The Great Degeneration

By Niall Ferguson

For many years now it’s been clear that our political glossary has been in need of some updating. Terms like “liberal” and “conservative,” which have always had very different meanings in the United States, Canada, and the U.K., now seem obsolete. Liberal has been superseded by neoliberal, while conservatives clearly don’t want to conserve anything, aside perhaps from networks of established privilege. What do the familiar labels of right and left-wing, an inheritance of the French Revolution, mean anymore? If even leaders of political parties in the U.S. are freely described by the acronym RINO or DINO (Republican or Democrat “In name only”) is it worth keeping the name? What exactly is the “party of Trump”?

For a while now it has seemed to me that the most meaningful political divide, whatever name you want to give the different sides, is that between a party of the state and a party of the anti-state. I prefer anti-state to private sector because I think it highlights what is the more important principle at work. Here is what I had to say about this latter group in my review of Michael Lewis’s The Fifth Risk:

What is it that has so successfully united the right in the politics of our time? There is little in common between oil company CEOs, country-club conservatives, Tea Partiers, and white males without a college degree or disunionised labour when it comes to economic or even cultural concerns. Instead, what they share is a hatred of the government and an open wish to see it destroyed. Not shrunk, as in previous conservative dispensations, but done away with entirely. Taxes not lowered but abolished. Not less regulation but none at all. The right doesn’t like government and certainly doesn’t see a need for it. Any sort of government action is immediately labeled as socialism. We should just let the market do its work.

As I went on to say in that review, the intellectual foundation or political philosophy of the party of the anti-state was, in the context of American politics, best outlined by Thomas Frank in his book The Wrecking Crew, which came out in 2008. Niall Ferguson’s The Great Degeneration is an expression of the same ideas Frank describes, albeit presented by one of their champions and not a critic.

Ferguson takes as his starting point the fact that after a few hundred years of Western triumph over “the Rest,” sometimes referred to by historians as the Great Divergence, the rest of the world (meaning, mainly, Asia) is now not only catching up but overtaking Europe and North America. “My overarching question is: what exactly has gone wrong in the Western world in our time?”

His answer, to simplify an already short and simple book, is government. Specifically he criticizes moribund – or (it comes to the same thing) “stationary” – political, legal, and economic institutions. It is “institutional degeneration” that leads to decline. What this means in practice is government getting in the way. Like all apologists of the anti-state party Ferguson is a proponent of radical laissez-faire, making him a neoliberal, or libertarian.

As usual, Ferguson presents his case with some sleight of hand, misleading rhetoric, and a few signature moments of eyebrow-raising contrarianism. Public debt, for example, is a great evil, “the single biggest problem facing Western politics.” Ferguson, however, says he doesn’t want to address questions of debt and “sterile arguments between proponents of ‘austerity’ and ‘stimulus’.” Instead he thinks the real issue is the breaking of an intergenerational contract. This then leads him to the embarrassing line that “If young Americans knew what was good for them, they’d all be fans of Paul Ryan.” That is, they would vote for austerity (or “entitlement reform,” as the euphemism has it), but get a massive tax cut to big business that would blow the debt sky-high.

Of course a ballooning debt is not good for young Americans, but Ryan’s politics have always been more about destroying the state than solving existing problems. In working toward that end, his tax bill was an essential bit of legislation, a way of crippling the government if not administering to it a mortal blow. The rest of The Great Degeneration follows the same anti-state line. Did you think that the 2008 financial crisis was caused by a failure of regulation? This is to buy into a statist myth, Ferguson reveals. The global mortgage meltdown was the result of too much regulation! Is technology what’s driving the decline in participation in various civic groups and our going bowling alone? Again, not at all. It is “Not technology, but the state,” which is “the real enemy of civil society.” Is there a cure for a flagging educational system? Yes: more private educational institutions.

“It will be clear by now,” Ferguson writes near the end of his book, at a point where it is indeed very clear, “that I am much more sympathetic . . . to the idea that our society – and indeed most societies – would benefit from more private initiative and less dependence on the state. If that is now a conservative position, so be it. Once, it was considered the essence of true liberalism.” By “true liberalism” what is meant is what most people today would call neoliberalism, the essence of which is an attack on the power of the state to do anything other than fight wars and (perhaps) provide a police force. This latter is a point Ferguson wants to underline. “From an historian’s point of view” (or that of a neoliberal think-tank member), “the real risks in the non-Western world today are of revolution and war.” Risks, that is, to the West. So we’d better be ready to deal with the restive Resterners when they start getting jumpy. If the government has a role it’s to provide guns, not butter.

In all of this I am not attacking Ferguson’s ideas so much as trying to properly classify them using a more accurate political terminology than we currently have. My own feeling, however, is that his ideas are very bad and will lead not to an arrest of the great degeneration he describes but an acceleration of the same, particularly in so far as it relates to greater inequality. Ferguson likes to draw an analogy to Darwinism for his analysis, and as far as I can tell he is in effect a modern social Darwinist. He sees the struggle for survival as being the only route to growth. I doubt that growth will be the outcome of such a struggle though, and in any event it’s that very struggle and the random violence of its outcomes that people fashion government to protect themselves from. The idea that getting rid of government will free us all is to take debunked notions of supply-side economics and turn them into not just a panacea but a theology. I also suspect it’s a disingenuous argument, along the lines of championing Paul Ryan’s plans to starve the state or drown it in the bathtub under the guise of creating a more just society.

By being more open as to what they’re all about (as, to their credit, many members of Frank’s wrecking crew are), pundits like Ferguson would do their side a favour and present us with a more honest choice of alternatives than the facile distinction between less government or more government, good government vs. bad. I have nothing against those of Ferguson’s persuasion arguing against the state in all things. They need, however, to be more forthright about just how society in the absence of any effective government is going to work, and for whom.

Review first published online December 10, 2018.