Sunday, January 02, 2011


"The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power" by Nial Ferguson.

Dr Ferguson remains one of my current favorite living historians and this book does not disappoint -- me at least. I suspect that many would find it "a bit dry".

I was very interested in the question of "why Britain"? relative to the creation of the huge empire. The key answers seem to be:
  • A flexible rule of law -- The big picture principles of freedom and civil society were followed and bequeathed in the main, but significant detours, up to effectively condoning piracy early on, were important to success. "Do the right thing as quickly as you can" might be a reasonable motto for the Empire. 
  • The willingness to colonize -- which meant that a reasonable number of English pulled up roots and left home, often forever, in order to be the backbone of a world wide civil service.
  • Timing -- Spain had pretty much sewed up the "plums", England got stuck with some "poorer colonies", North America at that point being particularly bad. Therefore, rather than just move in and plunder, the English needed to make something out of what they found -- which involved colonization, application of technology, management, global finance, trade, etc. They got rather good at it -- the Spanish just got good at walking in and taking anything that looked like gold. 
The devastating effects of the Maxim automatic weapons on African tribesman and Mideast Dervishes was something that I was not aware of. I think Ferguson does an excellent job of telling the truth, but is very careful to put things in context -- sudden and younger death from many causes including violent ones was a much more common situation then. Does this "excuse the slaughter"? No, but it didn't happen in a vacum either. It is quite interesting to me how the name "Rhodes" as in "Rhodes Scholar" is still considered positively, yet Cecil Rhodes was about as ruthless as anyone could be in the killing of native peoples and the taking of land, diamond and gold mines, and anything else that suited his fancy. He was "an imperialists imperialist", but there is little attempt to besmirch his name AFAIK unlike say "The Robber Barons" on the US, which did MUCH less damage (and far more good)  at about the same time in history.

In talking about the good effects on world GDP, advancement of countries and rule of law, this little list of positive elements for growth and development could bear reading by many folks in our own government:
  1. Secure rights of private property (encourage saving and investment)
  2. Secure rights of personal liberty (against tyranny, crime and corruption)
  3. Enforce contract rights.
  4. Stable Government (publicly known in advance rules --- HELLOOOOO ???)
  5. Responsive Government
  6. Honest Government (no rents for favor or position ... again??? BO???) 
  7. Moderate, efficient, non-greedy government (hold taxes down, reduce governments claim on surplus)
Many interesting personalities and events are discussed during the course of the book, but one of the things I like about Nial is his capacity to link the elements together into a unified whole that is more understandable having read the book.

Basically, Britain created the first case of "globalization" through Empire. While it had problems, it was a civilizing factor on the globe and made the world better for many many people, not just the British. WWI and WWII destroyed that version of globalization and Britain essentially traded her Empire in order to fight the tyrannical Empire building attempts of Germany and Japan.

Today the US is the sole remaining superpower, but we don't really do "Empire" -- what this means is that without colonization or some other form that replaces it in securing investment in the undeveloped world, the gap between the haves and have nots gets bigger and the risks of conflict between the "integrated" and "non-integrated" gets larger, as in 9-11.

A very worthy, but somewhat difficult read.

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