Tuesday, May 22, 2012
Niall Ferguson: Drive-By History
David Bronwich published an eloquent, understated, and highly critical review of Ferguson's book of the same name in the New York Review of Books (December 8, 2011) On the six factors, he states, "These make an absurd catalog. It is like saying that the ingedients of a statesman are an Oxford degree, principles, a beard, sociability, and ownership of a sports car."
I have to admit that my attention started to wane after an hour. I was getting tired of hearing how backward the Ottomans were in compared with the Europeans. I picked up my phone and started playing a game, but then my ears pricked up when Ferguson started comparing Spanish and British colonization of the New World. He claims at the outset that "Britain won" this competition. Well, Spain got far richer off its colonies than Britain ever did, and Spain held onto its colonies longer than Britain. So just how did Britain win? What Ferguson meant was that the United States would later develop into a much better society than modern Latin America. I don't think he used the word "better," but that is the clear message of this segment.
Ferguson focused on an important comparison--that colonial development in North America involved many small property owners, whereas Latin America had far fewer, larger, landowners. OK, that is certainly a major difference between the two areas. But how and why did these to different property systems get started? We are told the systems originated because the two sets of European colonists simply made different decisions in the two areas. The British decided to have a small property system, and the Spaniards decided to have big estates. What is completely lacking is the context of this distinction. Key factors that are ignored include demography (the very different size and density of native societies in the two areas; the numbers of natives who survived vs. the.numbers of colonists), the indigenous political structure at time of conquest (states and empires in Latin America, vs. tribal societies in North America), and the nature of the resources in the two areas (mining vs. agriculture, and their labor and organizational requirements).
Thus Ferguson did identify a crucial distinction between two areas, but by completely ignoring the context, he fails to show how and why that distinction originated and developed. His explanation is superficial and misleading.
Ferguson is a respected historian with a number of solid empirical studies to his name. Why did he step down from scholarship to produce a popular book and TV show based on some rather silly ideas? Could publicity and royalties have anything to do with this? Is the image of a nineteenth century capitalist on the cover significant? People may gripe about Jared Diamond's works, but they are based on solid scholarship that relies on work by experts, interpreted in a new fashion. If the TV show is indicative of the book (and the reviews suggest that it is), then Ferguson is not anywhere near Diamond's level of scholarship.
This is drive-by history, a quick and superficial look at the issues. If you want to find about about how and why China and Europe diverged, try reading Ian Morris's far superior book, Why the West Rules (for Now).