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The Six Killer Apps of Western Power
Submitted by Francesca R
11th August 2013

This reviewer always learns plenty from Niall Ferguson's books, but she feels that excessive effort is made to shape a thesis into an absorbing story, such that it usually ends up (to her) as so meticulous and precise as to strain credibility--beyond being one of several thousand possible variations or interpretations. This is probably because most of his books were TV series at the same time (and why they make for quite decent ones of those).

To get the plot, the back cover is sufficient--six institutions/eras explain why the west (defined in the text) out-competed the rest from unpropitious starting conditions five centuries ago. The list of killer apps looks broadly like a capitalist manifesto, which is not a surprise knowing the author's leanings, but the elaboration (each app gets a hefty chapter--presumably also an episode; she hasn't checked) is plenty more inspiring than the rather bland message that would suggest. In other words--do read this.

Part luck, part ingenuity, part making the right decision without knowing it was right--the noisy blundering of the west into pole position looks disorderly and chaotic, rarely particularly well planned and scarcely guaranteed success. China's fateful decision to exit-stage-east was an exogenous gift. The Spanish conquistadors' capture of a continent overwhelmingly helped by importing disease (see Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel"). Advances in medicine seemingly a massive instance of necessity being mother to invention (in this instance, African colonisation). The list goes on, and on.

The competition that Ferguson vaunts as killer-app one, refers to that between states, city-states, and even municipalities (which had substantial devolved power in many countries, not least England) and guilds, in their rush to explore and invent and enrich themselves. This was apparently the outworking of non-uniform geography in east Eurasia, which hindered centralisation of power over vast lands, and allowed something more efficacious to evolve.

Science (app 2), has as its prime enabler, separation of church from state: possible under Christianity and hindered drastically in the Islamic world--and never mind that the earliest prolific adopter of movable type (the sixteenth century's internet) was Martin Luther.

Property rights, and more widely rule of law and liberty (three) was thanks to John Locke's "invention" of America, put into practice as formerly indentured servants were given land, whereas the colonisation of Latin America acceded all assets to distant crowns. The longer duration of slavery, and the surprising endurance of miscegenation laws in the north continent--two sore thumbs contrary to the positive movement in regulatory direction--are noted as a hindrance to what became the USA's dominance. Apparently not much of one though.

Medical science (four)--struck this reviewer as being primarily pushed forward by the West's appetite for war and imperialism and the need to sustain itself through these, still more so and in perverted sinister ways when the war became internal in the 20th century. Then, almost magically, starting almost seven decades back, there is a collective desire to boot-up application five--and swap three centuries of what was basically investment or aquisition of one sort or other (questionable returns in some cases) for buying things (gratification now). This is a chapter about demand begetting supply. Maybe not too differenct from necessity and invention.

Finally--six--the (protestant-Christian) work ethic can not be covered much without much hand-wringing about its decline, of which there is ample record, thus leading into the book's final chapter of whether the sun is setting on the West's dominance.

This reviewer won't spoil that ending. Overall--she enjoyed very much learning another lorry-load of facts (history was not a strong subject of hers). The book's thesis? If one has read any three of Ferguson's earlier books (she can count "Empire", "Colossus" and "The Ascent of Money"), then there is little new here along that dimension. Good though.
Niall Ferguson

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