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on 18 June 2013
*A full executive summary of this book is available at newbooksinbrief dot com.

Over the past half-millennium the West has built up a substantial lead over other parts of the world when it comes to both economic power and material standard of living. Now, however, this lead is slipping away. Indeed, developing nations led by such powers as China and India are quickly closing the gap, as they are experiencing impressive economic growth, while the West is stagnating. Many argue that this is the natural result of globalization (and the fact that major corporations are taking advantage of cheaper labor in developing nations). For Harvard historian and writer Niall Ferguson, however, there is something deeper going on here. For Ferguson, the closing of the gap between the West and the Rest has less to do with the rise of the Rest, as the decline of the West.

Specifically, Ferguson argues that it is the West's political, economic, legal and social institutions that have allowed it to gain the upper hand over the past 500 years or so, and that now these institutions are beginning to deteriorate (just as other nations increasingly copy what made the West successful in the first place). The result: Western stagnation, and the catching up of everyone else.

Ferguson identifies 4 primary institutions that account for the West's success over the past half-millennium: 1. Democracy; 2. Capitalism; 3. The Rule of Law; and 4. Civil Society. Each of these, the author argues, has eroded in the recent past.

Beginning with democracy, Ferguson argues that the deterioration of democracy in our time has not so much to do with the break-down of the social contract between the individual and the state, as the break-down in the contract between the present generation and future generations. Specifically, by taking on the astronomical amount of public debt that many Western governments have taken on over the past half-century, we have undermined our own growth and unjustly put future generations in hock. We have lived well at the expense of our progeny, and have set them up for failure.

With respect to capitalism, where once Western institutions led the world in making it easy for businesses to start-up and operate efficiently, now heavy and overly-complex laws and regulations stifle new businesses and send domestic corporations overseas. Western banks and financial institutions, the author argues, are not under-regulated, but poorly regulated. And what's more, they are not made to pay for their transgressions when they do breach the law (as witnessed, most recently, in the financial crash of 2008), thus they are invited to behave irresponsibly.

When it comes to the rule of law, where once the West did well to protect contracts and property rights, now tort law has allowed civil suits to run amok and choke the legal system. Meanwhile, copyright law now deeply favors the established over the up-and-coming, which has stifled innovation and progress. The Rule of Law has become the Rule of Lawyers.

When it comes to civil society, where once most Western citizens freely donated their time and money to worthy causes and charities, and flocked to join associations, clubs and organizations that promoted both civic-feeling and the public good, now citizens largely hide behind their televisions and computer screens and wait for the government to take care of the less fortunate and any and all public goods.

For Ferguson, unless we reverse the current deterioration of our institutions, we can expect our stagnation to continue (and we also run the risk of having our societies crash outright).

The book is well-written and, for the most part, well argued. However, at 150 pages (before notes), it is quite lean. Several of the points could have used additional defending, with additional evidence. Also, the author largely eschews any talk of where he believes the reforms in each of the institutions could and should begin. This is a significant oversight, in my mind. All in all, some good ideas, but more fleshing out of the material would have been helpful. A full executive summary of the book is available at newbooksinbrief dot com; a podcast discussion of the book will be available soon.
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on 3 February 2015
I have long been a fan of Niall's work (in fact I wanted to approach him to mark my PhD thesis) and this recent release does not disappoint. I wish I could write history as effortlessly as he does. He sets out the problems that we face in almost simplistic terms that even a child could grasp. The solutions he offers would work in practice if we had politicians morally strong enough to tackle them. Niall acknowledges that current politicians are vote-driven rather than reform-driven, short-term rather than long-term in outlook, rendering the cure to our woes as unappealing preferring instead to call for a palliative. Unfortunately all this option option does is to defer the outcome. Finished in one sitting, highly recommended.
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on 27 July 2015
A contentious but measured assessment of where we in the West have gone astray. The section on regulation is stark in its
portrayal of the causes of the recent financial meltdown and the chapter on civic responsibility should make us all consider
our societal obligations for a civilised world.
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VINE VOICEon 17 August 2013
Again, Mr Ferguson manages to have written what I'm thinking now, about 18 months ago. He must be prescient. Basically, he identifies the manifold failings of our once trusted institutions as being rooted in their unaccountability. Only he does it better than I could.
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on 14 January 2015
A very interesting book, which goes quite quickly through the collapse of Western institutions, but reveals perceptively and with ease just how badly modern elites and those they rule have got it wrong. The one big failing of the book is that Ferguson seems unwilling to consider the influence of Protestant Christianity upon Western history and culture. He abruptly loses his direct logic and reasoning whenever (very briefly) discussing the Protestant faith. It's as if he really doesn't want it to be the case that it was influential and thus he finds that it wasn't.

And yet the rise of the West happened when Protestant Christianity changed society; and the degeneration of the West happened when Protestant Christianity declined.

Ferguson diagnoses the symptoms of the declining West brilliantly, and yet never asks why the institutions have degenerated. The answer I would suggest is because minds were inspired by God to think differently and build a new kind of civilisation, and now minds no longer are.

A book full of concise interesting argument. One of the few historians to talk honestly about the state of things and the rise and fall of systems and processes throughout nations and civilisations - and yet he doesn't look at the minds and souls behind the institutions.
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on 28 October 2015
Niall Ferguson's work is masterful, his ability to impart knowledge to lay people with an interest in the subjects he is an authority on is outstanding. As a person who reads his work on a regular basis I found this Book of very good value, however, not with the standard level of fluidity that I find in his other works. Certainly I am grateful for all his wonderful writing.
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on 4 November 2015
Its ok. I think the book would make a good long article rather than a full book. Also, and this is as a big fan of Ferguson, but I get the feeling his beliefs as leading him to some conclusions rather than the thorough research that guided his earlier work. Ferguson is a great researcher and writer, less so a polemicist.
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on 12 August 2013
An ok read, but lacks the insight and brilliance of Niall Ferguson's earlier work. Central thesis is that the West is declining due to failure to maintain the principles which made it wealthy such as the rule of law, democracy, free markets, civil society etc. But this account cannot explain the growth of China which does not have any of these principles - corruption is rife, markets controlled and elections undemocratic. Also, Ferguson seems to be pushing a right wing ideology throughout the book even if that means contradicting himself. For example, Ferguson fiercely opposes state intervention in the economy, but supports the bail of the bankers. Overall, Ferguson is a great historian but mediocre political writer.
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on 14 July 2013
A short and highly readable summary of why the USA and the UK in particular (and the rest of the west in general) are royally screwed. Niall's diagnosis is well reasoned and wittily delivered and leaves you in a state of grudging acceptance of a grim diagnosis

I'm now off to buy some books on emigration....
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on 8 February 2015
Niall Ferguson's insights into the troubles of the West are illuminating and salutary. The last chapter gives good insight into the state of the social society. A 'must read' for everybody.
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