Niall Ferguson & Ben Laurance Conversations

In his “Outside the Box” letter, John Mauldin today brings us a conversation between the two esteemed gentlemen.

This was just what I needed to get writing again.

Although I may be wrong of course, I have the feeling Mr. Ferguson is a rather establishment person. My main point of contention with Mr. Ferguson is that he never mentions the monetary system. Not even by implication.

This conversation has reportedly taken place whilst Mr. Ferguson is on a tour to promote his latest book: Civilization: The West and the Rest  in which is allegedly says: “[…] Europe went from being a fractious, disease-ridden fourteenth-century backwater to global dominance, through the development of six “killer applications”: competition, science, democracy, medicine, consumerism and the work ethic”

Although not directly relevant to this blog, I could not let that assertion go unchallenged. I have sent John Mauldin my take on it too but I finally found the spark that allowed me to produce one more post.

I have the impression Mr. Ferguson has no first hand experience of any society other than Western. I say that because if he did, then he would realize that what he describes as “Killer Apps” are nothing but proximate causes of Western development. What Mr. Ferguson fails to identify are the ultimate or primary causes.

As you know I live in the Middle East and my family has been here since 1921. I have also traveled a little through Africa and have first hand experience of Southern Italy. Years of observations of the social dynamics inherent in societies that are defined as “developing” highlight two fundamental differences between Western civilization and all the rest:

–       The definition of the individual

–       The concept of personal responsibility

If Mr. Ferguson had any first hand experience of societies other than Western, he would realize that the “Killer Apps” he mentions cannot be primary causes but can only be functions of those fundamental constructs mentioned above.

Western open society is based on the definition of the individual. The individual is in fact an integral part of the democratic dynamic and economic freedom. In the absence of this fundamental concept, there can be little development or, at the very least, development is necessarily slowed down.

Personal responsibility is a direct function of the definition of the individual. It is these fundamental concepts that allowed the emergence of critical thought thus creativity thus development.

Take as a for instance Arab society. In the Arab world, the individual does not exist if not within the context of the wider family. John Doe is nobody in the Arab world. In the Arabian peninsula you can only be recognized if you are John son of Robert who in turn is the son of Tom son of Jim. Colloquially, Arabs go by the name “Abu … something” where the “something” would be the name of the first born son. This is obviously a colloquialism that gives no absolute definition of whom someone may be. When queried, and Arab will give a series of names that range from his father’s to his great grand father’s and then will give a more generic tribal name. Only at that point, has an Arab established a recognizable identity. Official documents such as driver licenses or passports, require that a person carries at least four names.

Clearly, these are not circumstances that are conducive to fostering the emergence of “individuals” in their own right let alone the emergence of the concept of personal responsibility.

In the absence of personal responsibility, fundamental concepts necessary to the development of a society such as the division of labor, are unattainable.

So, despite the fact that all the “Killer Apps” Mr. Ferguson mentions exist in developing societies too, nowhere but in the West do they contribute to the overall development of society because it is only Western civilization that is geared towards pushing the limits of the possible and breaking out of the shackles of conventionality.

Where the concept of individual does not exist, the concept of personal responsibility cannot develop. From there, societies that cannot contemplate these fundamental concepts will be doomed to follow and use rather than lead and create. In fact, African and Arab societies are THE ultimate consumer societies because they produce little either materially or intellectually.

Pardon the long introduction but that’s all to say that Mr. Ferguson’s ideas must be taken with a grain of salt.

For example. In his conversation with Mr. Laurance, Mr. Ferguson says that abandoning the Euro would be “catastrophic” but he does not say how or why. He also says that Germany has a vested interest in holding the EU together because without the EU it would be weaker??? I have to wonder when, other than immediately after the two world wars, was Germany ever weak. There simply is no precedent in modern history of a “weak” Germany, a country where and acute sense of personal responsibility, property rights and collective conscience have always ensured a high degree of social, fiscal and productive discipline.

I also have to take exception to Mr. Niall assertion that Eurobonds will bail everyone out. Mr. Ferguson has obviously failed to see the now quickly diminishing marginal utility of new debt. But, since he is a historian rather than an economist, this oversight might be excused.

Finally, Mr. Ferguson believes that the disenchantment with national politics, will push Europeans to throw their hat in with a Federal Government. Hmmm… I’ve been on the streets in France, in Italy and in Prague and I can tell you that the man in the street is not enamored with the idea of a Federal Europe. But only time will tell of course. Mr. Ferguson may yet be proven right although I seriously doubt it. We are going to have increasing social unrest in Europe and within the next three years some countries will come close to revolution. Nobody will want to hear about a Federal Europe shortly.

But that’s only my opinion.

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4 Responses to “Niall Ferguson & Ben Laurance Conversations”

  1. CK Watt Says:

    Guido, I would be very interested in your opinion of Niall Ferguson’s opening Reith Lecture this morning. It sounded quite good, to me, but I think his main point on the economy (and I should listen to it again) was that we have borrowed excessively against the future because of a failure of “institutions”, rather than it being an inherent characteristic of the monetary system. Next week’s lecture is going to be about the economy, apparently. Hope you can listen to it, wherever you are.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01jmx0p/The_Reith_Lectures_Niall_Ferguson_The_Rule_of_Law_and_Its_Enemies_2012_The_Human_Hive/

  2. CK Watt Says:

    “As is common in academia, in “The Ascent Of Money” Nial Ferguson discusses, well, money. He does not touch the monetary system. It is the set of rules and regulations that determine how and why money should come into existence and how much of it and due to what circumstances that give money its characteristics and qualities.”

    I didn’t read his book, but I did watch the TV series. You are absolutely right: it just skirted around the central issue. I found it a real disappointment.

  3. CK Watt Says:

    “My main point of contention with Mr. Ferguson is that he never mentions the monetary system. Not even by implication.”

    He did, however, write a book about it:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ascent_of_Money

    complete with accompanying six-part TV series on Channel 4.

    (I’m not necessarily saying that it was any good…)

    • guidoamm Says:

      Hi CK – thank you for pointing that out. Your observation goes to the heart of the whole raison-d’etre of this blog.
      As is common in academia, in “The Ascent Of Money” Nial Ferguson discusses, well, money. He does not touch the monetary system. It is the set of rules and regulations that determine how and why money should come into existence and how much of it and due to what circumstances that give money its characteristics and qualities.

      That credit should be necessary to develop an economy is not in question. What is in question is the quality of credit.

      In a healthy economy, money cannot exist prior to there being something to exchange. Thus, in a healthy economy, not only does money facilitate the exchange of capital but it also allows us to make value calculations.

      In our current monetary construct, money comes into existence well ahead of there being anything to exchange. In this construct, not only is the definition of capital subverted and money is thought to be capital, but calculations of value are compromised because of the inherent debasement of the currency.

      The choice of monetary system is the ultimate driver of socio economic development. In other words, the choice of monetary system dictates a series of socio economic choices and outcomes.

      Our current construct of Debt Based Fiat Money and its concomitant Fractional Reserve Banking system, has very simple and real mathematical outcomes that marginalize and divest the masses of whatever property they may have and renders them totally dependent on the state for their survival.

      Is this a better system than the alternative? That is not for me to say. I only make the observation that the arithmetical reality of this monetary system brings about the absolute enslavement of the individual to the state. But since in this system the state is becomes bankrupt itself, then the individual and all productive assets of society really end up owned by a restricted elite of banks and/or bankers.

      This is not conjecture but an arithmetical truism.

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