Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die” as Want to Read:
The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die

3.54  ·  Rating details ·  2,069 ratings  ·  251 reviews
From renowned historian Niall Ferguson, a searching and provocative examination of the widespread institutional rot that threatens our collective future

What causes rich countries to lose their way? Symptoms of decline are all around us today: slowing growth, crushing debts, increasing inequality, aging populations, antisocial behavior. But what exactly has gone wrong?
Hardcover, 192 pages
Published June 13th 2013 by Penguin Press (first published October 17th 2012)
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about The Great Degeneration, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about The Great Degeneration

This book is not yet featured on Listopia. Add this book to your favorite list »

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 3.54  · 
Rating details
 ·  2,069 ratings  ·  251 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Start your review of The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die
Riku Sayuj
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 assumpti
Steve Greenleaf
Feb 25, 2013 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: hx
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 rec ...more
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 compet
Feb 23, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: economics
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
Aug 26, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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, th ...more
Boldly deems the voters of 08 "ungrateful" for not realizing the necessity of bailing out the banks. It does not surprise me the Wall Street Journal lauds the book for its virtuosity. Argues the current system of bank regulation is pro-fragile, identifies excessive public debts as "symptom of the breakdown of the social contract between the generations", de Soto dead capital, extractive institutions Acemoglu, an offbeat foray into complex systems, Mandeville's the Fable of the Bees. 💤

Problems fa
Charles Haywood
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.
Matt Escott
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 de
Jan 05, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 pr
Daniel (Attack of the Books!) Burton
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
Jul 13, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Brett Williams
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. ...more
Jamie (Books and Ladders)
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 generatio ...more
Literary Chic
Sep 23, 2017 rated it liked it
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 ...more
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 govern ...more
Aaron Thibeault
Jun 18, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
*A full executive summary of this book is available here:

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 t
Feb 04, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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; c ...more
Carolyn Kost
Jun 04, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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,
Jul 22, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, economics
I really am not sure what to think of this book. On the one hand, it brings up themes that serve as foundations to western civilization which Ferguson does a good job of explaining. On the other hand, the cherry picking sprinkled with personal examples he uses as evidence fall short, especially since there some self contradiction in wat he writes. Also, there were a few times when he started on a theme, and struck a different tangent, as if stating, "wait, I have a better way of explaining this ...more
Jul 27, 2013 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
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 bac
Aug 01, 2013 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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. ...more
Feb 25, 2013 rated it it was ok
Shelves: nonfic
Interesting ideas, but Ferguson jumps to conclusions with an ease that is a bit disturbing. Correlation is not causation, after all....
Jun 28, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It has been several years since I read one of Ferguson's books. I had the good fortune of sitting in his classroom at Oxford, and have followed the trajectory of his career beginning with his universally celebrated "The Pity of War" that reinvigorated debate concerning the First World War. My last read of his was "Colossus", which I read at the height of the Iraq war. At that time, I found many of his arguments compelling, particularly that America (and other western states with similar values) ...more
Kevin Christiansen
Thought provoking, albeit disconcerting, view of the current state of western civilization. The discussion of civil society held particular resonance with me. The following sums up the book nicely: "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 -- ...more
The Great Degeneration is a close examination of the undermining/decay of the institutions that have made the West, and the Rest, great:

1. Capitalism
2. Democracy
3. The Rule of Law (with an emphasis on Private Property)
4. Civil Society

The analysis is accessible and bleak, with only a little hope held out for success.

Readers interested in understanding how the West conquered the world, don't look to disease, technology, or colonization, would do well to read this book. However, the consequences
Jessica Wilkins
Feb 03, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a well-written, expertly argued book even if you do not agree with the author's conservative outlook. Mr Ferguson makes excellent points about a nation's debt being used to sustain older members of society at the expense of the young and the unborn. However, his beliefs about banking regulation, private schooling and the value of Paul Ryan are not ones I share. Still, if you are on the left and looking for a rightwing political book to help keep your mind open, this is a good start. ...more
Richard Hannay
Jul 08, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, economics
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
Jun 19, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: real-world, hist-misc
Ferguson, who was a McCain advisor, tackles the decline of the West in this short but packed book on why we are failing. Lots of good info here. You might not agree with him on everything but he is focused and crisp in his delivery. Some great lines here like the rule of law being replaced by the rule of lawyers. He comes down on regulation by the government but I don't quite buy his argument. I completely agree with him that regulation should be simple and not complex and that throwing bankers ...more
John Gurney
Oct 10, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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-ra ...more
Jul 04, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 voluntee ...more
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »

Readers also enjoyed

  • Unmasked: Inside Antifa's Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy
  • Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment
  • The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?
  • The Soul of the World
  • This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly
  • Intellectuals and Society
  • The Wreck of the Batavia: A True Story
  • Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism
  • The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths
  • Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times
  • Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present
  • Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World
  • What's Wrong with the World
  • The New Map: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations
  • On Inequality
  • On Human Nature
  • The British in India: A Social History of the Raj
  • Empires in the Sun: The Struggle for the Mastery of Africa
See similar books…
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 writin

News & Interviews

  Some people love books. Some people fall in love. And some people fall in love with books about falling in love. Every month our team...
31 likes · 2 comments
“simple point is that institutions are to humans what hives are to bees. They are the structures within which we organize ourselves as groups. You know when you are inside one, just as a bee knows when it is in the hive. Institutions have boundaries, often walls. And, crucially, they have rules.” 4 likes
“Americans could once boast proudly that their system set the benchmark for the world; the United States was the rule of law. But now what we see is the rule of lawyers, which is something different.” 1 likes
More quotes…