Niall Ferguson

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Niall Campbell Douglas Ferguson (born 18 April 1964) is a British historian. He is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University. He is also a Senior Research Fellow of Jesus College, University of Oxford and a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.


  • The First World War was at once piteous, in the poet's sense, and 'a pity'. It was something worse than a tragedy, which is ultimately something we are taught by the theatre to regard as unavoidable. It was nothing less than the greatest error of modern history.
    • The Pity of War: Explaining World War I, 1998.
  • The whole point about historians is that we are really communing with the dead. It's very restful – because you read. There's some sociopathic problem that makes me prefer it to human interaction.
  • The West may collapse very suddenly. Complex civilizations do that, because they operate, most of the time, on the edge of chaos.
  • The financial crisis is really a relatively small historic phenomenon, which has accelerated this huge shift, which ends half a millennium of Western ascendancy.
  • The rulers of western Africa prior to the European empires were not running some kind of scout camp. They were engaged in the slave trade. They showed zero sign of developing the country's economic resources. Did Senegal ultimately benefit from French rule? Yes, it's clear. And the counterfactual idea that somehow the indigenous rulers would have been more successful in economic development doesn't have any credibility at all.
  • I think it's hard to make the case, which implicitly the left makes, that somehow the world would have been better off if the Europeans had stayed home. It certainly doesn't work for north America, that's for sure. I mean, I'm sure the Apache and the Navajo had all sorts of admirable traits. In the absence of literacy we don't know what they were because they didn't write them down. We do know they killed a hell of a lot of bison. But had they been left to their own devices, I don't think we'd have anything remotely resembling the civilisation we've had in north America.
  • Like the Roman Empire in the early fifth century, Europe has allowed its defenses to crumble. As its wealth has grown, so its military prowess has shrunk, along with its self-belief. It has grown decadent in its shopping malls and sports stadiums. At the same time, it has opened its gates to outsiders who have coveted its wealth without renouncing their ancestral faith.
  • Beginning in the late 1970s, China overcame centuries of stagnation precisely because Mao’s successors understood that they had to decentralise the People’s Republic, giving economic if not political power to the people. If western commentators are right, Xi Jinping wants to go in the opposite direction. If the Chinese are lucky, he will turn out to be an enlightened absolutist, like Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. If they are unlucky, he will be just another emperor who fondly dreamt of controlling a fifth of humanity.
  • A century ago it was the West’s great blunder to think it would not matter if Lenin and his confederates took over the Russian Empire. Incredible as it may seem, I believe we are capable of repeating that catastrophic error. I fear that, one day, we shall wake with a start to discover that the Islamists have repeated the Bolshevik achievement, which was to acquire the resources and capability to threaten our very existence.
  • Increasingly, I believe that the issue of migration will be seen by future historians as the fatal solvent of the EU. In their accounts Brexit will appear as merely an early symptom of the crisis. Their argument will be that a massive Völkerwanderung overwhelmed the project for European integration, exposing the weakness of the EU as an institution and driving voters back to national politics for solutions.
  • European centrists are deeply confused about immigration. Many, especially on the centre-left, want to have both open borders and welfare states. But the evidence suggests that it is hard to be Denmark with a multicultural society. The lack of social solidarity makes high levels of taxation and redistribution unsustainable.
  • Back when China and America were the best of friends — or at least when their economic relationship seemed almost symbioticMoritz Schularick and I came up with the idea of “Chimerica,” which unlike the rival “G2” had the advantage of being a pun on the word “chimera,” signalling that we didn’t think it could last. Well, Chimerica now looks well and truly dead. But what is taking its place? Cold Wok? Sweet and Sour War? The hunt for a catch-phrase continues. Actually, I’m not sure why I bother. In the end, it too will probably be Made in China.
  • The rise of China is the great economic and political fact of our lifetime — a rude awakening for those of us who thought it was the fall of the Soviet Union. In 1951, China was an impoverished backwater with a revolutionary government that Joseph Stalin easily duped into fighting on his behalf in Korea. Today, thanks to the biggest and fastest industrial revolution in history, China is the superpower, Russia its junior partner.
  • A defining feature of history is that there are many more black swans — not to mention what Didier Sornette calls “dragon kings,” events so large in scale that they lie beyond even a power-law distribution — than a normally distributed world would lead us to expect. All such events lie in the realm of uncertainty, not of calculable risk. Moreover, the world we have built has, over time, become an increasingly complex system prone to all kinds of random behavior, nonlinear relationships and “fat-tailed” distributions. A disaster such as a pandemic is not a single, discrete event. It invariably leads to other forms of disaster — economic, social and political. There can be, and often are, cascades or chain reactions of disaster. The more networked the world becomes, the more we see this.
  • I remember 1989 vividly, having spent much of that summer in Berlin before the Wall fell. And while largely peaceful revolutions swept through Central and Eastern Europe that year (it was only three years later, in Yugoslavia, that the death of Communism sparked war), there was no such turning point in China, where 1989 also saw the Tiananmen Square massacre. With the benefit of hindsight, the survival of Communism in China was a more significant historical phenomenon than its collapse east of the River Elbe.
  • I disbelieve in both cycles of history and ends of history. History is the interaction of many complex systems. There are certain long-run processes (notably exponential gains in productivity through the development of technology and the “suprasecular” decline of nominal and real interest rates as a result of capital accumulation) punctuated by, well, one disaster after another. These disasters are either randomly distributed or follow a power law (i.e. there are lots of little earthquakes, pandemics or wars, but a few cataclysmic ones). At unpredictable intervals, the global system is tipped into a major transition by a disturbance that can be quite small, if not quite as small as Edward Lorenz’s famous butterfly in the Amazon setting off a tornado in Texas. Russia’s war in Ukraine — destructive certainly, but still a relatively small conflict by 20th-century standards — can be enough to trigger a “conflict avalanche.”
  • Even small numbers of evangelical missionaries can achieve a good deal, furnished as they are with substantial funds from congregations at home.
    • Ferguson, Niall. Colossus: the Price of America’s Empire. Penguin, 2004. Quoted from Malhotra, R., Nīlakantan, A. (2011). Breaking India: Western interventions in Dravidian and Dalit faultlines

Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (2003)

All quotes from the hardcover American edition published by Basic Books in 2003, ISBN 0-465-02328-2, first printing.
Italics as in the book. Bold face added for emphasis.
  • For much (though certainly, as we shall see, not all) of its history, the British Empire acted as an agency for imposing free markets, the rule of law, investor protection and relatively incorrupt government on roughly a quarter of the world. The Empire also did a good deal to encourage those things in countries which were outside its formal imperial domain but under its economic influence through the ‘imperialism of fair trade’.
    • Introduction (p. xxiii)
  • The difficulty with the achievements of the empire is that they are much more likely to be taken for granted than the sins of the empire.
    • Introduction (p. xxiv)
  • The British Empire was the nearest thing there has ever been to a world government. Yet its mode of operation was a triumph of minimalism.
    • Introduction (p. xxvii)
  • For better, for worse – fair and foul – the world we know today is in large measure the product of Britain’s age of Empire. The question is not whether British imperialism was without a blemish. It was not. The question is whether there could have been a less bloody path to modernity. Perhaps in theory there could have been. But in practice?
    • Introduction (p. xxix)
  • The empire had begun with the stealing of gold; it progressed with the cultivation of sugar.
    • Chapter 1, “Why Britain?” (p. 13)
  • The struggle for world mastery between Britain and France would rage on with only brief respite until 1815. But the Seven Years War decided one thing irrevocably. India would be British, not French. And that gave Britain what for nearly two hundred years would be both a huge market for British trade and an inexhaustible reservoir of military manpower. India was much more than the ‘jewel in the crown’. Literally and metaphorically, it was a whole diamond mine.
    • Chapter 1, “Why Britain?” (pp. 38-39)
  • Once pirates, then traders, the British were now the rulers of millions of people overseas – and not just in India. Thanks to a combination of naval and financial muscle they had become the winners in the European race for empire.
    • Chapter 1, “Why Britain?” (p. 44)
  • In 1615 the British Isles had been an economically unremarkable, politically fractious and strategically second-class entity. Two hundred years later Great Britain had acquired the largest empire the world had ever seen, encompassing forty-three colonies in five continents.
    • Chapter 1, “Why Britain?” (p. 56)
  • Between the early 1600s and the 1950s, more than 20 million people left the British Isles to begin new lives across the seas. Only a minority ever returned. No other country in the world came close to exporting so many of its inhabitants. In leaving Britain, the early emigrants risked not merely their life savings but their very lives. Their voyages were never without hazard; their destinations were often unhealthy and inhospitable. To us, their decision to gamble everything on a one-way ticket seems baffling. Yet without millions of such tickets – some purchased voluntarily, some not – there could have been no British Empire. For the indispensable foundation of the Empire was mass migration: the biggest in human history. This Britannic exodus changed the world. It turned whole continents white.
    • Chapter 2, “White Plague” (p. 60)
  • This, then, was the combination that made New England flourish: Puritanism plus the profit motive.
    • Chapter 2, “White Plague” (pp. 68-69)
  • ‘Amazing Grace’ is the supreme hymn of Evangelical redemption….It is therefore tempting to imagine John Newton suddenly seeing the light about slavery and turning away from his wicked profession to dedicate himself to God. But the timing of Newton’s conversion is all wrong. In fact, it was after his religious awakening that Newton became the first mate and then the captain of a succession of slave ships, and only much later that he began to question the morality of buying and selling his fellow men and women.
    • Chapter 2, “White Plague” (p. 78; ellipsis represents elision of the hymn’s lyrics)
  • In all, around 100,000 Loyalists left the new United States bound for Canada, England or the West Indies. It has sometimes been argued that in gaining Canada in the Seven Years War, Britain had undermined her position in America. Without the French threat, why should the thirteen colonies stay loyal? Yet the loss of America had the unforeseen effect of securing Canada for the Empire, thanks to the flood of English-speaking Loyalists immigrants who would eventually reduce the French Quebecois to a beleaguered minority. The amazing thing is that so many people should have voted with their feet against American independence, choosing loyalty to King and Empire over ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’.
    • Chapter 2, “White Plague” (p. 101)
  • With its weird red earth and its alien flora and fauna – the eucalyptus trees and kangaroos – Australia was the eighteenth-century equivalent of Mars. This helps explain why the first official response to the discovery of New South Wales by Captain Cook in 1770 was to identify it as the ideal dumping ground for criminals.
    • Chapter 2, “White Plague” (p. 103)
  • The great paradox of Australian history is that what started out as a colony populated by people whom Britain had thrown out proved to be so loyal to the British Empire for so long. America had begun as a combination of tobacco plantation and Puritan utopia, a creation of economic and religious liberty, and ended up as a rebel republic. Australia started out as a jail, the very negation of liberty. Yet the more reliable colonists turned out to be not the Pilgrims but the prisoners.
    • Chapter 2, “White Plague” (p. 105)
  • Africa was in fact a great deal less primitive than they imagined.… However, in three respects it struck the Victorians as benighted. Unlike North Africa, the faiths of sub-Saharan Africa were not monotheistic; except for its northern and southern extremities, it was riddled with malaria, yellow fever and other diseases lethal to Europeans (and their preferred livestock); and, perhaps most importantly, slaves were its most important export – indeed, supplying slaves to European and Arab traders along the coast became the continent’s biggest source of revenue. The peculiar path of global economic development led Africans into the business of capturing and selling one another.
    • Chapter 3, “The Mission” (p. 116; ellipsis represents the elision of examples)
  • Like the non-governmental aid organizations of today, Victorian missionaries believed they knew what was best for Africa.
    • Chapter 3, “The Mission” (p. 116)
  • It is one of the less easily intelligible characteristics of the early missionaries that they attached more importance to the souls of others than to the lives of their own children.
    • Chapter 3, “The Mission” (p. 131)
  • To Livingstone, the search for a way to open up Africa to Christianity and civilization was made still more urgent by the discovery that slavery was still thriving. Though the slave trade in the west of the continent had supposedly been suppressed following the British abolition law, slaves continue to be exported from Central and East Africa to Arabia, Persia and India. Perhaps as many as two million Africans fell victim to this eastward traffic in the course of the nineteenth century.
    • Chapter 3, “The Mission” (p. 131)
  • Reality did not take long to intrude.
    • Chapter 3, “The Mission” (p. 157)
  • Livingstone had believed in the power of the Gospel; Stanley believed only in brute force. Livingstone have been appalled by slavery; Stanley would connive at its restoration. Above all, Livingstone had been indifferent to political frontiers; Stanley wanted to see Africa carved up. And so it was. In the time between Livingstone’s death in 1873 and Stanley’s death in 1904 around the third of Africa would be annexed to the British Empire; virtually all the rest would be taken over by a handful of other European powers. And it is only against this background of political domination that the conversion of sub-Saharan Africa to Christianity can be understood.
    Commerce, Civilization and Christianity were to be conferred on Africa, just as Livingstone had intended. But they would arrive in conjunction with a fourth ‘C’: Conquest.
    • Chapter 3, “The Mission” (p. 161)
  • It is indeed one of the richer ironies of the Victorian value-system that the same navy that was deployed to abolish the slave trade was also active in expanding the narcotics trade.
    • Chapter 4, “Heaven’s Breed” (p. 167)
  • This was the unspoken truth about British India; and that was why, as Machonochie himself put it, it did not really feel like ‘a conquered country’. Only the Indian rulers had been supplanted or subjugated by the British; most Indians carried on much as before – indeed, for an important class of them British rule was an opportunity for self-advancement.
    • Chapter 4, “Heaven’s Breed” (p. 189)
  • Yet imperialism did not have to pay to be popular. For many people it was sufficient that it was exciting.… As a source of entertainment – of sheer psychological gratification – the Empire’s importance can never be exaggerated.
    • Chapter 5, “Maxim Force” (p. 251; ellipsis represents the elision of examples)
  • Traditional accounts of ‘decolonization’ tend to give the credit (or the blame) to the nationalist movements within the colonies, from Sinn Fein in Ireland to Congress in India. The end of Empire is portrayed as a victory for ‘freedom fighters’, who took up arms from Dublin to Delhi to rid their peoples of the yoke of colonial rule. This is misleading. Throughout the twentieth century, the principal threats – and the most plausible alternatives – to British rule were not national independence movements, but other empires.
    These alternative empires were significantly harsher in their treatment of subject peoples than Britain.
    • Chapter 6, “Empire For Sale” (pp. 293-294)
  • The familiar rationale of white rule in Africa was that it conferred the benefits of civilization. The war made a mockery of that claim.
    • Chapter 6, “Empire For Sale” (p. 301)
  • Before 1914, the benefits of Empire had seemed to most people, on balance, to outweigh the costs. After the war the costs suddenly, inescapably, outweighed the benefits.
    • Chapter 6, “Empire For Sale” (p. 313)
  • The creeping crisis of confidence in Empire had its roots in the crippling price Britain had paid for its victory over Germany in the First World War. The death toll for the British Isles alone was around three-quarters of a million, one in sixteen of all adult males between the ages fifteen and fifty. The economic cost was harder to calculate.
    • Chapter 6, “Empire For Sale” (p. 319)
  • In 1918 Britain had won the war on the Western Front by a huge feat of military modernization. In the 1920s nearly everything that had been learned was forgotten in the name of economy. The stark reality was that, despite the victory and the territory it had brought, the First World War had left the Empire more vulnerable than ever before. War had acted as a forcing house for a host of new military technologies – the tank, the submarine, the armed aeroplane. To secure its post-war future, the Empire needed to invest in all of these. It did nothing of the kind.
    • Chapter 6, “Empire For Sale” (p. 323)
  • As the Cold War entered its hottest phase in the 1960s, United States and the Soviet Union vied with one another to win the support of independence movements in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. What Harold Macmillan called ‘the winds of change’ when he toured Africa in 1960 blew not from Windhoek or Malawi but from Washington and Moscow. Tragically, they often blew away colonial rule only to replace it with Civil War.
    • Chapter 6, “Empire For Sale” (p. 352)
  • In 1940, under Churchill’s inspired, indomitable, incomparable leadership, the Empire had stood alone against the truly evil imperialism of Hitler. Even if it did not last for the thousand years that Churchill hopefully suggested it might, this was indeed the British Empire’s ‘finest hour’.
    Yet what made it so fine, so authentically noble, was that the Empire’s victory could only ever have been Pyrrhic. In the end, the British sacrificed her Empire to stop the Germans, Japanese and Italians from keeping theirs. Did not that sacrifice alone expunge all the Empire’s other sins?
    • Chapter 6, “Empire For Sale” (p. 355)
  • Without the spread of British rule around the world, it is hard to believe that the structures of liberal capitalism would have been so successfully established in so many different economies around the world.
    • Conclusion (p. 358)
  • Yet the nineteenth-century Empire undeniably pioneered free trade, free capital movements and, with the abolition of slavery, free labour. It invested immense sums in developing a global network of modern communications. It spread and enforced the rule of law over vast areas. Though it fought many small wars, the Empire maintained a global peace unmatched before or since. In the twentieth century too it more than justified its own existence, for the alternatives to British rule represented by the German and Japanese empires were clearly far worse. And without its Empire, it is inconceivable that Britain could have withstood them.
    • Conclusion (pp. 358-359)
  • A country’s economic fortunes are determined by a combination of natural endowments (geography, broadly speaking) and human action (history, for short): this is economic history’s version of the nature-nurture debate.
    • Conclusion (p. 360)
  • It is a point worth emphasizing that to a significant extent British rule did have that benign effect. According to the work of political scientists like Seymour Martin Lipset, countries that were former British colonies had a significantly better chance of achieving enduring democratization after independence than those ruled by other countries. Indeed, nearly every country with a population of at least a million has emerged from the colonial era without succumbing to dictatorship is a former British colony.
    • Conclusion (p. 362)
  • Finally, although Anglophone economic and political liberalism remains the most alluring of the world’s cultures, it continues to face, as it has since the Iranian revolution, a serious threat from Islamic fundamentalism.
    • Conclusion (p. 364)
  • The empire that rules the world today is both more and less than its British begetter. It has a much bigger economy, many more people, a much larger arsenal. But it is an empire that lacks the drive to export its capital, its people and its culture to those backward regions that need them most urgently and which, if they are neglected, will breed the greatest threats to its security. It is an empire, in short, that dare not speak its name. It is an empire in denial.
    • Conclusion (p. 370)

Civilization: The West and the Rest (2011)

  • No civilization, no matter how mighty it may appear to itself, is indestructible.
  • Was there something distinctive about American civil society that gave democracy a better chance than in France, as Tocqueville argued? Was the already centralized French state more likely to produce a Napoleon than the decentralized United States? We cannot be sure. But it is not unreasonable to ask how long the US constitution would have lasted if the United States had suffered the same military and economic strains that swept away the French constitution of 1791.
  • Between 1980 and 2000 the number of patents registered in Israel was 7652 compared with 367 for all the Arab countries combined. In 2008 alone Israeli inventors applied to register 9591 new patents. The equivalent figure for Iran was 50 and for all majority Muslim countries in the world with 5657.
  • The consumer society is so all-pervasive today that it is easy to assume it has always existed. Yet in reality it is one of the more recent innovations that propelled the West ahead of the Rest. Its most striking characteristic is its seemingly irresistible appeal... The result is one of the greatest paradoxes of modern history: that an economic system designed to offer infinite choice to the individual has ended up homogenizing humanity.
  • It was an idea that made the crucial difference between British and Iberian America – an idea about the way people should govern themselves. Some people make the mistake of calling that idea ‘democracy’ and imagining that any country can adopt it merely by holding elections. In reality, democracy was the capstone of an edifice that had as its foundation the rule of law – to be precise, the sanctity of individual freedom and the security of private property rights, ensured by representative, constitutional government.
  • Because of the central importance in Luther’s thought of individual reading of the Bible, Protestantism encouraged literacy, not to mention printing, and these two things unquestionably encouraged economic development (the accumulation of ‘human capital’) as well as scientific study. This proposition holds good not only in Prussia but also all over the world. Wherever Protestant missionaries went, they promoted literacy, with measurable long-term benefits to the societies they sought to educate; the same cannot be said of Catholic missionaries prior to Vatican II.
  • Protestantism made the West not only work, but also save and read. The Industrial Revolution was indeed a product of technological innovation and consumption. But it also required an increase in the intensity and duration of work, combined with the accumulation of capital through saving and investment. Above all, it depended on the accumulation of human capital. The literacy that Protestantism promoted was vital to all of this. On reflection, we would do better to talk about the Protestant word ethic.

Quotes about Ferguson

  • Ferguson’s metamorphoses in the last decade – from cheerleader, successively, of empire, Anglobalisation and Chimerica to exponent of collapse-theory and retailer of emollient tales about the glorious past – have highlighted broad political and cultural shifts more accurately than his writings. His next move shouldn’t be missed.
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