This book review was written by Eugene Kernes
“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
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.