Harvard historian/condescending bore Niall Ferguson claims in this interview with the Wall Street Journal that six institutions (aka “killer aps”) were responsible for the West dominating the East, and attempts to describe how that ground has shifted.
He ticks off as reasons competition, science, rule of law (private property rights), medicine, the consumer society, and work ethic, and claims the West is ignoring the massive changes coming.
Ferguson’s argument falls down in many places, however. He downplays or fails to note the myriad central issues that could slow or stop China’s rise, such as the slow, steady poisoning of its own people through blatant pollution; the double and triple redundancy in which China is building out its infrastructure capacity despite pitiful demand; the staggering (and growing) economic disparity between the haves and have-nots; the lack of a fair and vigorous legal system; the lack of a free press; its aging society (with its inherent staggering medical costs) and other obvious disadvantages. Yet understanding and adapting these “killer aps” have been just as integral to the rise of Western society.
China, as every “economic historian” should know, has undergone internal revolutions about every four decades. It is not a single, homogeneous*s society. It is a large, disparate nation full of local tribes, most of which are very wary of government. I don’t know whether Ferguson spent time watching the events in the Middle East this year, but if hs has, he knows that citizens who are systematically deprived sooner or later get royally ticked off. The pattern of history leads to democracy, which China most decidedly is not. While Ferguson takes analysts to task for not looking at the reasons behind the “collapse” of the West, he is disingenuous in not critically reviewing the shortcomings of the East.
He asserts that globalization, not Wall Street, has been the source for pain inflicted on low-income US workers, but fails to explain why that same globalization hasn’t broadly helped workers in the East. His take on work ethic is just plain silly: It suggests that the Chinese didn’t work hard in 1600-1900s, and that played into their poverty.
And his take on the perceived stability of the Soviet Union before its collapse is completely wrong – every US President starting with Truman predicted that if the US kept the pressure on, the USSR would fold under its own lousy model. And that’s exactly what happened.
Let’s consider one other aspect: The East has risen because the West poured money into it. Such resources are dynamic and can – and do – migrate. China is attractive to Western investors because of its low cost labor and potential for large consumer appetites. Western companies are not, however, emotionally invested in China. It’s simply one vehicle to wealth, and there are many other cars from which to choose.
In the end, it seems Ferguson misses the points both small and large. In trying to explain why the West beat the East during the past few centuries, he attempts to channel badly, Dr. Jared Diamond, the UCLA professor who in the 1990s dissected the same economic differences by showing why certain technology organically grew in some places and not others. If you are looking for such insight, stick with Diamond.