Niall Ferguson Defends Europe's Rise

China will eclipse the U.S. as the world’s largest economy in 2016, History professor Niall Ferguson said in a lecture Wednesday afternoon.

In his talk at Littauer, Ferguson also responded to claims by Pankaj Mishra, an author who negatively reviewed Ferguson’s new book, “Civilization: The West and the Rest,” in the London Review of Books. In his review, Mishra described the book as racist in describing Europe’s dominance over other continents, such as Africa and Asia, and as nostalgic for those days of European power.

Ferguson said those claims are “clearly false.”

“The argument of the book, that has been seriously misrepresented by at least two reviews ... is that it was distinctive complexes of ideas and institutions that arose in the Western world that did not arise elsewhere that led to the Great Divergence,” Ferguson said. This explanation is “diametrically opposite to the view 100 years ago that success was race-related.”

“With the right institutions and the right incentives, any group of people, regardless of race, regardless of physiology, can experience wealth and power,” Ferguson added.

Ferguson explained that the inspiration behind his book is to understand the “single biggest problem that economic historians” face: Why a small sub-population from Europe rose to achieve the level of power it had.

“Why did these people become richer, healthier, and more powerful than the rest of mankind?” Ferguson said.

He explained six features—what he referred to as “killer apps”—unique to post-medieval European civilization that facilitated Europe’s last 500 years of economic strength.

These “apps”—a phrase Ferguson used to entice younger readers and explained as critical features that Europe “downloaded” into the “programming” of its civilization—include political and economic competition, the Scientific Revolution of the 1600s, rule of law, modern medicine, consumerism, and “work ethic.”

But as “resterners” are rapidly catching up in wealth and power, Ferguson called the current day “The Great Reconvergence.” For example, The average American citizen, 20 times wealthier than the average Chinese citizen in 1978, is now only 5 times wealthier.

“The rest of the world has downloaded the killer apps,” Ferguson said. “The West has been deleting them, or at least has not been updating the software.”

But Ferguson makes clear he is in no way saying that the development of non-Western civilization is undesirable.

“That hundreds of millions of people have left poverty is without question a good thing,” Ferguson said. “The deterioration of Western institutions is what concerns me.”

In particular, Ferguson cited shortcomings in Western educational systems, especially in the sciences; decreasing levels in manufacturing productivity in America; and an unfulfilling health care system.

Chandrika Lakshminarayan, a student in the Kennedy school’s mid-career masters’ program and a former senior writer for CNN International,  pushed Ferguson on his argument during the lecture.

She noted that many of the advantages that Ferguson credits to 16th century Europe, such as science, medicine, and governing institutions, were in fact present in China, India, and Persia some 3,000 years ago.

Ferguson agreed, saying “Please, make no mistake, the book starts from the premise of Western backwardness,” Ferguson said. “The West benefited from non-Western learning.” He also added that once Europeans initiated these ideas they developed them further and added new components, leading to the widely-known results.

—Staff writer Daniel J. Kramer can be reached at dkramer@college.harvard.edu.

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