By Gary Berg-Cross
Channeling Kahneman I’ve recently written about the persuasive ability of stories and anecdotes compared to logic and formal reasoning. I was surprisingly reminded of this looking at Niall Ferguson’s recent PBS show Civilization: The West and the Rest. On the surface his show is in the spirit of earlier grand PBS documentaries, but perhaps as the NYTs noted a bit more tendentious that earlier series like Connections or Collapse. Based on the book, “Civilization,” it asserts, with some simplified certainty, that we are now sadly living through “the end of 500 years of Western predominance.” And with China is on the rise, the question is not whether East and West will clash, but whether “the weaker” — that is, the US & Europe — “will tip over from weakness to outright collapse.” How did this come about? Well British historian Ferguson tells a convincing, if simplified, conservative flavored story that punch through the rational style with bumper sticker phrases like “ killer apps”. According to NF, the West rose above the Rest through the development of six ‘killer apps’:
1. a more fragmented political setting that worked to encourage competition and innovation both between and within states;
2. a predilection for open inquiry and a scientific attitude towards nature;
3. property rights and the representation of property-owners in elected assemblies;
4. modern medicine (which Ferguson argues makes up for European colonialism, in Africa. )
5. an industrial revolution based on both a supply of sustained innovations and a demand for mass consumer goods; and
6. a work ethic that included more productive labor with higher savings and capital accumulation.
The app story and anecdotes strung together like pearls that suggests historical continuity and key insights. I can agree on some, such as open inquiry and a scientific attitude as important, but then again they were lest characteristic of the West from 500 to 1450 than elsewhere and were somewhat imported into the West by rediscovery of Greek work.
The discovery and colonization of America does play an appealing role in NF’s stories. An example appealing to fans of American exceptionalism is the founding of the Carolina Colony. Ferguson argues, perhaps with some justification that it represented a new opportunity for social mobility. In less than a decade, various member of the English underclass could use something as distasteful as indentured servitude as way forward to a Western dream of free and clear title to one’s own land holdings. And property allowed men (but not women) to vote and thus move on to a fully vested member of the economic and political establishment. There’s lots left out in this story, but it fits the conservative story of App # 3 property rights.
Reader’s of this blog might be particularly interested in the religious aspect of Western culture favored in NF’s view. We see this in his discussion of Western work ethic (aka the Protestant Work Ethic). Important for the West but now the Rest who have adopted Western ways (NF calls then Resteners). Here the Chinese are exhibit # 1 as they now outperform the West (even exceptional America) by standards of productivity. Why? They have Killer App #6 because as Ferguson posits there is an upsurge in Protestant religious observance in Mainland China. Specifically Ferguson’s note:
“today there may actually be more practicing Christians in China than in Europe.”
Maybe but I am reminded of the comment that:
"History is the lie that historians agree on."
"History is the lie that historians agree on."
Ferguson’s “history” is full of claims like the role of a Western work ethic in China that seem grounded on some facts (and Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism) , but any such general conclusion can be questioned on one or more details. A conservative idea of Western civilization would include the influence of a more liberal Enlightenment as well as the Christian tradition, but how these factor in is subject to interpretation. Conservative historians like NF take great delight in exposing the “errors” of earlier and more liberal historians. Every history book, even the most carefully and most honestly researched and written, is interpretive. It focuses on something and thus omits or misinterprets many facts. One reviewer of the book noted:
“Ferguson’s selection of the 1600s as the time when the West moved ahead seems amazingly ignorant for a professional historian.”Maybe. It’s the type of things historians can argue about. With such gaps it’s hard to say one is all right and the other all wrong. This is especially hard to due when other’s work with different explanations is not addressed. Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, for example, provides a different rationale for the dominance of the West, but these arguments are not addressed directly by Ferguson. Then there is the fact that our sense of history evolves. New historical discoveries are constantly being made. For example some documents are found or become available and their review affords reinterpretation of earlier beliefs and generalizations even of the most authoritative historians of the past. In my adult life this has been the case with our understanding of the Founders and it has been wonderful to hear these new stories. I like entertaining stories, but some attempt at balance is also important.