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119 of 124 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Brief Summary and Review
*A full summary of this book is available here: An Executive Summary of Niall Ferguson's 'The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die'

The main argument: 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, though, this...
Published 10 months ago by A. D. Thibeault

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77 of 88 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Freedom, Choice, and Institutions
Freedom, Choice and Institutions

In his latest book, "The Great Degeneration", Niall Ferguson brings up elements of his former books (The Ascent of Money, Civilization,) and updates them with mention of Nassim Taleb's "Anti-Fragile", Acemoglu and Robinson's "Why Nations Fail", Reinhart and Rogoff's" Growth in a Time of Debt", as well as earlier works by...
Published 10 months ago by J. Dretler


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119 of 124 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Brief Summary and Review, June 18, 2013
This review is from: The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die (Hardcover)
*A full summary of this book is available here: An Executive Summary of Niall Ferguson's 'The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die'

The main argument: 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, though, this lead is slipping away. Indeed, developing nations led by such powers as China and India are quickly closing the gap, as they experience 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.

Beginning with democracy, Ferguson argues that the deterioration of democracy in our time has not so much to do with the break-down of the social contract between the individual and the state, as the break-down in the contract between the present generation and future generations. Specifically, by taking on the astronomical amount of public debt that many Western governments have taken on over the past half-century, we have undermined our own growth and unjustly put future generations in hock. We have lived well at the expense of our progeny, and have set them up for failure.

With respect to capitalism, where once Western institutions led the world in making it easy for businesses to start-up and operate efficiently, now heavy and overly-complex laws and regulations stifle new businesses and send domestic corporations overseas. Western banks and financial institutions, the author argues, are not under-regulated, but poorly regulated. And what's more, they are not made to pay for their transgressions when they do breach the law (as witnessed, most recently, in the financial crash of 2008), thus they are invited to behave irresponsibly.

When it comes to the rule of law, where once the West did well to protect contracts and property rights, now tort law has allowed civil suits to run amok and choke the legal system. Meanwhile, copyright law now deeply favors the established over the up-and-coming, which has stifled innovation and progress. The Rule of Law has become the Rule of Lawyers.

When it comes to civil society, where once most Western citizens freely donated their time and money to worthy causes and charities, and flocked to join associations, clubs and organizations that promoted both civic-feeling and the public good, now citizens largely hide behind their televisions and computer screens and wait for the government to take care of the less fortunate and any and all public goods.

For Ferguson, unless we reverse the current deterioration of our institutions, we can expect our stagnation to continue (and we also run the risk of having our societies crash outright).

The book is well-written and, for the most part, well argued. However, at 150 pages (before notes), it is quite lean. Several of the points could have used additional defending, with additional evidence. Also, the author largely eschews any talk of where he believes the reforms in each of the institutions could and should begin. This is a significant oversight, in my mind. All in all, some good ideas, but more fleshing out of the material would have been helpful. A full summary of the book is available here: An Executive Summary of Niall Ferguson's 'The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die'
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143 of 156 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The partnership between the generations, October 19, 2012
This is a review of "The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die" which is the kindle title of this work, and is no longer available on kindle.

The author is concerned about the "Degeneration of the West" into a "Stationary State" similar to that of China during the previous centuries. This he believes is due to the weakening of traditional civil institutions, crony capitalism, inefficient bureaucracy, and the decay of our legal system. Needless to say, this has drastic political and economic consequences for our society, with the widening gap of economic inequality being a symptom of the problem. Other symptoms are the rise of a welfare state that exploits those who work for those that have become "entitled". The abandonment of what Edmund burke called "The partnership between the generations", is also the abandonment of what is our true social contract. The excessive public and private debt is a symptom of a deeper problem; the breakdown of the generational social order.

For the rise of Europe Ferguson rejects the theories of Diamond (geographic factors), North and Wallace (transition to open access society), Max Weber (Protestant Capitalism) and Pomerants ("ghost acres"). The author argues that it is not so much as geographic and cultural factors (citing the two Koreas and the city of Nogales on the US-Mexican border), but rather the role of an inclusive elite vs. an exclusive elite with extractive institutions. He agrees with the argument of De Soto that dysfunctional institutions force the poor to live outside the law without title to the property they often "own". This is "dead capital" that cannot be used to increase wealth.

Ferguson argues that the cause of the economic meltdown of the banks was not lack of regulation but rather the inefficiency of the current laws and regulatory system that failed to give jail time to the miscreants that violated the laws. He also believes that greater expertise is needed by the regulators rather than strict rules; we need an experienced pilot with good judgment, not a mandatory auto-pilot that follows pre-programed rules and cannot adjust to changing conditions in an unknowable future.

Other chapters deal with the importance of a good legal system and the need to maintain a civil society. We seem to have done our best to kill a civil society by replacing it with a cradle to grave government welfare system, the danger of which was pointed out by the prescient De Tocqueville almost 200 years ago.

The author's conclusions are troubling, with a final reference to President Obama, as the "stationary mandarin" (the famous "you didn't build that" speech) who feels that government institutions and bureaucracies are the key to growth and not individual initiative supported by a good legal system, civil institutions, and competition. Other problematic issues raised is the enormous debt-burden in the West.

A major strength of this work is the extensive documentation cited in the notes.
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46 of 49 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Link between institutions and economic performance, February 15, 2013
By 
Hubert Shea (Shanghai, China) - See all my reviews
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In this book Professor Ferguson maintains that economic prospect in the western world will continue to be gloomy if politicians fail to take radical reform of the four institutional pillars that have led the western world to maintain its economic hegemony since the sixteenth century. He dispels the widely-held proposition advocated by Max Weber and David Landes (P.27) that culture is a key independent variable to determine economic growth which differentiates economic trajectory of rich countries from the poor ones. Nor does he accept other plausible perspectives and interpretations (natural resources and forces, climate, and technoptimism) to account for the rise and fall of the western economy. To him, a holistic institutional transformation from extractive (limited access) to inclusive (open access) ones (P.30) is a panacea for the current stationary economy in the western world.

In terms of the four institutional pillars, Professor Ferguson maintains that key maladies with western institutions encompass meager regulatory enforcement in the financial sector, rotten rule of law, government encroachment in the civil society, and breakdown of social contract between the generations (Edmund Burke's concept of contract in which the current fiscal policies cannot inexorably create huge debts at the expense of the young and the unborn). Professor Ferguson disagrees with Keynesian economists who are advocates of low interest rate and issuance of public debt to stimulate economic growth.

In this book Professor Ferguson is quite pessimistic towards institutional degeneration in the western world because economic and political processes are dominated by rent-seeking elites (P.151) whereas non-western countries such as China have painstakingly achieved astonishing economic growth by downloading killer applications (best practices) of the western world.

This book traces the causes of economic stagnation of the western world from the institutional perspective. Professor Ferguson is an eminent historian and this book contains abundant and useful information about historical development of laws and institutions in the Anglo-American world.

This book is relevant to readers who are interested in understanding how institutions can influence political and economic development in the western world.
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77 of 88 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Freedom, Choice, and Institutions, June 18, 2013
By 
J. Dretler (Tucson, AZ USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die (Hardcover)
Freedom, Choice and Institutions

In his latest book, "The Great Degeneration", Niall Ferguson brings up elements of his former books (The Ascent of Money, Civilization,) and updates them with mention of Nassim Taleb's "Anti-Fragile", Acemoglu and Robinson's "Why Nations Fail", Reinhart and Rogoff's" Growth in a Time of Debt", as well as earlier works by Hernando de Soto, Mark Buchanan , Charles Murray, and the classics "Lombard Street" by Walter Bagehot and "Democracy in America" by de Tocqueville.

What is missing, in my view, is the depth and degree of explanation present in his other works.

He has a consistent and refreshingly negative view of the evils of government over- regulation and policies that obstruct business formation. Our current dangerous path as a society based on dependency rather than competition driven growth also comes in for criticism.

He prefers choice and competition. This includes privatization of schools, less consumer protection, increased ease of business formation, and protection for investors and creditors.

In this book Ferguson discusses the elements that contributed to the growth and historical outperformance of the West and seem to be currently out of fashion. Regard for individual initiative and an open adaptable but limited and general rather than specific framework of law created efficiencies.

Civil structures and a sense of community effort were widespread before cradle to grave dependencies existed. Ferguson cites the decline of membership in clubs and voluntary service societies as a negative societal factor.

He seems to agree with those who support increased urbanization for productivity gains and the opportunities that specialization and differentiation offer, but there are no examples of the community or social efforts he says we need emerging in the urban environment.

These are all important topics and seriously considered. I just think they deserve a bigger book.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Rationale Look at the Consequences of our National Debt, June 22, 2013
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This review is from: The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die (Hardcover)
Yesterday I finished this book. I think Ferguson makes it very clear that heavy debt (more than 100 trillion) for the United States, and proportionately the same or worse for most western European nations, Japan, and Australia make economic collapse of these countries a certainty since no one is willing to make the entitlement sacrifices necessary to fix the problem (The increase taxes necessary to rectify this would crush these economies). So my question to those who dislike Ferguson, do you not believe our debt crisis is likely to cause economic calamity, and do you think it can be fixed without us giving up a lot of government programs and benefits?
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23 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hits home?, June 20, 2013
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R. Kirby (Salisbury, MD) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die (Hardcover)
Upon reviewing book reviews, the books which get all five stars and one stars, or mostly so, usually
seem to have struck some nail squarely on the head, with applause from some and howls of anguish from others.
After hearing Niall Ferguson speak (on the BBC's Reith lectures), I formed the opinion that he is intelligent and articulate, with a particular viewpoint. For those reasons alone, he is worth reading, even if his point of view does not aways agree with yours (or mine). The personal attacks by some reviewers merely illustrate the acuity of his insights.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Must Read, August 5, 2013
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A powerful, perceptive, readable analysis of the underlying economic and political challenges faced by the U.S. and the global community. The book is also a clear warning of the dangers of weak leadership, political apathy and the failure of education. Ferguson should be required reading for Congress, the White House, regulatory agencies and every responsible American. Great work. Timely. Pertinent. Invaluable.
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20 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Valuable contribution to the study of institutions, June 11, 2013
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A very valuable contribution to the study of institutions and how they can degenerate over time. Not very strong when it comes to proposing solutions.
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17 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Packed with wisdom, December 21, 2012
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The Great Degeneration contains wise and prudent strategies for reforming or transforming politics, governments, education and civil societies throughout the world. This a must read for anyone who professes to care about the future.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Making a Link Not Often Made -- But Could Be Deeper, August 27, 2013
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This review is from: The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die (Hardcover)
Niall Ferguson's The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die is intriguing since the title reflects what should be an obvious connection: Social institutions do affect economies.
The noted British historian's latest book is a compelling demonstration of his thesis. He lays out all the symptoms caused by decaying institutions: slowing growth, crushing debts, aging populations, and an uncivil society. It is clearly a degeneration, and even a great degeneration.
We can only admire Ferguson in his quest is to go beyond media hype and find out what really went wrong in the West. He rightly claims that "until we understand the true nature of our degeneration, we will be wasting our time, applying quack remedies to mere symptoms."
In this short essay, Ferguson lists the four principal institutions which he affirms are in decline: representative government, the free market, the rule of law and civil society. The author masterfully shows how each one is suffering in our days. The frightening pileup of debts is threatening to burden those that come after us threatening what Edmund Burke called the "partnership" between the generations which he claims is so essential for representative government to work well. The rule of law is fast becoming the rule of lawyers. The free market is burdened under the scourge of excessive regulation. People simply aren't getting involved in voluntary associations today diminishing the social capital that keeps free markets free.
These are themes that have long been discussed by scholars over the decades. Ferguson provides urgency and context to our present decline. He provides insight and excellent observations that should serve as a warning long overdue. His style is clear, engaging and at times witty.
And yet, in his search for answers, we are left wondering if the author has dug deep enough.
The work suffers from its limitations as an essay. The 152-page text is taken from his 2012 BBC Radio 4 "The Reith Lectures" which limits the depth of his analysis since the book's tone is light and slightly entertaining. There is no time to develop in depth those pressing questions that might be found in a more imposing tome with full bibliography and index.
However, there are other questions that might be raised. We are told how the institutions decayed but not why they decayed. Institutions simply don't self-decay. We should be able to trace this decay to a decadence in men. There is little in the book to indicate what forces were at work in the depths of men's souls that caused them to abandon these essential pillars. We are also given little clue as to what moral force might be employed to regenerate that which has degenerated.
The problem stems from the fact that Ferguson's worldview is that of the Scottish Enlightenment when he felt the four pillars now in decline had reached their harmonious apogee. He thus works inside a rationalist and secular framework. As an historian, Ferguson must have observed that religious and moral institutions have always served as the most effective means to bring about a regeneration of society. Indeed, the very four pillars he lists as decaying were largely medieval institutions that developed under the tutelage of the Church. Yet he does not make the leap to suggest that a moral or religious regeneration is possible or even desirable. Such an omission is lamentable.
Despite this omission, the book does have great value in making a link not often made. Economists have so entered into the abstract world of formulae and numbers that simply ignore such social considerations. Historians tend to concentrate on events and dates. Not often do we see those who admit that social institutions do affect economy. Economy need the support of social institutions to thrive. We ignore to our detriment this central fact so well demonstrated in The Great Degeneration.
John Horvat II
Author of Return to Order: From a Frenzied Economy to an Organic Christian Society--Where We’ve Been, How We Got Here, and Where We Need to Go
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The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die
The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die by Niall Ferguson (Hardcover - June 13, 2013)
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