Thursday, April 5, 2012

Some Thoughts on “Civilization: The West and the Rest” by Niall Ferguson

I’ve written quite a bit lately that a shared concept of truth is necessary to establish trust in society; and that a shared sense of trust leads to a better society. In particular, in personal and business relationships it is imperative that the counterparty or friend can be trusted at their word.

Reading Harvard historian Niall Ferguson’s latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, I was struck by this yet again.

In Civilization, Ferguson objectively examines why so-called western nations have been so successful over the last five hundred or so years. He points out that in 1500, China was far ahead of western countries by any standard of measure.[1] He proposes that the western use of what he calls “killer apps” - competition, science, democracy, medicine, consumerism and the work ethic were the source of this rise of western countries.

At the end of the book Ferguson looks at the reasons why the western countries are now losing their way, while nations like China are rising.

Ferguson does not list Christianity as one of “the killer apps” of western civilization. But that is perhaps because it is deeper than that. He points out that capitalism and consumerism without limits can be equally destructive. Much of the western world has spent itself broke. He points out that Christianity encourages competition and entrepreneurship coupled with asceticism. That is to say, one can work hard and generate profit, but still have a firm belief that personal gain is not the end goal. He writes that in China the explosion of capitalism going hand in hand with a high personal savings rate is a key to the rise of China.