This review first appeared on my history blog Battles & Book Reviews on August 6th, 2013. I am putting it up here because I think this book is important enough that every informed person should read it.
If there is one book in the realm of history or political science any informed person needs to read this year then Niall Ferguson’s The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die is it. In this short book Ferguson goes right to the heart of why the West seems to be in decline and analyzes in short, incisive prose why that is so and perhaps what can be done to reverse it. The book itself is only 147 pages of text divided into an introduction, four topical chapters and a conclusion. There are twenty pages of notes but no bibliography or index, which is unusual for one of Dr. Ferguson’s books.
The whole thrust of this book is that it is the degeneration of civil, that is to say private, institutions, the failure of the Rule of Law, the distortion of economies by social engineering, and the breakdown of trust in civil society that are at the heart of why the West is in decline. The bright spot is that the decline is not terminal, or at least not yet, it can still be reversed.
I got the impression while reading this book that I was reading a modern day Juvenal or Vegetius lamenting the degradation of the Roman world. I only hope that this time the West gets it right and our children and grandchildren are not subject to another Dark Age as the West throws away the fruits of its culture.
I highly recommend this book both to people who agree and disagree with the central points. If nothing else this book provides a starting point for a conversation about where society is and where it is going or should be going. Once again, Dr. Ferguson has a produced a highly relevant and readable book that should make everyone think.