Saturday, January 27, 2024

Review of Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson

This book review was written by Eugene Kernes   

Book can be found in: 
Genre = History
Book Club Event = Book List (06/08/2024)
Intriguing Connections = 1) Get To Know The Peoples Of The World (World History), 

Watch Short Review


“By contrast, Western Europe in 1411 would have struck you as a miserable backwater, recuperating from the ravages of the Black Death – which had reduced population by as much as half as it swept eastwards between 1347 and 1351 – and still plagued by bad sanitation and seemingly incessant war.” – Niall Ferguson, Introduction: Rasselas’s Question, Page 4

“For Europeans, sailing round Africa was not about exacting symbolic tribute for some high and mighty potentate back home.  It was about getting ahead of their rivals, both economically and politically.” – Niall Ferguson, Chapter 1: Competition, Page 33

“The reality of Chávez’s regime, however, is that it is a sham democracy, in which the police and media are used as weapons against political opponents and the revenues from the country’s plentiful oil fields are used to buy support from the populace in the form of subsidized import prices, handouts and bribes.  Private property rights, so central to the legal and political order of the United States, are routinely violated.” – Niall Ferguson, Chapter, Page 128


Is This An Overview?

Until the 15th century, the east held power and wealth while the west was impoverished.  But the relative status was reversed.  The rise of the west was due to various empowering factors, that the east either lost or lacked.  As the west rose, the rest began to adapt western institutions and operational methods. 

Six factors brought power to the west which were competition, science, property rights, medicine, a consumer society, and a work ethic.   Decentralized decision making enabled competition, that created conditions for a need to improve to be able to overcome rivals.  Science was used to systematically understand the world, which provided military advantages.  Property rights provided an incentive for people to invest in their future, and resolve disputes peacefully.  Medicine improved health and life expectancy.  The consumer society enabled a sustainable system of economic development.  A work ethic that enabled the production of wealth. 



The west and east are homogenized, using different states to compare and contrast each other.  Making each state representative of other western or eastern states.  The different factors are represented through different states, rather than how they coalesced and effected a state.  Although the factors can be generalized, they did not affect each state on either side the same way.  

The factors were influential, but there is a survivorship bias.  The evidence given supported the claim that the factors gave rise to the west, but nothing on societies that had the factors while did not rise.  The book focuses on events and the factors during and after the 15th century, with some information about the empowering factors before the 15th century in the east.  Showing the effect of the factors before the 15th century on the east would have given the factors more validity. 

The empowering factors were not the only factors effecting states.  Historically wealthy states had their successes, and problems.  The focus on only the empowering factors leading to success, creates data gaps that can lead to a wrong understanding on the effect of the factors. 

The author complains about the lack of historic learning.  That when people do learn from history, that they learn idiosyncratic history without connection.  This book does not improve historic explanations by much, as the examples are idiosyncratic even if they are generalized.  Sometimes the context and explanations do not match.  The explanations need to be improved.  

Questions to Consider while Reading the Book

•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?  Why do people read this book?
•What are some limitations of the book?
•To whom would you suggest this book?
•Why did the east and west have a power and wealth reversal?
•What factors were involved in the rise of the west?
•How did competition effect society?
•What was science used for?
•Why was science valued in the west and not the east?
•Who made the Enlightenment possible?
•What are property rights?
•How did medicine effect society? 
•Is a consumer society only for consumption?
•How did infinite choice become homogenizing societies?
•How does a work ethic effect society? 
•What was the source of the west’s work ethic?
•Who made most of history? 
•How to think about history? 
•What are the aspects of civilization? 
•What happened to the voyages of Zheng He?
•What did Bolivar want for South America? 
•What kind of democracy did Hugo Chávez have? 
•Why did the British use coal? 
•How was a consumer society formed?  
•What is the effect of religion? 

Book Details
Edition:                   First American Edition
Publisher:               The Penguin Press [Penguin Group]
Edition ISBN:         9781594203053
Pages to read:          341
Publication:             2011
1st Edition:              2011
Format:                    Hardcover 

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    4
Content          3
Overall          3