Niall Ferguson

British historian

Niall Campbell Douglas Ferguson (born 18 April 1964) is a British historian. He is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University. He is also a Senior Research Fellow of Jesus College, University of Oxford and a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

Quotes edit

  • The First World War was at once piteous, in the poet's sense, and 'a pity'. It was something worse than a tragedy, which is ultimately something we are taught by the theatre to regard as unavoidable. It was nothing less than the greatest error of modern history.
    • The Pity of War: Explaining World War I, 1998.
  • The whole point about historians is that we are really communing with the dead. It's very restful – because you read. There's some sociopathic problem that makes me prefer it to human interaction.
  • The West may collapse very suddenly. Complex civilizations do that, because they operate, most of the time, on the edge of chaos.
  • The financial crisis is really a relatively small historic phenomenon, which has accelerated this huge shift, which ends half a millennium of Western ascendancy.
  • The rulers of western Africa prior to the European empires were not running some kind of scout camp. They were engaged in the slave trade. They showed zero sign of developing the country's economic resources. Did Senegal ultimately benefit from French rule? Yes, it's clear. And the counterfactual idea that somehow the indigenous rulers would have been more successful in economic development doesn't have any credibility at all.
  • I think it's hard to make the case, which implicitly the left makes, that somehow the world would have been better off if the Europeans had stayed home. It certainly doesn't work for north America, that's for sure. I mean, I'm sure the Apache and the Navajo had all sorts of admirable traits. In the absence of literacy we don't know what they were because they didn't write them down. We do know they killed a hell of a lot of bison. But had they been left to their own devices, I don't think we'd have anything remotely resembling the civilisation we've had in north America.
  • Economic history is not politically correct. Many on the left therefore struggle with its findings.
  • Like the Roman Empire in the early fifth century, Europe has allowed its defenses to crumble. As its wealth has grown, so its military prowess has shrunk, along with its self-belief. It has grown decadent in its shopping malls and sports stadiums. At the same time, it has opened its gates to outsiders who have coveted its wealth without renouncing their ancestral faith.
  • Beginning in the late 1970s, China overcame centuries of stagnation precisely because Mao’s successors understood that they had to decentralise the People’s Republic, giving economic if not political power to the people. If western commentators are right, Xi Jinping wants to go in the opposite direction. If the Chinese are lucky, he will turn out to be an enlightened absolutist, like Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. If they are unlucky, he will be just another emperor who fondly dreamt of controlling a fifth of humanity.
  • A century ago it was the West’s great blunder to think it would not matter if Lenin and his confederates took over the Russian Empire. Incredible as it may seem, I believe we are capable of repeating that catastrophic error. I fear that, one day, we shall wake with a start to discover that the Islamists have repeated the Bolshevik achievement, which was to acquire the resources and capability to threaten our very existence.
  • Increasingly, I believe that the issue of migration will be seen by future historians as the fatal solvent of the EU. In their accounts Brexit will appear as merely an early symptom of the crisis. Their argument will be that a massive Völkerwanderung overwhelmed the project for European integration, exposing the weakness of the EU as an institution and driving voters back to national politics for solutions.
  • European centrists are deeply confused about immigration. Many, especially on the centre-left, want to have both open borders and welfare states. But the evidence suggests that it is hard to be Denmark with a multicultural society. The lack of social solidarity makes high levels of taxation and redistribution unsustainable.
  • Back when China and America were the best of friends — or at least when their economic relationship seemed almost symbiotic — Moritz Schularick and I came up with the idea of “Chimerica,” which unlike the rival “G2” had the advantage of being a pun on the word “chimera,” signalling that we didn’t think it could last. Well, Chimerica now looks well and truly dead. But what is taking its place? Cold Wok? Sweet and Sour War? The hunt for a catch-phrase continues. Actually, I’m not sure why I bother. In the end, it too will probably be Made in China.
  • The rise of China is the great economic and political fact of our lifetime — a rude awakening for those of us who thought it was the fall of the Soviet Union. In 1951, China was an impoverished backwater with a revolutionary government that Joseph Stalin easily duped into fighting on his behalf in Korea. Today, thanks to the biggest and fastest industrial revolution in history, China is the superpower, Russia its junior partner.
  • A defining feature of history is that there are many more black swans — not to mention what Didier Sornette calls “dragon kings,” events so large in scale that they lie beyond even a power-law distribution — than a normally distributed world would lead us to expect. All such events lie in the realm of uncertainty, not of calculable risk. Moreover, the world we have built has, over time, become an increasingly complex system prone to all kinds of random behavior, nonlinear relationships and “fat-tailed” distributions. A disaster such as a pandemic is not a single, discrete event. It invariably leads to other forms of disaster — economic, social and political. There can be, and often are, cascades or chain reactions of disaster. The more networked the world becomes, the more we see this.
  • I remember 1989 vividly, having spent much of that summer in Berlin before the Wall fell. And while largely peaceful revolutions swept through Central and Eastern Europe that year (it was only three years later, in Yugoslavia, that the death of Communism sparked war), there was no such turning point in China, where 1989 also saw the Tiananmen Square massacre. With the benefit of hindsight, the survival of Communism in China was a more significant historical phenomenon than its collapse east of the River Elbe.
  • I disbelieve in both cycles of history and ends of history. History is the interaction of many complex systems. There are certain long-run processes (notably exponential gains in productivity through the development of technology and the “suprasecular” decline of nominal and real interest rates as a result of capital accumulation) punctuated by, well, one disaster after another. These disasters are either randomly distributed or follow a power law (i.e. there are lots of little earthquakes, pandemics or wars, but a few cataclysmic ones). At unpredictable intervals, the global system is tipped into a major transition by a disturbance that can be quite small, if not quite as small as Edward Lorenz’s famous butterfly in the Amazon setting off a tornado in Texas. Russia’s war in Ukraine — destructive certainly, but still a relatively small conflict by 20th-century standards — can be enough to trigger a “conflict avalanche.”
  • [George H. W.] Bush was in many ways the maestro president when it came to foreign policy. With extraordinary dexterity, he handled the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of all the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, German reunification and then the Soviet disintegration. On his watch, Nelson Mandela was set free and apartheid consigned to the history books; and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait was reversed. And yet still the presidency was won by a scandal-prone Southern governor with the banal but brilliant slogan: "It’s the economy, stupid."
  • Even small numbers of evangelical missionaries can achieve a good deal, furnished as they are with substantial funds from congregations at home.
    • Ferguson, Niall. Colossus: the Price of America’s Empire. Penguin, 2004. Quoted from Malhotra, R., Nīlakantan, A. (2011). Breaking India: Western interventions in Dravidian and Dalit faultlines

Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (2003) edit

  • The British Empire was the nearest thing there has ever been to a world government. Yet its mode of operation was a triumph of minimalism.
  • In 1615 the British Isles had been an economically unremarkable, politically fractious and strategically second-class entity. Two hundred years later Great Britain had acquired the largest empire the world had ever seen, encompassing forty-three colonies in five continents.
  • Between the early 1600s and the 1950s, more than 20 million people left the British Isles to begin new lives across the seas. Only a minority ever returned. No other country in the world came close to exporting so many of its inhabitants.
  • In leaving Britain, the early emigrants risked not merely their life savings but their very lives. Their voyages were never without hazard; their destinations were often unhealthy and inhospitable. To us, their decision to gamble everything on a one-way ticket seems baffling. Yet without millions of such tickets - some purchased voluntarily, some not - there could have been no British Empire. For the indispensable foundation of the Empire was mass migration: the biggest in human history. This Britannic exodus changed the world. It turned whole continents white.
  • It has sometimes been argued that in gaining Canada in the Seven Years War, Britain had undermined her position in America. Without the French threat, why should the thirteen colonies stay loyal? Yet the loss of America had the unforeseen effect of securing Canada for the Empire, thanks to the flood of English-speaking Loyalists who, together with new British settlers, would eventually reduce the French Quebecois to a beleaguered minority. The amazing thing is that so many people should have voted with their feet against American independence, choosing loyalty to King and Empire over 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness'.
  • With its weird red earth and its alien flora and fauna - the eucalyptus trees and kangaroos - Australia was the eighteenth-century equivalent of Mars. This helps explain why the first official response to the discovery of New South Wales by Captain Cook in 1770 was to identify it as the ideal dumping ground for criminals.
  • The great paradox of Australian history is that what started out as a colony populated by people whom Britain had thrown out proved to be so loyal to the British Empire for so long. America had begun as a combination of tobacco plantation and Puritan utopia, a creation of economic and religious liberty, and ended up as a rebel republic. Australia started out as a jail, the very negation of liberty. Yet the more reliable colonists turned out to be not the Pilgrims but the prisoners.
  • Without the spread of British rule around the world, it is hard to believe that the structures of liberal capitalism would have been so successfully established in so many different economies around the world.
  • .. the nineteenth-century Empire undeniably pioneered free trade, free capital movements and, with the abolition of slavery, free labour. It invested immense sums in developing a global network of modern communications. It spread and enforced the rule of law over vast areas. Though it fought many small wars, the Empire maintained a global peace unmatched before or since. In the twentieth century too it more than justified its own existence, for the alternatives to British rule represented by the German and Japanese empires were clearly far worse. And without its Empire, it is inconceivable that Britain could have withstood them.

Civilization: The West and the Rest (2011) edit

  • No civilization, no matter how mighty it may appear to itself, is indestructible.
  • Was there something distinctive about American civil society that gave democracy a better chance than in France, as Tocqueville argued? Was the already centralized French state more likely to produce a Napoleon than the decentralized United States? We cannot be sure. But it is not unreasonable to ask how long the US constitution would have lasted if the United States had suffered the same military and economic strains that swept away the French constitution of 1791.
  • Between 1980 and 2000 the number of patents registered in Israel was 7652 compared with 367 for all the Arab countries combined. In 2008 alone Israeli inventors applied to register 9591 new patents. The equivalent figure for Iran was 50 and for all majority Muslim countries in the world with 5657.
  • The consumer society is so all-pervasive today that it is easy to assume it has always existed. Yet in reality it is one of the more recent innovations that propelled the West ahead of the Rest. Its most striking characteristic is its seemingly irresistible appeal... The result is one of the greatest paradoxes of modern history: that an economic system designed to offer infinite choice to the individual has ended up homogenizing humanity.
  • It was an idea that made the crucial difference between British and Iberian America – an idea about the way people should govern themselves. Some people make the mistake of calling that idea ‘democracy’ and imagining that any country can adopt it merely by holding elections. In reality, democracy was the capstone of an edifice that had as its foundation the rule of law – to be precise, the sanctity of individual freedom and the security of private property rights, ensured by representative, constitutional government.
  • Because of the central importance in Luther’s thought of individual reading of the Bible, Protestantism encouraged literacy, not to mention printing, and these two things unquestionably encouraged economic development (the accumulation of ‘human capital’) as well as scientific study. This proposition holds good not only in Prussia but also all over the world. Wherever Protestant missionaries went, they promoted literacy, with measurable long-term benefits to the societies they sought to educate; the same cannot be said of Catholic missionaries prior to Vatican II.
  • Protestantism made the West not only work, but also save and read. The Industrial Revolution was indeed a product of technological innovation and consumption. But it also required an increase in the intensity and duration of work, combined with the accumulation of capital through saving and investment. Above all, it depended on the accumulation of human capital. The literacy that Protestantism promoted was vital to all of this. On reflection, we would do better to talk about the Protestant word ethic.

Quotes about Ferguson edit

  • Ferguson’s metamorphoses in the last decade – from cheerleader, successively, of empire, Anglobalisation and Chimerica to exponent of collapse-theory and retailer of emollient tales about the glorious past – have highlighted broad political and cultural shifts more accurately than his writings. His next move shouldn’t be missed.

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