In the current Newsweek (Nov 7), Niall Ferguson denotes that Empires do not “decline” but rather crash precipitously. The Roman Empire, Mongol Empire, Alexander the Great’s Empire, and the Soviet crashes did not occur over centuries, but within just a few years. Often a combination of internal and external forces were involved, but invariably it almost always was caused by key flaws that turned the once robust empires into delicate dandelions to be blown away with the slightest of zephyrs.
We see the West in this situation today. But Niall Ferguson maintains that the key components that formed a strong Western tradition since 1500 AD can again bring us back to the previous power we held.
Those key components, which he calls killer apps are:
- Competition. Europe was politically fragmented into multiple monarchies and republics, which were in turn internally divided into competing corporate entities, among them the ancestors of modern business corporations.
- The Scientific Revolution. All the major 17th-century breakthroughs in mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology happened in Western Europe.
- The Rule of Law and Representative Government. An optimal system of social and political order emerged in the English-speaking world, based on private-property rights and the representation of property owners in elected legislatures
- Modern Medicine. Nearly all the major 19th- and 20th-century breakthroughs in health care were made by Western Europeans and North Americans.
- The Consumer Society. The Industrial Revolution took place where there was both a supply of productivity-enhancing technologies and a demand for more, better, and cheaper goods, beginning with cotton garments.
- The Work Ethic. Westerners were the first people in the world to combine more extensive and intensive labor with higher savings rates, permitting sustained capital accumulation.
He ends by stating if America has a severe crisis (more severe than what we have now), there are things that we can do:
Is there anything we can do to prevent such disasters? Social scientist Charles Murray calls for a “civic great awakening”—a return to the original values of the American republic. He’s got a point. Far more than in Europe, most Americans remain instinctively loyal to the killer applications of Western ascendancy, from competition all the way through to the work ethic. They know the country has the right software. They just can’t understand why it’s running so @#!*% slowly.
What we need to do is to delete the viruses that have crept into our system: the anticompetitive quasi monopolies that blight everything from banking to public education; the politically correct pseudosciences and soft subjects that deflect good students away from hard science; the lobbyists who subvert the rule of law for the sake of the special interests they represent—to say nothing of our crazily dysfunctional system of health care, our overleveraged personal finances, and our newfound unemployment ethic.
Then we need to download the updates that are running more successfully in other countries, from Finland to New Zealand, from Denmark to Hong Kong, from Singapore to Sweden.
And finally we need to reboot our whole system.
I noted his getting rid of the “quasi-monopolies”, and think he’s right. Big banks and corporations “too big to fail”, as well as teachers’ unions are monopolies that are among the key viruses ruining our nation’s edge. But, I think before we can return to our original principles and reboot the system, we have to reboot Washington DC.