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The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die [Hardcover]

Niall Ferguson
2.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
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Book Description

June 18 2013
From renowned historian Niall Ferguson, a searching and provocative examination of the widespread institutional rot that threatens our collective future

What causes rich countries to lose their way? Symptoms of decline are all around us today: slowing growth, crushing debts, increasing inequality, aging populations, antisocial behavior. But what exactly has gone wrong? The answer, Niall Ferguson argues in The Great Degeneration, is that our institutions—the intricate frameworks within which a society can flourish or fail—are degenerating.

Representative government, the free market, the rule of law, and civil society—these are the four pillars of West European and North American societies. It was these institutions, rather than any geographical or climatic advantages, that set the West on the path to global dominance beginning around 1500. In our time, however, these institutions have deteriorated in disturbing ways. Our democracies have broken the contract between the generations by heaping IOUs on our children and grandchildren. Our markets are hindered by overcomplex regulations that debilitate the political and economic processes they were created to support; the rule of law has become the rule of lawyers. And civil society has degenerated into uncivil society, where we lazily expect all of our problems to be solved by the state.

It is institutional degeneration, in other words, that lies behind economic stagnation and the geopolitical decline that comes with it. With characteristic verve and historical insight, Ferguson analyzes not only the causes of this stagnation but also its profound consequences.

The Great Degeneration is an incisive indictment of an era of negligence and complacency. While the Arab world struggles to adopt democracy and China struggles to move from economic liberalization to the rule of law, our society is squandering the institutional inheritance of centuries. To arrest the breakdown of our civilization, Ferguson warns, will take heroic leadership and radical reform.

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“[Ferguson’s] intellectual virtuosity is refreshing. The Great Degeneration won't be popular in the Obama White House or other centers of power. Jeremiah wasn't popular with the elders of Judea either. They tossed him in jail for his sedition. They had reason later to be sorry.” —The Wall Street Journal

"An informative and enjoyable read." —Financial Times

About the Author

NIALL FERGUSON is one of the world’s most renowned historians. He is the author of Paper and Iron, The House of Rothschild, The Pity of War, The Cash Nexus, Empire, Colossus, The War of the World, The Ascent of Money, High Financier, and Civilization. He is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University, a senior research fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, and a senior research fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He is also a regular contributor to Newsweek and Bloomberg television.

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Most helpful customer reviews
18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Brief Summary and Review June 18 2013
By A. D. Thibeault TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
*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.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Look At Western Civil Decline June 19 2013
By Patrick Sullivan TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Ferguson starts off, by describing Adam Smith`s description of a stagnant society. A stationary state according to Smith; is a once formally wealthy society, that is no longer experiencing any growth. Adam Smith`s model of a stationary state was China. Ferguson makes the argument, that it is now western society, which is in a stationary state. This of course is a complete reversal, of what Smith observed two hundred years ago.

Ferguson lists four pillars of western society. These social supports, have eroded in the last generation. The first one is democracy, second capitalism, third the rule of law, and the forth is civil society. Ferguson then expands, on these four aspects of western society. He explains how they worked well in the past. Then Ferguson outlines, how theses social networks have deteriorated in recent times.

Ferguson also examines the current debt problem. He identifies some critical debt threshold numbers, that have been surpassed. When debt levels exceed 90 per cent of GDP, this tends to be a drag on economic growth. These debt levels establish an unfair burden, onto the children and grandchildren of the next generation. However, Ferguson does not discuss the possibility of a sovereign debt default. This is a very real possibility, which the current generation does not seem to contemplate.

This was a short book and a very fast read. My only complaint, is that a lot more material was required. I realize this topic could involve volumes of information and endless discussion. A writer has to draw the line somewhere. However, 145 pages was not enough.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A MUST READ! July 21 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
If you have ever wanted to understand why we so many counties and cities are in the state they are in this book will give you a very good idea. The author captures the flaws of the system and thinking of officials with us today who are taking us down a path of self destruction through spending without conscience.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Could have expanded his arguments June 24 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
While I agree with the arguments made in this book, I felt a wanting for more information when I finished. It seems a bit of a lazy effort on the authors part.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A good résumé of present time Aug. 15 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This idea of four «blackbox» to explain the present time is a good one. They are : democracy, economy, rule of law and civil and uncivil societies. Lacks development, is more from the right wing, but it is good. When english is not your first language, texts in economy are always difficult to read : too many words with multiple meaning according to context. But it goes. The most interesting black box is the one about civil and uncivil societies.
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