Monday, January 15, 2018

Niall Ferguson loses the plot

I have been a fan of the renowned economic historian Niall Ferguson for many years. The bookshelves in my office, where I am writing this, contain his works The Ascent of Money, Empire and Civilisation. I think he added a lot to our understanding of the extraordinary dominance of Western civilisation since the 15th Century with his identification of six 'killer apps' that drove the West's political, economic and military growth - competition, science, the property owning democracy, modern medicine, the consumer society and the Protestant work ethic. Therefore, I had high expectations of Ferguson's latest book, which I bought a few months ago but only got around to reading over the summer holidays.

The Square and the Tower is about networks and their ability to challenge established hierarchical political and social structures. Ferguson starts with the Illuminati, the secret society established in Munich in the 18th Century whose membership came to include princes, archdukes, clergymen and intellectuals, and which some people claim is still around, pulling the strings of power like some grand puppet master. Ferguson, to his credit, dismisses most of the conspiracy theories, for example pointing out that the Illuminati was shut down by the Bavarian government within a few years of its establishment. 

Most of the book is Ferguson's usual mix of facts, analysis and interesting connections, but where it parts ways with his earlier works is in its conclusions about current day events. Ferguson may dismiss conspiracy theories in the case of the Illuminati but is happy to embrace them in respect of Donald Trump, giving plenty of credence to the "Russia hacked the election" conspiracy and ironically blaming "fake news" for Trump's 2016 election victory and Brexit. 

He goes on to paint internet and social media giants such as Google and Facebook as the present day Illuminati and thinks they are "profoundly inegalitarian" because they are still largely owned by their founders. He seems to pine for a resurgence of totalitarianism when he says, "A generation mostly removed from conflict - the baby-boomers - had failed to learn the lesson that it is not unregulated networks that reduce inequality but wars, revolutions, hyperinflation and other forms of expropriation." This is reinforced when he claims equivalence between China and America, i.e. "both states are republics, with roughly comparable vertical structures of administration and not wholly dissimilar concentrations of power in the hands of the central government." Seriously, Niall?

In some of the later chapters he demonstrates his ignorance of the technologies on which he comments, for example when talking about digital currencies he says, "Bitcoin seems extraordinarily wasteful of computer resources because of the fact that it is 'mined' [on computers]." It is precisely because it involves the work of huge numbers of computers that gives Bitcoin its value, something I would have thought the author of "The Ascent of Money" would be able to appreciate. But, not to worry, if Ferguson is right, we'll all be using China's crypto-currency in future. 

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