The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011


In a fascinating article on the decline of great powers, historian Niall Ferguson suggests that the decline great powers, whether it happened to Rome, the Incas, the Chinese Ming Dynasty, or the Soviet Union, happened quickly—in a matter of a decade or two. Ferguson goes on to suggest that the West surged after the 1500s “thanks to a series of institutional innovations that [he] call[s] the ‘killer applications’”:
1. Competition. Europe was politically fragmented into multiple monarchies and republics, which were in turn internally divided into competing corporate entities, among them the ancestors of modern business corporations.

2. The Scientific Revolution. All the major 17th-century breakthroughs in mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology happened in Western Europe.

3. The Rule of Law and Representative Government. An optimal system of social and political order emerged in the English-speaking world, based on private-property rights and the representation of property owners in elected legislatures.

4. Modern Medicine. Nearly all the major 19th- and 20th-century breakthroughs in health care were made by Western Europeans and North Americans.

5. The Consumer Society. The Industrial Revolution took place where there was both a supply of productivity-enhancing technologies and a demand for more, better, and cheaper goods, beginning with cotton garments.

6. The Work Ethic. Westerners were the first people in the world to combine more extensive and intensive labor with higher savings rates, permitting sustained capital accumulation.

For hundreds of years, these killer apps were essentially monopolized by Europeans and their cousins who settled in North America and Australasia. They are the best explanation for what economic historians call “the great divergence”: the astonishing gap that arose between Western standards of living and those in the rest of the world.

The West is slipping perceptibly in each of these killer apps, as a consequence, talk of decline or collapse is common.

Ferguson comments:
Is there anything we can do to prevent such disasters? Social scientist Charles Murray calls for a “civic great awakening”—a return to the original values of the American republic. He’s got a point. Far more than in Europe, most Americans remain instinctively loyal to the killer applications of Western ascendancy, from competition all the way through to the work ethic. They know the country has the right software. They just can’t understand why it’s running so damn slowly.

Unfortunately, our current leadership can’t seem to understand that “most Americans remain instinctively loyal to the killer applications of Western ascendancy” and are reflexively antagonistic to those who suggest that they no longer work. The anti-capitalist, anti-consumer memes espoused by some in power and a small minority on the streets are correctly perceived as threatening apps #1 and #5. The near-religious belief in tenuous climate change theory and related attempts to make massive changes in public policy are viewed by many as a threat to app #2. The highly partisan, grid-locked events in Washington over the past few years threaten app # 3. An attempt to implement a government takeover of medical care is correctly viewed as a threat to app # 4. A leader who assails “the rich” is perceived as a leader who, at some level at least, is criticizing app # 6.

Can we yet recover? Ferguson continues his metaphor:
What we need to do is to delete the viruses that have crept into our system: the anticompetitive quasi monopolies that blight everything from banking to public education; the politically correct pseudosciences and soft subjects that deflect good students away from hard science; the lobbyists who subvert the rule of law for the sake of the special interests they represent—to say nothing of our crazily dysfunctional system of health care, our over-leveraged personal finances, and our new found unemployment ethic.

Then we need to download the updates that are running more successfully in other countries, from Finland to New Zealand, from Denmark to Hong Kong, from Singapore to Sweden.

And finally we need to reboot our whole system.

I refuse to accept that Western civilization is like some hopeless old version of Microsoft DOS, doomed to freeze, then crash. I still cling to the hope that the United States is the Mac to Europe’s PC, and that if one part of the West can successfully update and reboot itself, it’s America.

But the lesson of history is clear. Voters and politicians alike dare not postpone the big reboot. Decline is not so gradual that our biggest problems can simply be left to the next administration, or the one after that.

If what we are risking is not decline but downright collapse, then the time frame may be even tighter than one election cycle.

One can only hope that a "reboot" will be initiated in 2012.