And yet beginning in about 1500, it was Europe, led by England, that began to pull ahead, to break out of the Malthusian trap that, up to that point, had sentenced most of humanity to short lives lived in poverty. Ferguson’s thesis — not entirely original — is that Europe’s success came not as the result of any natural advantages but because it was able to develop just the right mix of political, legal and social institutions that made it resilient enough to withstand the inevitable plagues, natural disasters, failed leaders or just plain bad luck.
The book, ostensibly, is organized around what Ferguson considers the six most vital of those institutional arrangements:
Competition, meaning a decentralization of power among nations and within them, necessary to create the right environment for capitalism;
Science, whose discoveries laid the basis not only for the Industrial Revolution but also for overwhelming military advantage;
Property rights, which provided a framework for the rule of law and laid the foundation for shared political and economic power;
Medicine, which led to a dramatic rise in life expectancy;
A consumer focus to economic life that fueled demand for modern industrial products; and
A work ethic that provided a moral framework for savings, investment and hard toil.
This topic and this structure play to Ferguson’s skills as an economic historian known for the breadth of his knowledge, the clarity and pithiness of his prose, and the originality of his analysis. His knack is for translating academic history into accessible concepts and concrete examples, setting them in the grand sweep of history and making them relevant to our present-day circumstances.
Always the intellectual provocateur, Ferguson also means to challenge the insidious dogma, now ascendant on university campuses, that holds that the “triumph of the West” was nothing more than a self-centered fiction concocted by European and American scholars to justify centuries of brutal colonialism and oppression. And while he stops short of arguing that the West’s decline is inevitable, he warns that it has become a real possibility that could unfold rather quickly.