, we'd see better results. He writes that natural selection should result in healthy competition and "extinction" of the inferior, but "whereas evolution in biology takes place in a pitiless natural environment, evolution in finance occurs within a regulatory framework (which is) stupid enough to make a fragile system even more fragile." To Ferguson, this stupidity manifests itself in cumbersome, growth-choking regulation; bank bailouts and corporate greed made de rigeur is, of course, not even mentioned.

And an even teenier example: Ferguson's claims that businesses reporting low satisfaction with certain countries because of regulation and oversight is suspect to me. Not that laws like Dodd-Frank are perfect or anything, but if they're annoyed about legislators attempting to make it tougher to downsize, boost profits and expect future bailouts, well, isn't that a good thing? In Ferguson's worldview, I think we're supposed to accept the notion that banks, businesses and corporations are greedy and predatory as an axiom. We just accept it as a given and operate around them somehow, and since the state can't possibly stop this sort of thing, it shouldn't even try.

When it comes to schools, I should point out, Ferguson admits no defeat in the face of human nature: education, as long as it's privatized, can do anything. Ferguson devotes ten pages to this point, in which he says absolutely nothing new, although I did find it bewildering that a scholar so erudite (however much I may disagree withies philosophy) can misread PISA studies like the thousands of other numbskulls railing against public education. On one page he calls for schools to be increasingly privately funded so that they can be "free to select pupils." He sees nothing contradictory about this attitude and the attitude, expressed a couple pages later, that "the education revolution...will be that good education will become available to an increasing proportion of children." But in this world, education is better for all...as long as the school counts you as one of the "all."

When American entrepreneurs flock to Ghana and Rwanda to escape anti-business oppression, I'll take Ferguson more seriously. And it's likely that I'm missing quite a bit of his wisdom (I like how he sounds when he speaks of common law/civil law...I think...) But he lost me when he snapped that "if young people knew what was good for them, they would have voted for Paul Ryan." Please. I am not John Galt.

Note: If my poor words fail to convince, I'm not surprised. Try the Boston Globe: http://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/books...)
Profile Image for Blair.
119 reviews80 followers
July 2, 2016
Contrary to The Economist, I did not quite find this book “a dazzling history of Western ideas.” Many of those ideas that might be worthwhile are never properly explained. In summary, the degeneration of Western society is caused by strangling the economy with excess regulation, robbing the next generation with debt, undermining rule of law with lawyer hegemony, and delegating civic responsibility from society to the state.

But how can we discuss degeneration without knowing what the goals of a society should be. He seems most upset when telling us how the West is no longer so much richer than other countries. Is economic growth itself the only measure of our progress? One gets that impression. Yet one of his major themes (and the most original) is about the decline in voluntary societies and clubs. We are told these societies were much more effective at delivering benefits to the poor than large government programs. But they did not reach many people. I should also point out that this kind of activity is not a good personal profit maximizing strategy, suggesting that a preoccupation with material goods may be part of the problem.

Much heat but little light is shed on the question of regulation. Yes, excessive regulation can strangle initiative. The law should not be a detailed instruction manual on how to run your business. But how do we get the balance right? Sure, it is best to have simple rules with strong enforcement, but the devil is in the details. The most interesting idea is that common law is an evolutionary mechanism, while an imposed civil law is an attempt at Intelligent Design, which never works. But as usual, in the end we are left hanging for a lack of practical solutions.

Growing inequality does appear to be a problem for the author, as he says, “A massive proportion of the benefits of the last thirty five years of economic growth have gone to the super-elite.” However, the usual suspects such as globalization “do not offer sufficient explanations,” for unspecified reasons. The real reason is… the four themes of the book, again for unspecified reasons. Thanks for that.

He reminds us that the social contract should not be only between citizens, but also between generations. Forget the sterile argument between austerity and stimulus; increasing debt is systematic theft from the future. And the real debt is much larger when you include the unfunded liabilities of welfare programs and defined benefit pensions. Well, is debt not a zero-sum game? If everyone is so deep in debt, then who are the creditors? Does China own the whole world, or do we simply owe it to ourselves? Also, I suggest this does not explain our low growth today while we are still on the receiving end of the intergenerational theft.

We get a lot of analogies with the natural world from someone who has so little place for it in the decision making process. For example, he does allow that burning fossil fuels will lead to climate change. And maybe if it is disruptive enough there will be a meaningful policy response. Never mind that given the inertia of the climate system it will then be too late. How about a hint as to how we should deal with this? Instead he dictates which technologies we should use. This is what passes for analysis. You would think he might at least suggest a carbon tax and let the market decide matters he knows little about.

The common thread is that we are in trouble because we have fallen into a stationary state. Those who advocate such a thing for environmental reasons should consider if wasting resources on excessive regulation, inefficient government programs, a parasitic lawyer class and funneling all our wealth to the elite is the way to achieve it. Have you experienced the difference between working in a growing organization and a static one? Shall we extend this to the whole society? Remember that no population growth means an aging population - ever more old people stealing the future from fewer young people. Then there is the small matter that the country that is growing the fastest is a totalitarian state with utter contempt for our liberal institutions. If you don’t like the American Empire, consider living under Chinese hegemony. Real world problems are hard. This book identifies some, but I wish it helped a little more with their solution.

Perhaps the Archbishop of Canterbury is a bit extreme when he calls this “Aspirational waffle designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable.” There are a few things we need to think about in here. The saving grace is that the book is blessedly short, so your time investment is minimal if you choose to consider them.
Profile Image for Charles Haywood.
491 reviews701 followers
September 30, 2019
Superficial and disappointing. Basically a very brief book that rehashes and endorses unoriginal existing structural arguments about societal decline, primarily revolving around institutions. But Ferguson ignores non-economic forms and manifestations of degeneration, as well as all in-depth cultural analysis. Avoid.
56 reviews
July 20, 2013
The Great Degeneration is not a hard or long read. Unfortunately, it's is also not a good read, as Ferguson never gets around to proving his point; the how or why our institutions in the West are failing.

Ferguson focuses on four areas of our society: democracy, market capitalism, the rule of law, and civil society, and attempts to show how each of these institutions have greatly regressed, to the point where the West is now in stagnation. He traces the history of these institutions, how they developed and the point they are at today, particularly focusing on their development in England, and how that expanded outward through it's empire.

My problem with The Great Degeneration is its simplistic view of the problems facing these institutions, and his lack of clarity or depth in offering solutions. Maybe I shouldn't be surprised, since the book is a very short 145 pages, but I was expecting a little bit more in terms of depth.

For example, in discussing the breakdown of democracy, he doesn't even address the current (and certainly continuing) dominance of corporations to influence the political landscape, leading to widespread apathy as voters increasingly come to believe they do not have the means to influence their own government. Ferguson focuses instead on the breakdown of the social contract between the generations, the fact that this current generation, in it's reckless consumption (both private and public), is saddling future generations with a debt that may very well crush it and bring it to ruin. I appreciated this observation, and do believe that it does play a part in the degeneration of politics, but for a truly balanced account of how democracy is being threatened both this, as well as the increasingly powerful role of corporations (to say nothing of the radical increase of state surveillance on its own citizens) should have been discussed.

The problem is even more pronounced in discussing the degeneration of the market economy. Here Ferguson's culprit is, wait for it: increased regulation. How anyone can still make this argument is beyond me, considering what we have seen over the past 5 years, but there it is. Now, I am no economist, but some of Ferguson's conclusions seem woefully simplistic and an example of making data say what you want it to say. For example, Ferguson states that the banks were at the heart of the 2008 crisis, and the banks were regulated, and so more regulation is not what is needed. To support this he cites the fact that banks were regulated through, among other things, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Improvement Act of 1991. What he doesn't mention is that this came about as a result of the savings and loan scandals of the 1980s, itself a result of deregulation, and that with the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act this Act only made it more likely that banks would engage in risky lending since their losses would be covered by the taxpayer. Fergson also claims, on page 70, that further regulation is doomed to fail since regulators, within a complex market economy, can never know enough to manage effectively a complex system and prevent crises like the one we faced in 2008. Yet again, however, he fails to address the fact that deregulation is partially what led to the formation of complex derivative financial instruments, which created such havoc, and that deregulation, by allowing banks and other financial institutions hide much of their operations, only increase informational asymmetries and make the markets more unstable. Regulators may not be able to know enough to prevent all crises in a market economy, but history has shown that deregulation makes an economy much more complex and, because of that, fragile. Yet right after arguing this, Ferguson makes an astonishing claim: that "in theory, perhaps it would be much better if big banks were chopped up, leverage ratios were drastically reduced and interconnections between deposit takers and risk takers were reduced" (74). In other words, regulation. But he dismisses this by saying that he cannot see it happening, and so deals with reality as he finds it, not admitting that what he has just discussed could only come about through regulation. (It's also curious to note that here is where market economics and democracy meet: that perhaps the reason he cannot see this happening is because of how democracy is increasingly responsive to those with money and power who will ensure that these types of changes never come around).

He continues in a similar manner when discussing the breakdown of the rule of law. For Ferguson, the rule of law has become the rule of lawyers, emboldened by tort law in the United States and by increasingly invasive and complex regulation, which both inhibits business (market economy) and, presumably, allows for the rule of lawyers as they challenge or uphold said regulation. I don't want to repeat myself here, but simply point out that Ferguson no where addresses how the rule of law is threatened not by over regulation but by the repeated and, often, successful attempts of those with power and money, whether individuals or corporations, to subvert the laws of the land. Also, I found it strange that Ferguson is so quick to uncritically accept the line that corporations move overseas because of restrictive regulation, without questioning how this works to erode the rule of law (by basically blackmailing countries to remove or ignore laws that the corporation doesn't like, regardless of what the citizenry wants), or what impact this might have on the countries corporations choose to operate in (for instance, by subverting laws, primarily labour and environmental, in a quest for more profit).

He finishes by discussing the breakdown of civil society, and here I found his arguments were the most compelling. He argues that civil society is breaking down, seen in the steady erosion of community group and other voluntary association attendance. He argues that the types of networks we create now, primarily through the internet, are no replacement for the types of associations we used to have, which required strangers to come together to solve community problems. He rightly identifies that this has largely happened as a result of increased government service provider, as governments have taken over areas that used to be the domain of voluntary organizations. Ferguson, rightly in my opinion, recognizes that by increasingly looking to the government to provide services Western society has become less connected, and uses the time and energy it previously used serving each other to pursue pleasure and entertainment. But then he closes his book in a rather strange manner, considering his previous comments about the breakdown of inter-generational social contract and the retreat from civil society. He quotes a speech President Obama gave as he campaigned for the 2012 election, where Obama emphasizes the communal nature of America's success, that no one person invented the internet, built the Hoover Dam and Golden Gate Bridge, or built the roads that allow business to flourish. For Ferguson, this is the problem: the speech overstates the case that government is required for success. But it seems that Ferguson misses that this speech trumpets the same outlook he has been advocating throughout his book: these accomplishments would not have happened without a contract with succeeding generations, to build, and pay for, roads and bridges that future generations would use, and that these projects came to fruition precisely because people worked together and did not just rely on the government (the speech also recognizes that the government often must step in precisely because there are areas the market economy will not touch, like educating veterans or huge public projects). It's an unfortunate way to end the book, but one that is, unfortunately, indicative of Ferguson's tendency to see what he wants to see, no matter the evidence before him.
Profile Image for Drtaxsacto.
539 reviews44 followers
August 26, 2013
A lot of the reviews of this short book which is taken from a group of lectures seem to be grumpy about the conclusions or miss the argument. Ferguson is a great historian (I loved the Ascent of Money for its breadth). This book suggests that four institutions are critical to what the founders called " happiness." He argues that each is in a state of decline and concludes those declines have long term consequences. Institutions are key to economic growth - he names four democracy, capitalism, the rule of law and civil society. In a brief approach (the book is about 200 pages) he describes the consequences of each of the declines. In a final chapter he raises some possible scenarios but throughout the book he offers ideas about what might be done.

It is not as some of the Good Reads reviewers have suggested, a fatalistic book. But the consequences of not addressing the declines are substantial.
Profile Image for Oleksandr Golovatyi.
412 reviews32 followers
October 11, 2020
Readlax: Вправи для швидкочитання. Читай швидко з кращим розумінням. (промо-лінк)

Нотатки та цитати з книги:

"насправді інф��яція - це здебільшого політичне явище. Імовірність інфляції залежить від таких чинників, як зміст елітарної освіти, конкуренції (або її відсутність) в економіці, характер правової системи, рівень насильства і сам процес ухвалення політичних рішень."

"Верховенство права - це головний інституційний регулятор учасників політичного й економічного життя."

"На 1978 рік середньо-статистичний американець був щонайменше у 22 рази багатший за китайця"

"Відколи де Сото опублікував "Загадку капіталу", революції в таких країнах, як Туніс і Єгипет, надали переконливі свідчення на підтримку його підходу."

"досвід показує, що будь-який уряд, який серйозно намагається скоротити структурний дефіцит, втрачає владу."

"надміру складні регулювання - це саме та хвороба, яка вдає із себе лікування"

"Усі комплексні системи у світі природи (від термітників до великих лісів і нервової системи людини) мають спільні риси. Незначне втручання в систему може призвести до величезних непередбачуваних змін. Причиново-наслідкові зв'язки часто нелінійні."

"Насім Талеб у книжці "Антикрихкість" ставить чудове запитання: що є протилежністю крихкого? Відповідть - це не "міцний" і не "витривалий", тому що ці слова просто означають меншу крихкість. Справжньою протилежністью крихкого є "антикрихкий". Система, яка стає сильнішою, коли її піддають змінам, - є антикрихкою."

"Жодне регулювання світу не допоможе відвернути майбутню фінансову кризу так, як чітка та реальна небезпека для нинішніх банкірів потрапити у в'язницю, якщо вони вчинять злочин в очах влади, від якої залежить їхній бізнес."

"Складний фінансовий світ можна зробити менш крихким лише завдяки простоті регулювання та силі дотримання законів. Повторюю: поганий закон - один із найстрашніших ворогів верховенства права."

"головний суддя Том Бінггем у книжці "Верховенство права" (The Rule of Law), визначив сім критеріїв, за якими слід оцінювати правову систему: ..."

"Сполучені Штати були верховенством права. Але те, що ми бачимо сьогодні, - це верховенство юристів, і це вже дещо інше."

"чудова книжка Чарльза Мюррея 2012 року "Розходження" стверджує, що розпад як релігійних, так і світських асоціацій громад робочого класу - це одна з основних рушійних сил, що стоїть за відсутністю соціальної мобільності та збільшенням нерівності у сучасних США."

"Лише близько 7% британських підлітків навчаються у приватних школах, це приблизно стільки само, як у США. Якщо вам кортить знати, чому азійські підлітки отримають кращі за британських та американських однолітків результати зі стандартизованих тестів, то от вам відповідь: у Макао, Гонконгу, Південній Кореї, Тайвані та Японії понад чверть учнів навчається у приватних закладах. Середній результат тесту з математики PISA у цих країнах на 10% вищий за результат британських та американських підлітків."

"розширення приватної освіти означає кращу якість й ефективнішу освіту для всіх."

"справжнє громадянство - це не лише голосування на виборах, заробіток і дотримання законів. Це також участь у "великій групі" (товаристві за межами родини), у якій ми навчаємося розвиватися й дотримуватися правил поведінки: одне слово, керувати власним ��иттям. Давати освіту своїм дітям. Піклуватися про нужденних. Стежити за чистотою на вулицях."

"що більше місто, то на більшу зарплату ви можете розраховувати, на більшу кількість освітніх закладів, культурних подій, патетнів, і то інноваційнішим буде це місто тощо... Виявилося, що універсальний показник дорівнює приблизно 1.5, і це ... свідчить приблизно про таке: якщо ви збільшите розмір міста удвічі - з 50 тис. до 100 тис., з мільйона до двох, з п'яти мільйонів до десяти... то ви систематично отримуватиме приблизно 15% зростання виробництва, патентів, кількості дослідницьких інститутів, зарплат [на душу населення]... і ви систематично економитимете 15% на довжині доріг і загальній інфраструктурі."

"чисті вигоди урбанізації визначаються інституційною рамкою, у межаї якої функціонують міста. Там, де є дієвий представницький уряд, там, де є динамічна ринкова економіка, де дотримуються верховенства права і де громадянське суспільство вільне від держави, переваги густонаселеності міст переважають над витратами. Там, де ці умови не дотримані, ситуація протилежна."

"Країни, як казав Адам Сміт, досягають стану стагнації, коли їхні "закони та інститути" занепадають до точки, коли в економічних і політичних процесах починає домінувати жадібна еліта."

"Geoffrey West, "Why Cities Keep Growing, Corporations and People Always Die, and Life Gets Faster" (2011). See also West's dazzling TED lecture https://www.ted.com/talks/geoffrey_we..."
Profile Image for Jake.
232 reviews50 followers
January 5, 2020
Perhaps pinker’s optimism doesn’t quite suit you, and in your readings you are seeing something closer to grey skies that you perceive above . If you are searching for such a thing, this wouldn’t be a terrible place to start. Here is what it is about in the author’s terms (found near the end of its conclusion):

“Countries arrive at the stationary state, as Adam Smith argued, when their ‘laws and institutions’ degenerate to the point that elite rent-seeking dominates the economic and political process. I have tried to suggest that this is the case in important parts of the Western world today. Public debt – stated and implicit – has become a way for the older generation to live at the expense of the young and the unborn. Regulation has become dysfunctional to the point of increasing the fragility of the system. Lawyers, who can be revolutionaries in a dynamic society, become parasites in a stationary one. And civil society withers into a mere no man’s land between corporate interests and big government. Taken together, these are the things I refer to as the Great Degeneration.”

The book attempts to substantiate these ideas. In the end he seems to be a premium or an increase of social capital, which he expects would cure many of our ailments. It is at the end of the day a short book but fairly worthwhile for some perspective on the modern u.s and the various western nations’ place in the world.
Profile Image for Paula.
29 reviews
August 1, 2013
This is basically conservative, capitalism rules drivel. To totally discount geographical and climatic influence on cultures is just another way to say that the west is somehow pre-ordained to be better. He's banging the same drum that older people have been banging for generations, it's basically a big long "kids today!" rant with a dash of xenophobia and racism added.
Profile Image for Jamie (Books and Ladders).
1,265 reviews188 followers
February 28, 2017
Honestly, I agreed with some of the points he made, but Ferguson uses examples and quotes without context. This is quite strange to me as he is a historian and should know that it is important to explain context. However, I was quite disappointed with his fourth chapter about the "uncivil society" in which he sounded like "Old Man Yells At Clouds" as he states that engagement is "way down" in terms of what he deems to be typical types of civil activity without expanded upon why the new generation has taken to different forms of political and civic engagement. He uses statistics to further his point but does not acknowledge that statistics are the worst type of lies. As well, he sounds extremely elitist in discussing club memberships as many of these exclusive memberships cost hundreds of dollars and are seen as a luxury, not a necessity, to a new generation. I would not recommend reading this alone without having additional information and resources about the financial crisis and how state capitalism operates.
Profile Image for Luz.
827 reviews6 followers
March 11, 2022
Eloquent writing, but advocate a utopian community better suited for early American, or Australian societies. Expected much more than an expanded speech converted into a book.
Profile Image for Daniel Burton.
406 reviews86 followers
October 28, 2013
One of the most interesting books I've read in recent years was Niall Ferguson's Civilization: The West and the Rest, an examination of the extraordinary rise of Western Civilization relative to the rest of the world and the causes that seem to be at the root of its apparent decline. Ferguson's newest book--The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die--continues that examination, looking at why rich countries, as he puts it, "lose their way."

With a page count a bit lower than Civilization, The Great Degeneration is based on his 2012 "Reith Lectures" on the BBC and walks through four institutions that Ferguson sees as crucial to the prosperity of the modern state. Faced with growing symptoms of decline, such as slowing growth, crushing debts, increasing inequality, aging populations, antisocial behavior, Ferguson believes that our institutional degeneration may be the major cause.

Ferguson opens by first addressing other arguments about why wealthy countries have declined. China and India's impressive economic growth, in contrast to relative stagnation in western democracies, is not a matter of the rest of the world catching up to the West, but is also a result of actual decline in real terms in western countries of certain institutions, especially in the decline of political, economic, legal and social institutions.

The west's success, relative to "the rest," over the last few centuries has been in large part due to four institutions: democracy, capitalism, the rule of law, and civil society.

Democracy has deteriorated not so much due to access, but rather due to the breakdown of the social contract between generations, says Ferguson. For this, he cites the expensive benefits that older generations have voted themselves to be left to the next generation to pay for, noting that Edmund Burke, in his Reflections On The Revolution In France saw the generations as an important part of the social contract. By taking on astronomical amounts of debt, we have put future generations on the hook for our expensive lifestyles.

When it comes to capitalism, Ferguson is not so much anti-regulation as he is anti-bad regulation. There is not such thing as a market without some kind of regulation, he says, but the regulation must makes sense and malefactors must be made to pay. On the contrary, in the recent recession, Wall Street came out ahead, despite risky behavior and dangerous bets, while average Americans bailed them out with giant debt producing stimulus packages.

Where once the rule of law protected contracts and property rights, tort law has slowed down the legal system, raised the costs of doing business, increased the costs of products, and failed to produce a corresponding benefit, stifling innovation and creativity.

It is when Ferguson reaches civil society that I am most intrigued. He quotes from both Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert Putnam and Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 by Charles Murray, both landmark works on the dramatic decrease in voluntary associations over the last century. Where as at one point both wealthy and poor attended the same churches, participated in the same organizations (think Lions Club or Rotary or even Boy Scouts), and lived in the same neighborhoods, recent decades have seen lower and lower membership and participation in these voluntary associations that have brought people together for a common purpose. Instead, government has replaced these voluntary associations in many cases as the source of resort and not often with improved results. We may have more "Friends" on Facebook, but the relationships there are no more substantial than the effort to click "Like." The result is less civic-mindedness and less civic-participation.

And no, showing up to vote does not reflect civic participation. Voter turnout is merely a symptom of increased, or decreased, civic engagement.

Since I listened to the book over the course of several days commute and while doing a bit of home improvement, I found the shorter analysis and references to other works useful and was unsurprised to hear, as Ferguson closed up the book, that it was based on a series of lectures. While The Great Degeneration is a fascinating, if bite-sized, look at the problems assailing western civilization, it proceeds along lines that are more prescriptive than proscriptive. As a gateway, however, it is a starting point, and on that score, I recommend it as a place to begin your examination of the future of our democracy.
Profile Image for Artak Aleksanyan.
244 reviews80 followers
December 9, 2017
Բավականաչափ մատչելի, դյուրամարս ու դիպուկ գիրքն է այն մասին, թե ինչո՞ւ է Արևմտյան քաղաքականությունն իջնում ներքև, իսկ Չինաստանը հպարտանում պետական կապիտալիզմով: Գրքի "Եզրակացություն" հատվածն ուղղակի անփոխարինելի է, որովհետև մեծ հաշվով Ֆերգյուսոնը ասում է, թե ինչ կլինի Արևմուտքի և մնացած աշխարհի հետ: Ու երբ դա պրոեկտում ես քո երկրի ու տարածաշրջանի վրա, ապա իրադարձություններն ու զարգացումները ոչ միայն պատահական չեն, այլև խիստ տրամաբանական: Ինչպես Ֆերգյուսոնն է ասում, աշխարհը հասել է այնտեղ, որ հնարավոր է հստակ կանխագուշակել առաջիկա երկրաշարժի, ցունամիի ու պատերազմի հստակ տեղն ու ժամը: Ուղղակի անհնար է իմանալ ծավալներն ու տևողությունը:
Profile Image for Doug.
294 reviews14 followers
July 16, 2013
The Great Degeneration is another book that ought to be mandatory reading for every American - but then someone would have to translate it to a seventh grade reading level so most of us could understand it. Ferguson is not at all optimistic about the future of Western Culture and America in particular. He sights the usual suspects: our overwhelming public and private debt, our inept government regulation of business and banking, the total lack of appropriate punishment for those responsible for our financial crisis, our abandonment of the rule of law in favor of the rule of lawyers, the government's abandoning the welfare of the people in favor of the welfare of the special interests, our deteriorating public school system, and our passive acceptance of government intrusion into virtually all aspects of our lives. How was that for a run-on sentence? Unlike a number of books that I've read with somewhat the same message that hold out some vague hope that we can somehow overcome these problems, Ferguson seems to believe that we may have gone too far to recover. For twenty years, I've been telling everyone I could get to listen that we were on the road to becoming a third world country. If you believe Ferguson, I may, unfortunately, have been right.
Profile Image for Carolyn Kost.
Author 3 books102 followers
June 4, 2014
Drawing upon the essential social scientific theories from North, Collier, Shleifer, Bagehot, Weber, De Soto, Tocqueville, and others, Ferguson presents substantial evidence that the core institutions (democracy, capitalism, rule of law, and civil society) of Western nations are being gravely eroded and those nations stand to decline further unless action is taken.

The primary deteriorative forces include excessive public debt, which effectively benefits the present at the expense of the future, and excessively complex "rigged legislation" and regulation as well as poor and inequitable enforcement. Perhaps Ferguson's most intriguing point is the essential significance of the rise of Big Government and the decreased participation in "voluntary associations: institutions established by citizens with an objective other than private profit," for it is private initiative that empowers citizens, binds them to one another, and truly creates community, rather than dependence on the state.

This is an accessible treatment, if a bit dense in spots, and is likely to entice the reader to revisit the writings of the theorists to whom Ferguson refers.

From his 2012 BBC lecture series.
Profile Image for Jacob.
192 reviews9 followers
July 28, 2013
This rather slim and single-flight readable book lays out the maladies that are causing the western world to lose out. It's a bit of a 'grumpy old man' piece in that the outcome seems to now be sealed and Ferguson didn't give us the expected 'here is how to solve it' ideas.

On a per page basis, the book is dense with thoughts backed by facts and research, but written in a digestible manner. Ultimately, however, one of the many Bizarro-Fergusons on the left could provide antithetical thoughts backed by facts and research. It's a true weakness that the facts support the preset opinion rather than the facts helping to create the opinion - but that's the nature of a volume of this size.

In the end, as someone who doesn't frequently find himself looking at neoliberal thought with much interest, this was a way to expose myself to it with minimal time commitment and with an author who is clearly thoughtful and inviting of a civil dialogue on real issues.
Profile Image for Isabelrt.
95 reviews15 followers
April 18, 2013
Interesting ideas, but Ferguson jumps to conclusions with an ease that is a bit disturbing. Correlation is not causation, after all....
Profile Image for Brett Williams.
Author 2 books58 followers
March 28, 2019
Good but not resounding in its assertion of cause. Ferguson’s book (without an index) lays blame for the West’s decline on the failure of institutions, while poo-pooing culture as fundamental in that decline. Ferguson’s institutions of note are democracy, over-regulated economies, improper laws, and dead social capital. Social capital lost not to technology (per Putnam’s Bowling Alone), but rather the handing over of social associations and their solutions to paid lobbyists and the Nanny State. He makes many good points. His explication of differences between common vs. civil / continental law was enlightening.

However, Ferguson’s claims against regulation are mixed. He wants punishment of wrong doing implemented, like the imprisonment of Wall Street bankers who gave themselves $21B in bonuses for destroying tens of millions of families, homes, and jobs, thus fueling the worldwide populist revolt. (Here! Here!) But to Ferguson, the non-regulated credit default swaps and derivatives gambling market (which are still unregulated) were a minor player, while others claim them as instrumental. It was the banks, Ferguson claims, and they were regulated. But is a regulation (or law) that gives banks, or anybody else, power to commit malfeasance really a regulation? Or simply the codified proof of who owns the regulators and politicians that allow corruption? He calls these “bad regulations.” I call them no regulation at all. Regulations are restrictive, as a parent regulates a child. Regulations are not permissive, as anyone who profits prefers. Consider government allowance of Big Pharma to addict and kill over 49,000 in the US alone in 2017 on opioids like Perdue’s mega-seller OxyContin, or Ag-Gag laws that allow animal abuse and torture because ethical treatment is more expensive, or Boeing’s “self-regulation” of their 737 Max 8, as they “stand by their plane” (on the ground) after killing another 157 people in Kenya after the first 189 in Jakarta while Boeing twiddled their thumbs for 4 months and the FAA supported their actions. Looks like there's not nearly regulation enough.

Ferguson claims, “until we understand the true nature of our degeneration, we’re wasting our time applying quick remedies to mere symptoms.” From where I sit and what I read the cause is precisely what he denies—culture. The attentive spirit of ascent, salted with virtue, the common good, and responsibilities over rights is what built the institutions. Yes, those then help shape the people. But that character no longer survives. The institutions fail because the people fail first, not the other way around. After that, institutions only exacerbate descent, they don’t cause it. Virtue, common good, and responsibilities over rights are all part of true community (not the NASCAR, Internet, Game of Thrones “community”), but individualism has dismantled that. On the Left, tradition is dismissed as oppressive, morality is a matter of free choice and identity politics. On the Right, the selfish nature of capitalism contradicts the selfless nature of their religion, ethics, and morality. The Left’s solution is more independence to exacerbate the problem. While the Right’s solution is a return to the good old time religion through their violation of it, and by physical force because they’ve got no intellectual solutions to the problem of modernity that will sell outside the tavern. Such are the response to loss of meaning once attached to the belonging of community. Ferguson’s “institutional malaise” is a cultural one. But it's just such speculation, and it is speculation, that makes the fall of civilizations so much fun to examine.
Profile Image for Pavlo.
10 reviews4 followers
September 22, 2020
В цій книзі Ніл Ферґюсон пропонує упереджений і поверховий погляд на ті проблеми, які зумовлюють "смерть" інститутів та економік в сучасному західному світі.
Автор вказує на занепад інститутів та послаблення позицій Заходу в світі й виокремлює кілька проблем, що, на його думку, є причиною цих сумних явищ. Це проблема державного боргу, надмірне регулювання фінансового сектору, підміна верховенства права "верховенством правників" та послаблення громадянського суспільства через надмірне втручання держави. З тим, чи вказані проблеми насправді є проблемами (не кожен погодиться з тим, що жорстке регулювання фінансових ринків урядами є проблемою), можна сперечатися, але мені здається вкрай наївною сама спроба звести всю складність кризових явищ на сучасному Заході до чотирьох проблем. І навіть ці чотири проблеми автор розглядає неглибоко, часто відволікаючись на сторінках цієї зовсім не великої (143 с.) праці на історичні екскурси, особистий досвід і переказ ідей інших дослідників. Такими ж неглибокими є і рекомендації автора щодо подолання кризових явищ.
Ферґюсон знову розчарував. Ця його книга, як прочитана мною раніше "Цивілізація" - це поп-література з претензією на глибину, хоч мушу ви��нати, що частково "попсовість" "Глобального занепаду" можна пояснити тим, що ця книга є лише дещо переробленим і розширеним текстом кількох лекцій, що їх автор прочитав в 2012 р. на BBC Radio 4. Не знаю навіть, чи варто взагалі братися за інші його книги.
413 reviews2 followers
August 5, 2022
This is the second book by Niall Ferguson that I have read. The first one was The Ascent of Money and I found it difficult to embrace as it was a very academic treatise and rather dry. It also did not age well as I read it nearly 15 years after it was written and many of the current events he cites have been turned on their ears in the intervening time. However, The Great Degeneration is concise, approachable, and provides clear and timeless conclusions. I really preferred this one and it has convinced me to read another one. It will probably be a newer one so i do not have to worry about how it has aged.
Profile Image for Knowlton Murphy.
173 reviews5 followers
December 3, 2021
I enjoyed this book, but don't think I got everything out of it that I could have--I listened to it while exercising. Ferguson argues that you can't really understand economic breakdown by looking at numbers alone. You need to look at larger institutional breakdowns in society. I liked the comparisons Ferguson made between countries with deregulation vs. heavy regulations, after which he argued that deregulation is less problematic than bad regulations. I also particularly appreciated his points about uncivil society. I am increasingly convinced, like Ferguson, that private citizens who take responsibility for their country rather than depending on government help serve their country well.
Profile Image for Literary Chic.
212 reviews3 followers
September 23, 2017
The Great Degeneration was clearly written by a champion of capitalism. While I don't agree with everything he said, I really liked his opinion about education. He posited that education solely directed by the government delivers poor results. In order for there to be a strongly educated populace there needs to be both public and private educational institutions. He touted the success rates of charter schools in American and suggested the "voucher" system in Denmark shows remarkable results. All in all a decent read, but certainly no new remarkable ideas.
Profile Image for Palmyrah.
256 reviews57 followers
January 27, 2017
Edmund Burke, the intellectual father of conservatism, famously pointed out that the real social contract is not between the rulers and the ruled, as Rousseau had it, but rather, ‘between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born’. Niall Ferguson, in this little book, explains that present-day Western governments (and others, too) are happy to commit themselves to costly but vote-catching social provisions that have to be financed by government borrowing. What governments borrow, they must sooner or later pay back. It is future generations who will do the paying.

This has been going on since about the 1950s. It was the baby-boomers who were first in breach of the social contract as Burke defined it. And it is the baby-boom generation, now grown crusty and selfish with old age, that recently snatched the future away from young voters in Europe and America by supporting such manifestations of short-term economic greed and political selfishness as climate-change denial, Brexit and Donald Trump. The contract between the generations has been torn up and tossed into the fire.

The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die was published in 2013. The crisis of Western society of which Ferguson warns us in this short treatise on the failure of institutions was already upon us by then, but the worst had not actually happened. Now it has, and we are already beginning to suffer the consequences. Yet what we suffer will be as nothing compared to what our descendants will have to go through. The collapse of modern technological societies will be exacerbated by ruined natural environments and the exhaustion of available resources. This is the future that, through our own selfishness, we shall bequeath our children.

So it is a little bit late to be reading this book – which, you might say, was published a couple of generations too late anyway. Ferguson illustrates his thesis – that the failure of societies is due to the failure of institutions, because institutions themselves need to be perpetually renewed and adapted to prevailing conditions or they will fail – fairly convincingly. He covers political, economic, legal and civil-society institutions, though he pays little or no attention to religious ones, a serious lacuna in my view. In the end, however, he fails to convince us that anything can really be done. His prescription appears to be the restoration of classic eighteenth- and nineteenth-century liberalism to its old place in the political order. But liberalism no longer means what it did in those days; the change has been so profound that old-style liberalism is more likely to be found nowadays in conservative circles than in so-called ‘liberal’ ones. There is nothing liberal – in the old-fashioned sense – about cradle-to-grave social provision, trade protectionism, the leveraging of corporate charity for political purposes, affirmative action or political correctness. What passes today for liberalism is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Ferguson, who is married to the controversial feminist and political activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, recognizes this. He has called himself ‘a proud Thatcherite’ and ‘a confirmed Eurosceptic’, and although he initially opposed Brexit he now says he was wrong, and in breach of his own political principles, when he did so. As for his views on Trump, he has said that liberals’ greatest fear was not a Trump presidency but ‘a successful Trump presidency’. Judging by the reactions I’ve been seeing on my Facebook wall lately, he is right.

In The Great Degeneration, Ferguson’s argues that liberal institutions should be constructed upon the slimmest of possible frameworks, with a minimum of specified rules. They should be shaken up regularly. And they should be administered by intelligent meritocrats with lots of goodwill and common sense. Not so distant, politically and philosophically speaking, from Plato’s Guardians. Closer still to Pope’s famous couplet about forms of government. And just about as useful as a practical prescription. What use has a world of aging, selfish gluttons, coddled and indulged by consumer capitalism, their brains scrambled by communications media that package even wars and natural disasters as entertainment, for leaders who can rule their passions? We’ve all become Napoleon the Pig, and we won’t be ruled by anything.
Profile Image for Aaron Thibeault.
57 reviews61 followers
June 26, 2013
*A full executive summary of this book is available here: http://newbooksinbrief.com/2013/06/25...

Over the past half-millennium the West has built up a substantial lead over other parts of the world when it comes to both economic power and material standard of living. Now, however, this lead is slipping away. Indeed, developing nations led by such powers as China and India are quickly closing the gap, as they are experiencing impressive economic growth, while the West is stagnating. Many argue that this is the natural result of globalization (and the fact that major corporations are taking advantage of cheaper labor in developing nations). For Harvard historian and writer Niall Ferguson, however, there is something deeper going on here. For Ferguson, the closing of the gap between the West and the Rest has less to do with the rise of the Rest, as the decline of the West.

Specifically, Ferguson argues that it is the West's political, economic, legal and social institutions that have allowed it to gain the upper hand over the past 500 years or so, and that now these institutions are beginning to deteriorate (just as other nations increasingly copy what made the West successful in the first place). The result: Western stagnation, and the catching up of everyone else.

Ferguson identifies 4 primary institutions that account for the West's success over the past half-millennium: 1. Democracy; 2. Capitalism; 3. The Rule of Law; and 4. Civil Society. Each of these, the author argues, has eroded in the recent past.

Beginning with democracy, Ferguson argues that the deterioration of democracy in our time has not so much to do with the break-down of the social contract between the individual and the state, as the break-down in the contract between the present generation and future generations. Specifically, by taking on the astronomical amount of public debt that many Western governments have taken on over the past half-century, we have undermined our own growth and unjustly put future generations in hock. We have lived well at the expense of our progeny, and have set them up for failure.

With respect to capitalism, where once Western institutions led the world in making it easy for businesses to start-up and operate efficiently, now heavy and overly-complex laws and regulations stifle new businesses and send domestic corporations overseas. Western banks and financial institutions, the author argues, are not under-regulated, but poorly regulated. And what's more, they are not made to pay for their transgressions when they do breach the law (as witnessed, most recently, in the financial crash of 2008), thus they are invited to behave irresponsibly.

When it comes to the rule of law, where once the West did well to protect contracts and property rights, now tort law has allowed civil suits to run amok and choke the legal system. Meanwhile, copyright law now deeply favors the established over the up-and-coming, which has stifled innovation and progress. The Rule of Law has become the Rule of Lawyers.

When it comes to civil society, where once most Western citizens freely donated their time and money to worthy causes and charities, and flocked to join associations, clubs and organizations that promoted both civic-feeling and the public good, now citizens largely hide behind their televisions and computer screens and wait for the government to take care of the less fortunate and any and all public goods.

For Ferguson, unless we reverse the current deterioration of our institutions, we can expect our stagnation to continue (and we also run the risk of having our societies crash outright).

The book is well-written and, for the most part, well argued. However, at 150 pages (before notes), it is quite lean. Several of the points could have used additional defending, with additional evidence. Also, the author largely eschews any talk of where he believes the reforms in each of the institutions could and should begin. This is a significant oversight, in my mind. All in all, some good ideas, but more fleshing out of the material would have been helpful. A full executive summary of the book is available here: http://newbooksinbrief.com/2013/06/25... A podcast discussion of the book will be available soon.
Profile Image for Richard Hannay.
150 reviews7 followers
March 5, 2015
Based on his own BBC's Reith Lectures 2012 Niall Ferguson diagnoses the malaise of our times: the West has entered Adam Smith’s "Stationary State" as a once proud warship enters a stasis field.

For Ferguson it is our laws and institutions that are the problem.
"The great recession is merely a symptom of a more profound great degeneration"

Institutions, in the broadest sense of the word, determine modern historical outcomes, more than natural forces like the weather, geography or even the incidence of disease.

"Most commentators who address this question tend to concern themselves with phenomena like excessive debt, mismanaged banks and widening inequality. To my mind however these are nothing more than symptoms of an underlying institutional malaise: an Inglorious Revolution, if you like, which is undoing the achievements of half a millennium of Western institutional evolution".

Ferguson rightly sees that “our once vibrant civil society is in a state of decay, not so much because of technology but because of the excessive pretensions of the state” And the first port of call is to revolutionise the education

Public education has the same problem as any other monopoly: quality dwindles because of lack of competition and the creeping power of vested "producer" interests. A mix of public and private institutions with meaningful competition favours excellence.

He ends the book with a coda about the political and social developments that could be expected from our current “degeneration”, a not too rosy prospective summarized in Obama’s infamous “You didn’t build that” speech: the voice of the stationay state: the chief mandarin addressing distant subjects in the provinces.

A gem of a book.
Profile Image for John Gurney.
197 reviews18 followers
May 9, 2017
This wonderfully thought-provoking book is all-but-impossible to put down once you begin. Sheer joy, thus, that it's not terribly long; economic historian Niall Ferguson is pithy and concise. The author is known, and sometimes derided by some 'serious' historians, for his popularity, yet, his prose is art. He samples from the work of many others, ranging from Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone", the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist Douglas North and legal scholar Richard Posner, in this wide-ranging analysis, which moves back and forth in economic history to the present time.

"Great Degeneration" argues the three-century dichotomy between Western and Eastern economic growth rates has reversed, to the West’s disfavor, and Ferguson blames several factors, primarily institutional. Though he focuses on Britain and the United States, he takes a world view, making many valid points (such as the 2008 Global Financial Crisis was actually worse in countries like Spain, calling into question some facile Wall Street-focused explanations of the causes). He is not against regulation per se, but "bad regulation", pointing out regulators are easily “captured” by the institutions they regulate.

I won't invest thousands of words making his case; Ferguson's book is so succinct and splendidly-written that you should get it direct from the source. Some will disagree with much of what he says, but this work is thought-provoking and, frankly, a rather somber view of what the deep debt and sluggish growth mess the Western Democracies have landed themselves in.
Profile Image for Andrew.
537 reviews159 followers
February 5, 2013
Among his many works, Niall Ferguson's triad of Empire, Colossus, and Civilization form a sweeping commentary on the rise and stagnation of the West. The Great Degeneration is a short coda to his previous books, and identifies looks at what has gone wrong in the West. Adapted from the 2012 BBC Reith Lectures, Ferguson highlights four institutions key to democratic success, which are now broken. Specifically he describes a breakdown in the generational social contract; poorly regulated markets; complicated legal systems; and declining private associations.

As with so much Niall Ferguson, this all might come across as a right-wing screed, except that he is a superlatively trained economic historian whose analysis is based on long-term historical trends and comparative precedents. With his 2005 discussion of aging western societies in Colussus, Ferguson established a record, in my mind, of discussing policy issues that soon become accepted wisdom. I suspect that he is, again, correct in his identification of key issues that Western politicians must address to restore their own credibility and our failing institutions.

I'm on Twitter: @Dr_A_Taubman
Profile Image for Jean.
Author 11 books18 followers
July 4, 2013
Niall Ferguson has published this book from a group of lectures. His thesis is that the West is in decline, and he explains that it's more than just unregulated financial markets. He quotes a lot from current and classic (Adam Smith) economists. Ferguson says he's not an economist; he writes about economic history, so he takes a historical perspective. He says the four pillars of our way of life - representative government, free markets, the rule of law, and civil society (non-political volunteer organizations) are breaking down.
The most interesting section, and one I hadn't heard about, discussed the break-down of civil society. No one is volunteering any more. Older people are tired, young people don't care. This valuable and vital section of our society is necessary but it won't be around much longer if more people don't take an interest in the world around them. In another interesting section he talks about the importance of "common law" (precedent) over civil law (as in France, where laws are set and there is no way to change them through the courts). I'm way over-simplifying here.

If you are strongly liberal politically, you won't like some of what he says. But it's important to read and understand.

I had to concentrate; this isn't light reading. But the book is short - only 153 pages. It also gave me lots of resources if I want to read more.
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