26 January 2017
by Niall Ferguson
Edmund Burke, the intellectual father of conservatism, famously pointed out that the real social contract is not between the rulers and the ruled, as Rousseau had it, but rather, ‘between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born’. Niall Ferguson, in this little book, explains that present-day Western governments (and others, too, including our own in Sri Lanka) are happy to commit themselves to costly but vote-catching social provisions that have to be financed by government borrowing. What governments borrow, they must sooner or later pay back. It is future generations who will do the paying.
This has been going on since about the 1950s. It was the baby-boomers who were first in breach of the social contract as Burke defined it. And it is the baby-boom generation, now grown crusty and selfish with old age, that recently snatched the future away from young voters in Europe and America by supporting such manifestations of short-term economic greed and political selfishness as climate-change denial, Brexit and Donald Trump. The contract between the generations has been torn up and tossed into the fire.
The Great Degeneration was published in 2013. The crisis of Western society of which Ferguson warns us in this short treatise on the failure of institutions was already upon us by then, but the worst had not actually happened. Now it has, and we are already beginning to suffer the consequences. Yet what we suffer will be as nothing compared to what our descendants will have to go through. The collapse of modern technological societies will be exacerbated by ruined natural environments and the exhaustion of available resources. This is the future that, through our own selfishness, we shall bequeath our children.
So it is a little bit late to be reading this book – which, you might say, was published a couple of generations too late anyway. Ferguson illustrates his thesis – that the failure of societies is due to the failure of institutions, because institutions themselves need to be perpetually renewed and adapted to prevailing conditions or they will fail – fairly convincingly. He covers political, economic, legal and civil-society institutions, though he pays little or no attention to religious ones, a serious lacuna in my view. In the end, however, he fails to convince us that anything can really be done. His prescription appears to be the restoration of classic eighteenth- and nineteenth-century liberalism to its old place in the political order. But liberalism no longer means what it did in those days; the change has been so profound that old-style liberalism is more likely to be found nowadays in conservative circles than in so-called ‘liberal’ ones. There is nothing liberal – in the old-fashioned sense – about cradle-to-grave social provision, trade protectionism, the leveraging of corporate charity for political purposes, affirmative action or political correctness. What passes today for liberalism is part of the problem, not part of the solution.
Ferguson, who is married to the controversial feminist and political activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, recognizes this. He has called himself ‘a proud Thatcherite’ and ‘a confirmed Eurosceptic’, and although he initially opposed Brexit he now says he was wrong, and in breach of his own political principles, when he did so. As for his views on Trump, he has said that liberals’ greatest fear was not a Trump presidency but ‘a successful Trump presidency’. Judging by the reactions I’ve been seeing on my Facebook wall, he is right.
In The Great Degeneration, Ferguson’s argues that liberal institutions should be constructed upon the slimmest of possible frameworks, with a minimum of specified rules. They should be shaken up regularly. And they should be administered by intelligent meritocrats with lots of goodwill and common sense. Not so distant, politically and philosophically speaking, from Plato’s Guardians. Closer still to Pope’s famous couplet about forms of government. And just about as useful as a practical prescription. What use has a world of ageing, selfish gluttons, coddled and indulged by consumer capitalism and brainfucked by communications media that package even wars and natural disasters as entertainment, for leaders who can rule their passions? We’ve all become Napoleon the Pig, and we won’t be ruled by anything.