Monday, October 31, 2011

Niall Ferguson does not know what "Western Civilization" means

"The blood of Numenor is all but spent, its pride and dignity forgotten." - Elrond

I am forced to break my self-imposed blogging moratorium, in order to comment on an article by Niall Ferguson that recently appeared in what is left of Newsweek magazine. In this article, Ferguson warns darkly of a rapid collapse of American civilization. The article is, on its face, a fairly bland call for America (and "The West" in general) to wake up, get with the program, and recover its lost greatness. Fine. But there is a deeply disturbing subtext that annoyed me so much that...well, here, I'll just let you see for yourself.

First, Ferguson's thesis:

I believe it’s time to ask how close the United States is to the “Oh sh*t!” moment—the moment we suddenly crash downward... 
The West first surged ahead of the Rest after about 1500 thanks to a series of institutional innovations that I call the “killer applications”: 
1. Competition... 
2. The Scientific Revolution... 
3. The Rule of Law and Representative Government... 
4. Modern Medicine... 
5. The Consumer Society... 
6. The Work Ethic... 
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... 
Beginning with Japan, however, one non-Western society after another has worked out that these apps can be downloaded and installed in non-Western operating systems...

Now, before I move on to the really annoying part of Ferguson's article, this talk of "non-Western operating systems" has already rankled. What the heck is the "operating system" of a society? What inherent quality of "Western-ness" does Ferguson imagine Japan fundamentally lacks, such that even though Japan has representative democracy, property rights, competitive capitalism, work ethic, science, and medicine, the Land of the Rising Sun is still running on a "non-Western operating system"?

Is it Christianity? But then South Korea would be "Western," since it is majority Christian (and far more religious than, say, France). And Ferguson cites Korea as a "non-Western" civilization in his very next paragraph (which I'll get to in a moment). 

Is it geography? Would Ferguson exclude Australia and New Zealand from "the West"? 

I think you see what I'm getting at, and just to drive it home, here's Ferguson's next paragraph:
Ask yourself: who’s got the work ethic now? The average South Korean works about 39 percent more hours per week than the average American. The school year in South Korea is 220 days long, compared with 180 days here. And you don’t have to spend too long at any major U.S. university to know which students really drive themselves: the Asians and Asian-Americans. (emphasis mine)
So a sign that American civilization is in decline is that...Asian-Americans study hard?

Labeling Asian Americans as "non-Western" gives away the game completely. By "Western," Niall Ferguson is not referring to a geographic region, a political system, an economic system, or a religion. He is not even referring to a specific set of countries. He is referring to a set of people; people who have pale pinkish skin, fine wavy hair, and prominent eye ridges. By "Western," Niall Ferguson means "white people." Asian Americans may have American passports, Ferguson thinks, but civilizationally speaking they are permanent foreigners. This interpretation is basically confirmed a couple paragraphs later:
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.
When you admit to taking your cues from America's most prominent academic racist, you've pretty much laid your cards on the table.

This makes me sick, and not just because of the racism. It's because Ferguson's offhand exclusion of non-whites from the "Western" world is, in fact, what I believe to be the biggest threat to our civilization.

You see, I believe that the United States of America has another "killer app" in addition to the ones Ferguson lists. That killer app is meritocratic diversity. Where other countries cling to blood-and-soil tribalism, America absorbs and employs the energy and talent of a vast array of peoples. All those American Nobel Prize winners? A huge chunk are immigrants or children thereof. Ditto for Silicon Valley's entrepreneurial heroes. Our above-average fertility rates? Largely thanks to immigration.

Imagine if this were 1911, and Ferguson had instead lamented: "And you don’t have to spend too long at any major U.S. university to know which students really drive themselves: the Jewish-Americans." He might have held this up as a harbinger of Western decline - after all, Jews were not at the time considered white. But he'd have been pooh-poohing the future contributions of Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman, not to mention Larry Page, Sergei Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, and probably a bunch of other Jewish Americans whom I don't know off the top of my head. The contribution of the Asian Americans whom Ferguson now dismisses are growing at a similar, if not faster rate.

In fact, Niall Ferguson pines for the days of Anglo-Saxon empire, but in fact, many historians believe that race-blind meritocracy is the key to all successful hegemons. Empires of the past have been successful when, like modern America, they didn't limit their talent pool to people with the right genes. 

The biggest threat facing American civilization now is not loss of work ethic - Americans still work more than the rich-world average. Nor is it insufficient consumerism (believe you me), the abandonment of modern medicine, the end of rule of law, creeping monopolies, or the abandonment of science. It is political dysfunction and distrust of our national institutions, brought on by the refusal of a large bloc of white Americans (the "Tea Party" etc.) to accept nonwhite Americans. The very denial of "Western-ness" to nonwhite Americans is what is threatening the West. Articles like Ferguson's, in other words, are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Here's my idea for how to revitalize Western civilization. Widen the big tent. Recruit smart people from all over the world to be Americans. Renew the idea of America as a nation defined by principles and institutions rather than by race and tribe. Assimilate Asians and Hispanics the way we assimilated Italians and Greeks and Jews a century ago. Promote nationalism as a unifying force rather than racism, in order to rebuild trust in public institutions and improve the provision of public goods. 

And further afield, do not exclude the rising nations of Asia from "the West." To do so would instantly doom us to geopolitical extinction. Just because Japan, India, South Korea, and the rest of our Asian allies lie beyond the International Dateline does not mean that they don't share the principles and institutions and philosophies embraced by Europe and America.

Anyway, there's my main rant. Now for a few more miscellaneous knocks on this truly execrable piece of public discourse:

  • Ferguson claims that societies decline quickly rather than slowly. That is poppycock. Go read Ian Morris' Why the West Rules - for Now. You will see that the declines of Rome, the second Chinese empire, and other ancient civilizations all took centuries.

  • When explaining why "competition" is one of the West's "killer apps," Ferguson recalls that "Europe was politically fragmented into multiple monarchies and republics." Later, as an example of a competitive powerhouse, he cites...China. Yes, China, that fragmented, decentralized ferment of political competition...

  • Ferguson chides America for not being sufficiently consumerist (no, really!!), and for having empty malls. This is supposedly in contrast to China. Here is a video of one of China's many "ghost malls," which happens to be the largest mall on the planet. Yes, Ferguson really is that sloppy. 

  • Ferguson suggests that we "delete...the politically correct pseudosciences and soft subjects that deflect good students away from hard science." Niall Ferguson is a professional historian. Seriously.

  • Ferguson suggests eliminating America's "quasi-monopoly" on education - I assume he means public schools - in order to compete with countries like South Korea. South Korea, of course, has the world's best, public schools.

Basically, this is one of the laziest, sloppiest, most pernicious columns that I have ever read. I am simply physically, biologically incapable of sticking to my self-enforced blogging hiatus when something this awful crosses my screen.

(P.S. - credit for the Elrond quote goes to my friend Ry.)


  1. Pietro Otir9:47 PM


  2. re: "Ferguson claims that societies decline quickly rather than slowly. That is poppycock. Go read Ian Morris' Why the West Rules - for Now. You will see that the declines of Rome, the second Chinese empire, and other ancient civilizations all took centuries."

    Time to expand the reading list beyond one book. Even Wikipedia narrows the Roman empire decline to decades.

    The difficulty Ferguson has comes from his researched historic facts which contradict dime a dozen 'best sellers'.

  3. Colin:

    It's called the "Crisis of the Third Century," homez. Ferguson says the Roman Empire declined in the mid-5th century.

  4. Aww, you used my quote.

  5. Nice post. In the UK, Ferguson is not taken too seriously, which is why he went to the US...! Is diversity the answer? Yes, (nice line about meritocracy)BUT too much diversity can backfire without a core of intellectual self-confidence (Japan). I think that's what a lot of White Westerners bemoan. In other words, fleissige Asian are great in the US and the UK, but only if they serve at the altar of that country. (Put deliberately crudely). If those immigrants have their own ideas about that society should be run (and why on earth should they not? Sharia law in the London, perhaps), then the locals gets nervous. I think that overall that's a valid point IF you are a local with some attachment to tradition.

  6. PS Please ignore Japan in brackets, I was going to add some stuff but couldn't be bothered.

  7. I love me a good Ferguson every day, but I'm afraid this is par for the course. If this is the "laziest, sloppiest" etc. things you've read then you haven't read much Ferguson. It's just one in a long line.

  8. Thank you for taking down Niall Ferguson so savagely!!!

  9. Ferguson is wrong to use the word "civilization" when he means "empire", of course. It's clear from twenty seconds' skimming that he means "empire".

    And, of course, he's laughably wrong about differences in societies.

    (As Gray Ship and Kindred Winecoff point out, Ferguson is a cargo cult historian - he has the title, and publishes books about the past, and says approximately historian-like things, but what he does is not history. And if he wants to talk about "killer apps" he should stick to the literal killer applications, those of Jared Diamond's tools of genocide.)

    Turning to what Ferguson intends to say, empires have collapsed quite suddenly -- the Soviet Union, the British Empire, the Japanese, Italian and Belgian Empires, to name a few recent ones -- but it's unlikely that the American Empire will do so just yet. I think we can diarize a review in 2051.

  10. Anonymous5:47 AM

    The west pulled ahead of the rest of the world due to other 'killer applications'; namely imperialism, racism, genocide and looting.

    Take India as an example, the Industrial revolution was financed by raping the Indian subcontinents wealth!

    Ferguson is an old style imperialist/bigot who gets by only because he has an English accent; which in the US makes him appear more knowledgeable than he actually is.

    1. Anonymous5:23 PM

      Imperialism was not only western, for instance it was also russian, mongol and ottoman ... But this countries did not get rich like the west

  11. I´m Sorry, Fergurson is right. Hayek got it: the progress depends on several values and beliefs that are not rational.
    "We are in debt with belives and costums of unknow origin..."
    That is a serious limits to rationalization, as the "le siegle des Lumieres" demonstrates: French Revolution, Napoleon, wars, wars... in the name of the Reason.
    That is obviously an uncomfortable guess for economist, that use to think there are marvellous scientifics. But the history says quite different story

  12. Put the guns away. Ferguson is expressing a view, he's not saying he's God. Spog's rule - nastiness comes from idle minds.

  13. I'm baffled at the assertion that *anyone* invented "the work ethic." Also, this is what happens when people try to make clever technology analogies.

  14. eddie-g11:33 AM

    " In the UK, Ferguson is not taken too seriously..."

    Wish that were so. David Cameron for one is supposed to be a fan.

  15. @Gray Ship said, “If those immigrants have their own ideas…then the locals gets nervous. I think that overall that's a valid point IF you are a local with some attachment to tradition.”
    Hmmm, methinks you meant that this is a positive statement of the justification given when societies fail to assimilate different viewpoints.

    My personal experience with immigrants is that they recognize economic and social traditions as part of a single package, and don't attempt to separate them. The Sharia Law example you cite has an uphill battle against an open society for this reason; I imagine it only gains traction among a people that are ghettoized.

    Which is exactly the point.

  16. Anonymous12:15 PM

    Are the majority of South Koreans christian?

    A quick google found this: In the 2005 census, 29.2% of South Koreans described themselves as Christian.

    This is higher than I would have guessed (20%) but still a minority. I would be interested to see better numbers if they are available.

  17. Last Anon: They mean Protestant. There's also a bunch of Catholics.

  18. Nice takedown of Ferguson. If you haven't already read it, I highly recommend Adam Gopnik's review of declinist books (including Ferguson's, which he savages).

  19. "Nice post. In the UK, Ferguson is not taken too seriously, which is why he went to the US...!"

    I think it was mainly that Harvard paid more than ten times as much as Oxford actually.

    For what it's worth, he was an extremely good undergraduate tutor/lecturer, and his early stuff (especially on the Rothschilds and 'The Pity of War') is quality history. It's the corrupting influence of telly that's to blame for late-stage Ferguson.

  20. Gray Ship: "Yes, (nice line about meritocracy)BUT too much diversity can backfire without a core of intellectual self-confidence (Japan)."

    I'd sure love to see proof of this, or even a good argument.

    Luis H Arroyo said...

    " I´m Sorry, Fergurson is right. Hayek got it: the progress depends on several values and beliefs that are not rational. "

    Luis, I'm sorry, but Ferguson is wrong. There, I've matched your argument. Seriously, did you actually *read* Noah's post?

  21. Anonymous1:31 PM

    No empire collapsed quicly it's ridiculous. Or maybe the collapse is sudden but the decline is long.
    Soviet Union was in decline since early sixties.
    "6. The Work Ethic... "
    I don't think east asian have wait for the West about work ethic.
    This man is not an historian.
    But about Western civilsation is right, Japan for instance has nothing to do with Western Civilization, we should not mingle Wester nCivilization with modern, Japan is modern not Western. There is different modernity.
    The decline of the West is relative because of the rise of China, India , but not absolute.

  22. Anonymous2:09 PM

    Sorry Noah but your information appears to be incorrect.

    Protestant: 18.3%
    Catholic: 10.9%
    Total Christian: 29.2%

    These numbers are from the 2005 census as quoted by Pew. I would prefer a better source (as I noted earlier) but haven't been able to locate one.

    I am happy to be proven wrong but I have found several similar estimates and none in direct contradiction.

  23. Anonymous2:18 PM

    Re the Korean religion tangent:

    Despite what some Protestants (and not a few Catholics) would have you think, Catholicism is quite squarely within the standard definition of "Christian."

  24. I will go by sven for the duration of this comment thread. I have posted twice above as Anonymous, both times citing the 29.2% estimate for South Korea's Christian population.

    Most recent Anonymous, I don't think anyone has questioned whether Catholicism is a mainline denomination. Noah argued that my estimate might have been low due to confusion but I don't think he was making any claims himself. I certainly am not and have included Catholics as such in my numbers.

  25. Ferguson is a hack.

    But that is just my opinion and I could be wrong.

  26. If that's the same data my highly reliable google search is finding, it appears that Christianity is the plurality religion in South Korea, with "no [organized] religion" being the only thing more popular.

  27. Over at the Crooked Timber website they posted this article...‘We have faith in our citizens’ – why?. Here was my reply...

    "Public opinion, in its turn, has become harder and harder for governments to read. Parties are no longer in a position to bridge or ‘manage’ this gap, or even to persuade voters to accept it as a necessary element in political life. This growing incompatibility is one of the principal sources of the democratic malaise that confronts many Western democracies today." - Peter Mair

    There’s nothing hard about reading public opinion. Nearly 75% of Americans support Obama’s plan to provide funding for more teachers while 65% of Americans want to pay less taxes. Our current level of debt clearly reflects that politicians fully appreciate that "representing" is in their best interests because it helps guarantee reelection.

    Voters want to have their cake and eat it too. Politicians irresponsibly try and give voters exactly what they want.

    The simple solution is clearly to allow each and every taxpayer to decide for themselves whether they want to spend their taxes on having their cake OR on eating their cake. In other words...we need taxpayers to consider the opportunity costs of their individual tax allocation decisions. This will force them to prioritize which public goods they value most.

    Whether a consumer purchases a new TV or makes a donation to UNICEF...they implicitly understand that the money that they spend cannot be used to pay for other goods that they value. The cumulative result of each and every consumer considering the opportunity costs of their spending decision ensures the best possible use of private resources. Why would anybody argue against the best possible use of public resources?

    Even if congress wanted to be responsible...given that they have NO idea how much we truly value the various public goods...every single tax allocation they make can be considered a misallocation of public funds.

    It’s just like the blind men each touching a different part of the elephant and arguing over what it is that they are touching. The only way we can accurately know what the scope of government should be is if we ADD all the limited perspectives of each and every taxpayer together. The blind men would never come to the correct conclusion if they averaged their perspectives and we’ll never come to the correct conclusion if we try and average the perspectives of taxpayers.

    It’s absurd that we’re all forced to purchase the exact same public goods just like it would be absurd if we were all forced to purchase the exact same private goods.

    On the very rare chance that you appreciate how limited your perspective truly is then please see my latest blog entry on the value of political tolerance.

  28. bjdubbs7:44 PM

    Japan is not in the West. Neither is Korea. This is not controversial. Just ask them. Or visit.

  29. bjdubbs8:22 PM

    I see that my sneering was unearned, as the blog poster knows plenty more about Japan than I ever will. Point still stands though, Japan is not in the west. Being conquered by US forces is not the criterion for membership in the west.

  30. Luis,who said your quote..."We are in debt with belives and costums of unknow origin..."? It's really great... but the origins are fairly easy to discern...Is the Tax Allocation Disparity Divine of Delusional?.

  31. Xero, obviously not.
    I suppose Fergurson is saying that the history is not controled by Mankind. It is the unintended consequences of our decision. But these decisions are not necessary compatible with each other.
    We are on the verge of a probable catastrophe. This catastrophe would be caused by a serie of actions suposed to fix the problem. But the problem not become fixed...
    At the end, we see that the problem is a conflict between beliefs not so rational. Germans believe only in price stability, so ECB should not be Lender of last resort... That "mistake" could provoque the Big Sutnami.

  32. Xerographica, WTF?

    Your comment has very little to do with this thread.

  33. Nice post.

    Contra Amy Chua, I doubt that ethnic inclusionism is a necessary condition for empire. The Spanish did fine, as did the Japanese Empire until WWII, despite being two of the most racist societies in history. The British Empire was already powerful when it abolished slavery, as well.

    Chua thinks that empires fall when resources dry up because people become more xenophobic. I think that empires fall when people become xenophobic because resources are drying up; elites try to preserve their way of life at the expense of the little guys.

  34. Jay:

    The Japanese example is not so good, since the Japanese Empire was doomed from Day 1. It had a weak chain of command, was riven with factionalism, and was motivated primarily by grassroots right-wingers and lower-level army officers who pressured the empire into recklessly attacking every rival power in sight. But in addition, Japan's empire was doomed by the fact that Japan had a small population and was not willing to let people of other ethnicities hold real local power or enter the army and government. Same for Nazi Germany.

    The Spanish example is more difficult, but it seems to me that they just got lucky, and quickly got their butts kicked as soon as more effective nations started paying attention.

  35. Anonymous7:06 PM

    Very good points Noah, but: who is Niall Ferguson?

  36. Irrelevant, Xerographica - your comment was a dump of a comment from another blog, on another topic. If you had to do that, you could have just linked.

  37. Noah: "The Spanish example is more difficult, but it seems to me that they just got lucky, and quickly got their butts kicked as soon as more effective nations started paying attention."

    The Spanish example is to my mine an oddball example - their expansion was into a bunch of lands where most of the population was wiped out by disease, and where the Spanish had a several hundred year tech advantage.

    Generally empires don't have either of those advantages.

    And the part of the Spanish empire which was in Europe either assimilated other cultures well (e.g., Austria), or didn't, and had problems (e.g., the Netherlands).

  38. Anonymous said...

    "Very good points Noah, but: who is Niall Ferguson?"

    A worthless bloviating BS artist whose very popular on TV and in Harvard, because he has a cute British accent which makes him sound all wise and stuff to the locals.

    Search Krugman's blog for recurring beatdowns of him.

    In particular, Ferguson is supposed to be an expert on judging the bond markets (historically, that is; he wrote a book about them). However, Ferguson has spend the last three years getting it 100% wrong. Krugman occasionally goes back and pulls out Ferguson's predictions, and cruelly compares them to reality.

  39. Barry, feel free to point out how the misallocation of public funds isn't relevant to the stagnation or decline of any society.

  40. Anonymous8:56 AM

    Thank you Barry!

  41. Hey Noah, I'm sure that the question I posed to you on my blog was poorly worded so let me try a different approach.

    According to Wikipedia..."The notion of opportunity cost plays a crucial part in ensuring that scarce resources are used efficiently." It seems pretty fundamental to economic theory...yet when I searched within your blog it turns out that you've only briefly mentioned it once.

    That's interesting because this blog entry... Opportunity Costs...quotes a passage that indicates that it's the number one concept that economists wish the general public knew more about.

    I know that you're busy with your dissertation but if you get a chance it would be really great to hear your perspective on the opportunity cost concept...especially as it relates to the efficient allocation of public resources.

    No worries if the opportunity cost of posting an entry on this concept is too high!

  42. Hate to mess up your "if this were 1911" bit, but Einstein's contributions were hardly in the future that year. His revolutionary papers date from at least 1905.

  43. Xerographica -

    Opportunity cost is like heat. You can measure differences in it, or changes in it, but you can't measure its absolute level, because its absolute level depends on a set of alternatives that is unknown and may have infinite cardinality. How's that? ;-)

  44. Noah,'s significant progress...but I was hoping you would be able to provide more than just a definition. What I'm interested in hearing are your thoughts on how the opportunity cost concept relates to allocative efficiency.

    Even though the absolute opportunity cost of any given allocation decision might be's possible to consider the opportunity cost in terms of other time/money allocations that you value.

    For example...the opportunity cost of writing a blog entry on the opportunity cost concept is the time that you could have spent working on your dissertation. You greatly value your dissertation so the opportunity cost of writing an entry on opportunity cost might be too high.

    But what if you didn't really have a good grasp of how the opportunity cost concept relates to allocative efficiency? What would the opportunity cost then be of writing an economic dissertation instead of writing a blog entry on how the opportunity cost concept relates to allocative efficiency?

    Your blog entries frequently applaud government spending and you share calculations that measure the societal benefits of government spending...but you've never once considered whether there might be any allocative disparities between 535 congresspeople considering the opportunity costs of other people's money and millions and millions taxpayers considering the opportunity costs of their own individual tax money.

    In other words...can I know your opportunity costs better than you yourself can? If you say yes then you'll win the argument that congress knows better than millions and millions of taxpayers. The drawback of saying yes will be that I'll be able to dictate how you spend your time and money. Of course, you could always "fire" me but good luck finding somebody who knows your values better than you do.

    If you say no then you'll lose the argument that congress knows better than millions and millions of taxpayers. On the plus'll be able to spend your time and money as you like. Also on the plus side...your dissertation will be based more on economic reality rather than vestigial traditions.

    "To have doubted one's own first principles is the mark of a civilized man." - Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr

  45. Seems to me that Ferguson is not unlike a cult leader predicting apocalypse, based on our immoral choice of (somewhat) rejecting his macroeconomically ignorant prescriptions of belt-tightening and suffering. Of course, the hyperinflation apocalypse did not happen.

    And as all good cult leaders know, when your predictions do not pan out, you do not pause to re-examine your beliefs, instead you double down with a new apocalyptic prediction.

  46. @Xerographica, re opportunity cost. It's clear from a quick skim that your long posts will not yield enough useful content to be worth a closer reading; I have better uses for that time. What's your point? Get to it.

  47. dr2chase, how significant is the allocative disparity between (A) 535 congresspeople considering the opportunity costs of other people's money and (B) millions and millions of taxpayers considering the opportunity costs of their own individual taxes?

  48. I read Ferguson's Ascent of Money. I was disappointed by the first part of the book and appalled by the last ("Chimerica" - freaking nonsense).

    Years ago I transitioned from one those hard subjects (physics) to a softer subject (economics) to an even softer subject (law). I made the transition because I thought that I would make more money as a lawyer than as a mathematician / physicist.

    In my view turning out good lawyers is every bit as important as turning out good engineers or scientists.

  49. @Xerographica. Opportunity cost. What does it profit me to click the link and answer your question? My time is valuable, I suspect you are an ideologue with an agenda and a bad user interface. Speak clearly, don't waste people's time, don't play word games, if you know the answer to your question, state it.

  50. dr2chase, you don't want to click on the link because you don't want to waste your time. You're considering the opportunity cost of your time. This is a GOOD thing. It's also a GOOD thing when you consider the opportunity cost of how you spend your money.

    So why would it be a BAD thing for you to consider the opportunity costs of how you spend your taxes? My entire blog is dedicated to the concept of how it would be a GOOD thing if taxpayers were allowed to directly decide which government organizations received their individual taxes.

    Of course, my entire theory might be flawed...

  51. This comment has been removed by the author.

  52. @Xerographica - your theory is flawed in several ways. First, how do you define "taxpayer"? Would I be wrong in guessing "income tax payer"? If so, what about those people who don't pay income tax?

    Second, is the size of the money directed proportional to the amount of tax paid? If so, that fails one man (err, person), one vote. So that's bad.

    Third, this presumes good information on the part of the taxpayer/voter. We have pretty good evidence that many people lack good information, both from polling data (amount of money spent on foreign aid, for example) and from the continued existence of the Republican Party.

    So, sorry, I think your idea is not a good one.

  53. dr2chase, give people a choice which government organizations receive their taxes and I'm sure that a lot more people would pay a lot more taxes. Nobody likes paying for things that they do not value...just like you don't like wasting your time reading blogs that you're not interested in.

    Everybody would still have a vote...the only difference would be that taxpayers would decide which functions to fund. The power wouldn't be taken from would be taken from congress. Of course...people would still have the choice to give their taxes to congress. So congress would only have as much tax allocation power as taxpayers believed they deserved.

    No, it does not presume good information. It presumes partial information. Hayek's concept of partial information/knowledge is key to understanding how markets work. Without it you won't be able to effectively evaluate pragmatarianism.

    The best way to understand partial knowledge is the story of the blind men and the elephant. Right now congresspeople are like blind men arguing over the scope of government. The blind men wouldn't have come to the correct answer by averaging their perspectives. In order to discern the actual scope of government we need to add up the the limited perspectives of millions and millions of taxpayers. The total amount of taxpayer knowledge utterly dwarfs that of congress.

    No need to be sorry. I didn't think it was a good idea either until I started asking taxpayers for fun to predict the outcome of this hypothetical situation. It wasn't until I realized that their concerns indicated how they would allocate their own taxes did I start to consider the value of this idea.

  54. @Xerographica - I think you are playing word games, if you claim that people can still vote, yet that the elected Congress can (will) be denied adequate funds to do anything useful. This might also be unconstitutional; isn't power-of-the-purse pretty explicitly dropped in Congress's lap?

    Name-dropping Hayek is also not a good plan for convincing me; their theories are not stated precisely enough to be testable, yet to the extent that they are, they seem to be bogus. Most of the people I see who quote Hayek, propose political and economic systems that have not yet been demonstrated to work in real live countries, and there are plenty of wealthy, interesting countries that seem to run quite well and mostly ignore the Austrian advice.

  55. dr2chase, I said that people would have a choice whether they gave their taxes to congress or whether they directly allocated their taxes themselves. I have no idea what percentage of taxpayers would choose to allocate their taxes themselves. Would you allocate your taxes yourself or give your taxes to congress?

    The power-of-the-purse used to be in the lap of a king. Just like it was a progressive move for that power to have been transferred to congress it will be an even more progressive move when that power is transferred to taxpayers. Again, the amount of power that is transferred will depend on what percentage of taxpayers would choose to allocate their taxes themselves.

    Examples of the countries that completely ignore Hayek are Cuba, Libya, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Belarus, and Myanmar.

    All Hayek said is that you cannot plan economies because it's impossible for a group of individuals to have as much information as millions and millions of consumers. Socialism will fail every time because you'll be forced to read blogs that you do not value. Countries can only handle a certain degree of inefficient allocation of resources before a tipping point is reached.

    But how much public ownership of the modes of production could a country tolerate in a situation where public resources were efficiently allocated?

    Nobody has ever considered a type of socialism where taxpayers directly allocate their individual taxes. Government organizations would have an incentive to produce because taxpayers would not allocate their taxes to an organization that wasted their money.

    I don't care whether the scope of government narrows or broadens...I just care that our money is used in the best way possible. The best use of resources is determined when each person considers the opportunity costs of their spending decisions.

    What would I have to gain from playing word games? What I advocate is a system of political tolerance.

  56. @Xerographica: you ARE playing word games. "mostly ignore" is not "completely ignore", yet you trot out a rogues' gallery of the worst of the worst. There are interesting ideas in the Austrian school, but as a system, forget it.

    And OF COURSE I would choose where to spend my dollars, and OF COURSE I expect everyone else to do it. It's one of those delightful game-theoretic traps; if you do not defect, you are a fool. The way out of this stupid trap is to not create the idiotic game in the first place.

  57. dr2chase, Austrians tend to "completely ignore" the free-rider problem. That's my criticism of the Austrian school.

    On the other hand, you criticize the Austrian school but fail to explain the basis of your criticism.

    You say I trot out the worst of the worst ideas but fail to explain why you believe that the ideas are so bad.

    You say that pragmatarianism is an idiotic game but fail to offer a single example of an idiotic outcome of this game.

    If you do not substantiate your criticisms then how can I possibly refute them?

    For could say that russian roulette is an idiotic game because there's a good chance that you could die.

    Pragmatarianism is an idiotic game because there's a good chance that...?

  58. @X - the problem with your proposal is that it dilutes the power of the popular vote, and increases the power of wealth and capital. I perceive that this would lead to even further corruption of government, perhaps even out-in-the-open self-dealing by the very wealthy.

    There are also likely constitutional issues, both with dilution of the vote, and with subverting the congressional power to control taxation and spending.

    And this seems very obvious and very likely, so if you have theories that claim otherwise, it seems to me that they are almost certainly busted. It would seem to me that as promoter of the theories, it is incumbent on you to explain (concisely and clearly of course) why all this likely corruption would not happen.

    It is also the case that I perceive, perhaps incorrectly, that the Austrian school seems no harm in intense concentrations of wealth at the high end. This, to me, is further evidence they don't have a firm grasp of the big picture.

  59. dr2chase, it's hard for me to refute your claims of corruption when you haven't explained exactly why you think that pragmatarianism would be more susceptible to corruption than the current system. The more centralized the power the easier it is to corrupt. Pragmatarianism decentralizes power.

    Yes, the more taxes you pay the more allocation power you would have. But thus far nobody has been able to offer examples of how "evil" rich people will be able to do "bad" things by allocating their taxes to public "goods".

    Yeah, obviously we'd have to amend the constitution.

    Regarding inequality...if we accept that it's a worthy goal then the difficulty lies in fully grasping the unintended consequences of government efforts to reduce inequality. Here's a blog entry I dedicated to the dialectic of unintended consequences.

  60. One example of the corruption I imagine is that the wealthy would only fund stuff that benefits them directly -- it would be as if they were not taxed at all. For other examples, I suggest Wikipedia, "Banana Republic".

    As to unintended consequences, the system we have surely has them, but they are at this point familiar. We can compare with other systems that are similar around the world, and with state-level experiments, and get some insights as to what might or might not work. You seem unusually confident that this great idea of yours would not suffer from unintended consequences, AND that it would be better, meaning economically more efficient.

    Do you have any estimates how much more efficient it might be? For example, I can estimate that moving us to single-payer health care would be about 6% more efficient at the GDP level, because among developed nations, the nations with single-payer spend that much less than we do (while providing better care, using expected lifespan, infant mortality, percentage of population covered as metrics for "better"). Can you run some numbers and show your work?

  61. dr2chase, the problem with your example of corruption is that public goods, by their very definition, are non-excludable. Everybody would benefit from any allocation that the wealthy made to any pubic good.

    How can you measure the allocation disparity between 535 congresspeople allocating other people's money and millions and millions of taxpayers allocating their own individual taxes?

    I can't visualize millions and millions of taxpayers making hard decisions with their individual taxes. I can't imagine millions and millions of taxpayers considering the opportunity costs of their tax allocation decisions.

    Public healthcare is great...but then again so is public education. Can you guarantee that one tax dollar spent on public health produces a greater benefit to society than if that same tax dollar was spent on public education? You can't.

    Yet, you want everybody to allocate a portion of their taxes to public healthcare.

    You probably wouldn't want to take that money away from public education would you? And I'm sure you agree that we shouldn't borrow more money to pay for public healthcare.

    No, you probably want to take it away from the public goods that other people national defense...or perhaps away from the war on drugs.

    Or maybe you just want the rich to pay their "fair share". Would making the rich pay more taxes cover the cost of universal healthcare? Perhaps...but would making the rich pay more cover the rest of the public goods demands of voters?

    Liberals and conservatives can go back and forth engaging in endless hyperpartisan obstructionism...with each side convinced that the other side is wrong. You'd figure if one side really had a monopoly on truth they would have permanently defeated the other side by now.

    None of us have a monopoly on truth. That is the small bit of truth that I have. I recognize how limited my perspective truly is. Am I the only one with a limited perspective? No...we are all just blind men arguing over the scope of government.

    The only way we can truly guarantee the maximum benefit to society is if each and every taxpayer was given the freedom to try and maximize the benefit of their individual taxes.

  62. @Xerographica - I would not be surprised if there are numbers that could be found for public education, based on years of economic data both in the US and in other countries. I don't happen to have that data.

    The data that is easily found, and hard to argue, is that healthcare done right is possible (all these other countries do it), cheaper (5% of GDP savings possible -- I misremembered 6%), and better. Since it would SAVE MONEY, this is not a case of either/or; we could do this, and have more money left over for education, too.

    I notice you failed to provide a number. I need a number. If you claim that your proposed system allocates resources more efficiently, then "how much more efficiently" is a natural response. The efficiency arguments for universal health care are pretty straightforward; there are clearly busted incentives in the provide system, and about 20 examples (countries) where universal care works cheaper+better.

    If you don't have a number, or if your number is not as large as 5% of GDP, and if your goal is to increase economic efficiency, why aren't you advocating for universal health care instead? Should I infer from this that actually, economic efficiency is not your first priority?

    Your use of the phrase "public good" is also a word game. An international airport located just outside some zillionaire's personal ski resort is in theory a "public good", but in practice, it is for the millionaire, not the public.

  63. dr2chase, regarding "public goods"...voters would determine the parameters of public goods and taxpayers would fund whichever public goods fell within those parameters. So your zillionare airport example doesn't quite work.

    Don't get me wrong...I completely understand that universal healthcare could potentially save money...but what you're not understanding is that universal healthcare would still cost something. And whenever you have costs...the opportunity cost concept applies.

    Why don't we currently have universal healthcare? Because private healthcare companies spend a lot of money to lobby government to block it from going through. You're welcome to continue to try and lobby against the lobbyists...

    In a pragmatarian system you would be able to directly allocate as much of your taxes as you wanted to public healthcare. The amount of money that public healthcare received would determine the percentage of the population that qualified for coverage.

    Given the much of their taxes would George Soros, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett allocate to public healthcare?

    You want a number? I want a number too! I asked Noah for a number and all he offered was the definition of opportunity cost.

    I don't have any numbers...all I have is the basic premise that private resources are efficiently allocated because consumers are forced to consider the opportunity costs of their spending decisions.

    This premise is considered economic fact by mainstream economists. So why haven't these economists applied their economic fact to public goods? I don't know why they haven't. It doesn't make any sense...wouldn't they want public goods to be efficiently allocated?

  64. Anonymous12:21 AM

    I can overlook much, but not misquoting Elrond. A lot of what Elrond said is, by today's standards, rabid racism (the blood of the Numenoreans became mingled with that of the lesser men, how's that for a sage remark?!), but it was Boromir who said at the Council Believe not that in the land of Gondor the blood of Numenor is spent, nor all its pride and dignity forgotten.

  65. Anonymous8:31 PM

    "What's history [a historian] to me?" Wittgenstein

  66. Anonymous10:28 PM

    Don't you all think that Ferguson is just misusing the term "operating system?" In fact, if you read the piece and insert "computer hardware" or "computer platform" every time he writes "operating system," you'll be surprised how much sense it makes.

    Of course we'd all like to think that Harvard and Oxford types wouldn't confuse "Windows" or "OS X" with "PC" or "Mac," but they often do. It's unfortunate that state school types like me have to clean it up and explain it. This imprecision isn't unusual. Many people refer to "Windows PCs" and the "Macintosh OS."

    I think the point of this piece is that there isn't anything genetic about these things that he says led to Western dominance during the 17th-20th centuries. Any people--any DNA--any culture can own them and deploy them. And some will inevitably do it better than Westerners did.

    If you read him that way, you may conclude that what he is saying isn't racist at all. In fact, he's just acknowledging a fact: a Western hardware platform (not a Western operating system) holds no real advantage over its competitors. Those who rely on its dominance as birthright do so at their own peril.

  67. EMIchael12:29 PM


    I know I shouldn't, but I have to say something.

    See any potential problems with having a couple of hundred million people decide which public goods to fund on a direct baisis?

    Have you paid any attention to California the last couple of decades? Multiply that by a million or so.

  68. So is it only a matter of semantics, then? Had Ferguson used "White people" in place of "Westerners" through out his article, you would agree with him?

  69. EMIchael, the only problem I see is that you have trouble understanding that pragmatarianism is the very solution to the problem you're referring to.

    Read my post on the opportunity costs of public transportation or my post on the opportunity costs of war or my post on the opportunity costs of public goods...and then let me know if you still fail to understand the value of forcing taxpayers to consider the opportunity costs of their tax allocation decisions.

  70. Anonymous4:56 PM

    I wish people wouldn't use the Soviet Union as an example of an empire that underwent swift collapse. It's still there, it's called the Russian Republic. And before communism it was Tsarist Russia. The empire has shrunk but is still the biggest country on Earth. Stop looking at changes in government and look at geographical continuity instead. Nobody argues the Roman Empire collapsed when it transitioned from Republic to Dictatorship. Communism was just one stage in Russia's continuing history.

  71. Anonymous9:28 PM

    "Meritocratic diversity"? That's nearly an oxymoron, Noah.

    You can have diversity, or you can have meritocracy. You can't have both, at least not entirely.

    And if you think Silicon Valley is an example of both, you don't know the demographics of Silicon Valley very well.

    Meritocracy comes dangerously close to racism in important ways - in essence, it was the basis of Murray's views. It's bigotry for folks who don't like the word "bigotry." But it is bigotry, Noah, make no mistake. The social mores of people who believe in meritocracy are not all that different from those of overt racists; they just use a slightly different basis for their discrimination. Both are comfortable with leaving some behind in the name of rewarding others.

    There can be no valid basis for discrimination - not race, and not merit. Sorry.

    Your attitude is not much better than Ferguson's.

  72. I saw this clown on Colbert. It was the first time I'd ever heard of him, and I wanted to reach through my TV screen and punch him in the face the minute he started talking.

    Why? Racist ideas aside, his analogies are absolute crap. They're like fingernails on the chalkboard. This nonsense about the "killer applications" and "operating systems" of civilizations is just meaningless garbage. I think he just throws around these terms to sound hip, but obviously doesn't understand how applications or computers actually work.

    A "killer app" for example, refers to a program that is so useful, it causes a larger technology to get adopted. If you took his analogy seriously, he'd be implying that the benefits of the ideas on his list are so amazing, people have adopted Western culture just to get them. That is ridiculous, and clearly not what he means at all. But he keeps saying it over and over again. Based on what you've quoted, it sounds like the analogy is a fundamental framework to his course.

    But he never even bothered to check what the words he keeps using actually mean.

  73. Peter A1:41 AM

    "There can be no valid basis for discrimination - not race, and not merit."

    Why not? On what moral or ethical basis do we have to treat everyone the same if some people are demonstrably not physically or intellectually capable of doing certain tasks? It's very easy to say "racism bad!" but very rarely do anti-racists try to justify their beliefs other than to make references to Hitler and slavery in the US, two examples where racism was used as a justification for nasty inhuman behavior, but did not motivate that behavior. Plenty of awful genocidal civilizations existed that were less "racist" than the US - ancient Rome for one.

  74. Anonymous1:50 AM

    Peter A, your bizarre and ridiculously ignorant characterization of "anti-racists" is childishness at it's most laughable.
    If you want to know what anti-racists say and believe, how about you pout a little bit of effort in. Just because you want them to be nothing but name-callers, doesn't mean they are.
    The level of utterly pathetic nonsense you right wing culture warriors spew is just insane. Get help before you hurt someone or yourself.

  75. Anonymous1:53 AM

    ...oh and Pete A, I take it you're so lazy, you never actually bothered to look up what the term 'Genocide' actually means. Did you hear your childish argument on a talk radio show by any chance, or at your local 'Sons of Confederate Veterans' cult club Hate Meet?

  76. You really should know what your metaphors mean before you make them the centerpiece of an argument.

    A "killer app" is an application that is so obviously necessary to have that people buy the platform it runs on in order to get access to it.

  77. Ferguson suggests that we "delete...the politically correct pseudosciences and soft subjects that deflect good students away from hard science."

    oh brother....america's problem isn't that potential engineers are opting to major in underwater basket weaving, it's that too many of them chose to go to business school....

  78. Anonymous9:05 AM

    A lot of Americans especially love him because he reaffirms their racist notions of non Westerners, especially Arabs and Muslims in general. And he is a cute British (no rotting teeth) guy with a desirable British accent and peppers his sentences with words like "fabulous", "stupendous" etc

  79. This post is a beautiful example of dissembling. The point of course is not that Asian-Americans can't be Western, but rather what/who is the core of 'Western' civilization? It is obviously people of European descent. This is true regardless of anyone's opinion of biological 'race' or not - cultures are very, very sticky. If you deny this, you are forced to accept the absolute absurd proposition that a Japan with 60% Argentinian population will stay Japan as you know it.
    Yes, Western civilization is quite inclusive, and its commendable, but the source is European populations and their cultures. Only a leftist demagogue will deny this simplest of truths.

  80. Maybe someone brought it up before, but majority of South Koreans are not Christians. If you combine Catholics and Protestants, the number of belivers (29% of population according to 2005 census) are larger than Buddhists (23%), but lower than no religion (47%). If Catholics and Protestants are broken up, Buddhists are larger. However, it seems like Protestants are the majority because they are (IMO obnoxiously) noisy and political. (Also, if you think the Korean brand of Protestant is similar to US, you're in for a big surprise). Also, during the strongest period of Korean growth, (late 60s - early 80s) there were probably more Buddhists than Christians.

  81. Anonymous5:18 AM

    I see you've acquired the only skill people learn at university nowadays: distorting arguments you don't like to make them appear racist.

    I'm sure you actually believe it too!

  82. Anonymous3:41 AM

    European contact with Islam (a vastly superior civilization at the time) during the crusades created appetites for foreign goods (spices, tea, silk). Trade initially increased, but then the silk trade was blocked by the Ottomans, the Europeans had to take to the seas to find alternate routes, creating seafaring innovation (and the first glimmers of a paradigm shift toward "world centric" values). The Europeans had been fighting the Muslims in Spain for 800 years, on and off, so military technology innovation was present. Islam was a religion of conquest and slavery, but not "racism" per se. (They did consider Europeans to be barbaric, malodorous, and spiritually inferior, but not because of "skin color", racism was invented later, a bad "side effect" of Darwin's theory.)

    Islamic orthodoxy and complacency norn of extraordinary success and accomplishment caused the muslim world to fail to innovate as fast as europe. Most "western science" originated in the middle east, from Islamic universities that had preserved ancient greek and jewish (and persian, and indians, and ...?) libraries, and had studied these books in detail for 100s of years.

    For instance, in Raphael's Scuola di Atene, his muslim mentor, Ibn Rushd (Averroes), is seated in the same palace of learning as the great european (both christian and greek "pagan") philosophers.

    Ancient and medieval muslim scholarship cross fertilized with both Jewish and Christian scholarship to a degree not commonly known, as did study of esoterica and mysticism within each tradition.

    For instance, Newton was a secret heretic who was open to extremely non-orthodox ideas in both science and mysticism.

    Was it an "accident" that european culture created the conditions that allowed for a greater degree of innovation than elsewhere, or was it inherent to some "racial" quality of europeans?

    It seems most likely that gene-culture coevolution had slowly been working for 200,000 years to create the appearance of such (universal) innovations "somewhere", and that it was fairly "accidental" that the european "barbarians" were more open to alternatives than their main competition (islam and china), and that some dumb luck was involved: their success at domesticating a better variety of livestock species was a function of their ecosystem being a wide east-west continent with a uniform climate rather than a narrow north-south one with vastly differing climate zones.

    There was friction between the northern european tribes, who had long traditions of local wisdom and "liberty" (resistance to imperial authority), and the southern european centralized imperial states.

    In any case, as literacy and numeracy spread across europe in the wake of economic shift toward global economics (and Renaissance humanism), the preconditions for a paradigm shift toward modernism, and away from the systems of orthodox/rigid, premodern thought were in place.

    The fact that other "Races" in later times were able to easily absorb various modernist memes after hundreds of years of european colonialization had softened traditional resistance to new ideas, probably disproves the idea that some kind of biologically superior "racial" characteristics of european people were responsible for the appearance of the innovations.

  83. A truly nasty little series! H G Wells he ain't (tho' he'd love to be). I think "insideous" might be the way to describe it. I've recorded it religiously off BBC Knowledge since Ep2 - missing 1, then going back and looking 1.... "the thesis". A shame others haven't viewed it that way too - I did by accident.

    If ever there was a study for the media student - this is it. It's probably a good series for the 'engineering student' to watch as well.
    The art of decontextualisation (through revisionism AND juxtaposing today against images of yesteryear - and vice versa) - this is it!

    What a fcukwit! Let's hope he's not the next dangerous fcukwit - although since Cameron wants to suck his dick, he may very well be!

    I noticed in these comments that someone said he was a good educator (although they didn't necessarily agreee with him). I bet he is! Nothing like a good salesman to sell a lemon!

    When I did get to view Ep 1, I admit to having to agree with him on various things. Basically I think this guy is more interested in his ego and self-promotion first and foremost, and history and historical interpretation second. (There's a lot of it about these days)

  84. Finally, finally excellent exposés of the charlartan Ferguson. His first major book "Pity of War' set the scene- a so called revisionist text, his argument is laughable and his research in many places, skimpy. There are so many finer scholars out there- past and present- covering the First World War, Empires, 20th century Europe, Economic history...Zara Steiner; Richard Overy; Jay Winter; Paul Kennedy etc. and Ferguson is not even in the same league as Toynbee, Collingwood etc.

  85. Anonymous5:42 AM

    Noah, you make good points, except that you've adapted the anti-intellectual term "Hispanic". Grouping indigenous Nahuatl speaking Mexicans, Japanese Peruvians, Afro-Cubans and German Argentinians into a global group like "Hispanic" is just as idiotic as calling every single person from an English speaking country in America (the continent) "Anglos" whether they are Japanese Canadians, indigenous Navajo, South Asian Guyanese or White British Trinidadians. "Hispanic" is a term that the US census bureau changed in the 1970s to NOT refer to the culture and language of Spain but instead to group 500 million people of many different races and ethnicities into one major "ethnic group". You could use "Latin American descent immigrant" as one way to try and describe them. Niall Ferguson is a lightweight who, like every British expat in the USA, wins over the non-passport carrying majority with whimsical seudo intellecutalism. As one poster said, Ferguson was not taken seriously in the UK or Europe for that matter and so therefore decamped into the intellectual wilds of the US.

  86. Anonymous4:43 AM

    While I might not agree with Mr. Ferguson's assessment on current situations in the US that may lead to its downfall, I do see his logic in subscribing (with much tailoring of course) the West "rise" to dominance to the 7 "killer apps". Looking at the past 500 years and seeing what survives (at least for now), Western countries, some 'did' "better" than others, either created or adopted and refined these ideas/practices to allow them to dominate those that did not. If you can suspend your value judgement and social identity for a moment, you would have to submit to these attributable facts and now calling them Western ideas/practices is just incidental for they'll likely continue to serve any nations that employ them effectively, whether to be dominant or not dominated.