Brett Williams's Reviews > The Great Degeneration

The Great Degeneration by Niall Ferguson
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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.
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Reading Progress

March 13, 2019 – Started Reading
March 13, 2019 – Shelved
March 19, 2019 – Finished Reading

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message 1: by Bob (new)

Bob Joseph A good indictment of modern culture is Deneen's "why liberalism failed." Charles Murray's "Coming Apart" covers the disease, but not too much the causes

Brett Williams Bob wrote: "A good indictment of modern culture is Deneen's "why liberalism failed." Charles Murray's "Coming Apart" covers the disease, but not too much the causes"

"Deneen offers an astringent warning that the centripetal forces now at work on our political culture are not superficial flaws but inherent features of a system whose success is generating its own failure." Excellent. Right up my alley. Just ordered. Thanks. B

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