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Niall Ferguson, MA, D.Phil., is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a senior fellow of the Center for European Studies, Harvard, where he served[…]

There are six killer applications that made the West dominant over the past 500 years. But is that age now over?

Question: What gave rise to the West? 

Niall Ferguson: If you have been Dr. Who, if you were Dr. Who, and you took a trip in your TARDIS back to the year 1500, or 1400, somewhere round about the 15th century, you would have been very impressed by Beijing, probably the biggest city in the world at that time with it’s clean, wide streets, it’s dazzling palaces. You might also have taken a trip on the Grand Canal connecting it to Nanjing, the older imperial capital. You’d have been very impressed by what you might have seen at the Mughal Empire in India, you’d have been dazzled by the achievements of the Ottoman Empire in what is today Turkey. These great oriental empire in what is today Turkey. These great oriental empires would have really knocked your socks off. And if you’d have time to take in Peru, you’d have thought the Incas had something quite impressive going on. And the Aztecs in Mexico too. You’d then take a trip to London and you would have been very underwhelmed by this town—because it wasn’t a city, it was quite small. And it was very smelly and dirty because the sanitation standards were way lower than in Asian cities. You wouldn’t have been that impressed by the architecture, because apart from the Tower of London, most of it was pretty rudimentary. London Bridge was about the most impressive thing there. 

So, you certainly would not have put money at that point on London and other West European cities becoming the dominant entities of the next 500 years. Something happened that empowered the ramshackled little monarchies of Western Europe to become the masters of the world; the economic masters, the technological masters, the political masters. Something made these little countries—they were little countries: Portugal, England, the Netherlands, and then some were somewhat bigger, Spain and France—something empowered these countries and enabled them, over a period of time, to establish mastery over the much larger empires of the east, as well as over the entire New World as they called it, the Americas. 

And so I’ve been asking myself a lot for the last few years, what that was. And the course I’ve been teaching recently at Harvard had the title "Western Ascendancy, Mainsprings of the Global Power," which is a somewhat bombastic title, but gets to the heart of the matter. What was it that made the west dominate the rest? Why are the westerners superior to the resterners (if you will forgive that phrase)? And I’ve come to the conclusion that there were really six killer applications, killer apps, that originated in the West which it took ages for the rest of the world to download. And for the sake of brevity, I will tell you what the six were. Imagine bullet points. 

So, number one was competition, both political and economic. To talk about capitalism misses the point that Western Europe also had phenomenal competition between multiple institutions in the political sphere too. Autonomous cities you really didn’t find in the great Asian empires. But the fact that London was a semi-autonomous city in medieval England and that within London there were multiple corporations and guilds representing different crafts was really a very distinctive feature of that society. It was partly a consequence of the weakness of broad authority that there was no emperor in Europe as powerful as the Ming emperor of China. Charles V tried and ultimately failed to establish a monopoly of power, so competition is part of the story unquestionably. 

The scientific revolution that happened in the 17th century is killer app number two. Newton had no peer, no competitor in the eastern world, much less in the Americas, although the Asian empire has mathematics to a very high level and astronomy that sometimes bled into astrology, they just didn’t do the Scientific Revolution and were effectively offline when the Scientific Revolution happened as it did in western Europe with some traffic to North America. 

Number three killer app, well one might say democracy, but I think that would wrong because most western political institutions were not democratic in the strict sense until relatively recently, 19th century, early 20th century. It’s more that an idea of citizenship based on property ownership and representation took hold. First in the English-speaking world and then it spread. John Locke was in many ways the great theorist in this relationship between property and representation and the idea of some property-owning representative government spread from England to North America and then the United States found its most perfect form. When this became democratic, when the franchise was extended to non-property owners, democracy was much more likely to work where that foundation existed. It was the rule of law in a system where the law was made by property owners through a representative assembly. So, that’s killer app number three. 

Number four is modern medicine. Once the West figured out what caused cholera epidemics, or why plague spread, or what tuberculosis was, it had a huge advantage over the rest. And so in the last 19th century into the 20th century, there was a revolution in human life expectancy, which is entirely the result of advances in the realm of medicine. And the great empires of the late 19th century, early 20th century used this knowledge to good effect, but in a somewhat brutal way because inseparably allied with these medical advances was a pseudoscience of race that essentially legitimized western imperial power by asserting that non-western peoples were subordinate forms of humanity. That’s the shadow side of this story I’m telling, which I want to emphasize because this is not a triumphalist story, it’s an exercise in comparative history. 

Killer app number five is the consumer society. The idea that everybody should have more than one set of clothes. And that sounds rather banal unless you’re a teenager in which case you immediately get it. But it’s hugely important, once you have clothing at the heart of your economy, textiles, textile factories, which were the key to the industrial revolution in England, and everywhere else, you need consumers too. And the big difference between spices and clothes—spices were the basis of the Dutch East India’s Company’s business and clothes, textiles, were the basis of the British East India’s Company’s business—is simple. The demand for clothes and spices, like nutmeg, is finite. It’s quite inelastic. There’s only so much you can consume a year. The demand for clothing is infinitely elastic. There is never enough in your wardrobe and it seems to be in most human lives. 

And so textiles and the industrial revolution that accompanies the spread of the consumer society really represents killer app number five. 

And finally, Max Weber had a brilliant idea about a hundred years ago, a little bit more that there was a Protestant ethic that generated the spirit of capitalism. Now, I think he was sort of half right about that because a work ethic clearly was something that differentiated the West from the rest through much of the period I’m talking about. Where he was probably wrong was attributing this exclusively to Protestantism because it turns out that many, many different religious cultures can get that work ethic. Jews had it roughly contemporaneously with Calvinists, and nowadays, of course, what we see is that work ethic spreading into all kinds of different civilizations most notably the Confucian civilization of China. 

So, the argument is a six-part argument. There are six killer apps that give the West predominance over the rest over about 500 years. And the final question, of course is: is it over? Is the end of western ascendancy? And it seems quite plausible to think that it is because, after all, these killer apps are no longer monopolized by the West. The rest have basically downloaded them all... to varying degrees, but with a pretty high degree of success. And that means it’s unlikely that the West will continue to occupy that position of extraordinary predominance that it had, say, 100 years ago when maybe 20% of people of the world lived in western empires, western societies, but they accounted for more than 50% of all global income. I think that’s pretty much coming to an end now.

Recorded on April 19, 2010