In the year 1420, the east seemed much more advanced than the west. China improved its massive Grand Canal to support its thriving internal trade, its systematic sewage collection kept streets cleaner than many European cities, and the grandiose Forbidden City seemed larger than life.
England paled in comparison – its buildings and bridges were of a smaller scale, warfare was a constant affair, and the city of London was unpleasant and a health hazard without proper sanitary solutions. Its population in 1349 was only a tenth of the Nanjing’s in China.
The picture changed by 1900, however. Tokyo was the only Asian city in the world’s ten largest cities, and London, with 6.5 million people, was the global metropolis. By 1990, the average American was 73 times richer than the average Chinese, calculated in current dollars.
What caused this dramatic rise of the west? Ferguson argues the answer lies in the western institutions (or as he calls, the “killer apps”). In particular (quoted from introduction, my addition italicized):
- Competition – a decentralization of both political and economic life, which created the launch-pad for both nation-state and capitalism
- Science – a way of studying, understanding, and ultimately changing the natural world, which gave the West (among other things) a major military advantage over the Rest
- Property rights – the rule of law as a means of protecting private owners and peacefully resolving disputes between them, which formed the basis of the most stable form of representative government
- Medicine – a branch of science that allowed a major improvement in health and life expectancy, beginning in Western societies, but also in their colonies
- The consumer society – a mode of material living in which the production and purchase of clothing and other consumer goods play a central economic role, and without which the Industrial Revolution would have been unsustainable
- The work ethic – a moral framework and mode of activity derivable from (among other sources) Protestant Christianity, which provides the glue for the dynamic and potentially unstable society created by apps 1 to 5 (above)
Ferguson states that many such institutions have been adopted by the rest of the world, including Japan and China, resulting in much improvement. Ferguson concludes by asking a few potent questions. First, are such institutions a package for success? Could a country adopt, such as China, a free market economy without a pluralistic political system and maintain its growth? Secondly, is the west in decline? Some western countries are losing their habit for hard work and spend frivolously. Would this work?
The book contains stories from a vast horizon of time and geographic span. However, at times Ferguson seemed to stray away from the topic being discussed (the chapter on medicine focused more on the spread of the French revolution, for example), and I wished he could discuss more on the significance of each institutions mentioned. How do each app contributes to the rising of living standard?
Though the book at times feel like a collection of historic facts, Ferguson provided a great introduction on the topic of development of nations with much insight and some convincing arguments.