Niall Ferguson, poet-laureate of the American Empire

“Hegel says somewhere that all great historic facts and personages occur twice, so to speak. He forgot to add: “Once as tragedy, and again as farce.”
— Opening line to Karl Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1869)

The unofficial poet-laureateof the British Empire was Rudyard Kipling.  He described its contradictions, wonders, and horrors with penetrating insight and beauty.

Ours is a coarser society than England’s, more concerned with wealth and bureaucratic forms.  Rather than a poet, our poet-laureate is Niall Ferguson — Scottish professor of history and business administration at Harvard.  Brilliant, he writes nonsense  about our Empire with style and knowledge.  No Hollywood Central Casting staff could do better.

This post excerpts articles looking at a tiny sliver of his work (the non-imperial majority is excellent).  I strongly recommend reading these, which nicely highlight the nature of America’s Empire.  It’s bizarre pretensions and sand-like economic foundation.  Even more important, the degree of ignorance — willful ignorance of historical fact and economic theory — required to believe in it.  Today’s featured reading is…

In the following we see Ferguson reiterating many of the tenants of economics believed today by many conservatives.  Some of this makes sense, much does not.  I recommend reading this fascinating discussion. 

  1. The Crisis and How to Deal with It“, a symposium on the economic crisis presented by The New York Review of Books and PEN World Voices. Speakers Bill Bradley, Niall Ferguson, Paul Krugman, Nouriel Roubini, George Soros, Robin Wells.
  2. Another excerpt of remarks by Ferguson, posted at Brad Delong’s website
  3. Liquidity preference, loanable funds, and Niall Ferguson, Paul Krugman, at the blog of the New York Times, 2 May 2009


From “The Good Empire – Should we pick up where the British left off?“, Vivek Chibber, Boston Review, February/March 2005:

Not too long ago, it was difficult to find mention of empire in American intellectual circles, save in discussions of bygone eras or, more commonly, of the Soviet Union’s relation to its satellites. The steady stream of U.S. interventions in countries around the globe could not, of course, be denied; but they were commonly explained as defensive responses to Soviet or Chinese imperialism—as efforts to contain Communist aggression and protect our way of life. But America itself could not be cast as an imperial power.

Times have changed. America and empire are joined at the hip in political discourse, not just on the Left but also in visible organs of the Right. The United States is often described as an empire and proudly proclaimed to be in the company of the best, outshining its English predecessor and catching up withthe standard-setting Romans.‚This semantic shift was not instantaneous. In the immediate aftermath of the Eastern Bloc’s demise, the terms most typically used to describe American supremacy were more benign — sole superpower, new hegemon, and so on.

The real change came with the George W. Bush presidency, and especially in the aftermath of 9/11. Commentators and ideologues no longer shy away from the E word and, indeed, openly embrace it—as well as the phenomenon it describes.‚For the most part, the arguments favoring a Pax Americana have not been developed beyond short articles or op-ed pieces.

But the work of Niall Ferguson — a Scottish historian now transplanted to Harvard—takes them further. In his recent and widely reviewed book Colossus, and in a series of other publications, Ferguson offers an extended defense of the imperial project, past and present. Unlike many of his conservative peers, however, Ferguson does not cast his defense of imperial expansion in terms of its benefits for the United States — as a strategy of prevention against potential aggressors or as a mechanism to secure American dominance for the foreseeable future. Instead, he views an American empire as a boon to its subjects. As he explains, he has “no objection in principle to an American empire,” for indeed, “many parts of the world would benefit from a period of American rule.”

… Ferguson’s defense of liberal empire has made him into something of a media celebrity: he is featured prominently on national radio and television, a much sought-after speaker on the lecture circuit, and even the star narrator of two television series. Although the attention is unusual for a professional historian, it is not entirely surprising. Here we have views that were, until recently, associated with the crackpot Right now being defended by a rising academic star who comes with all the status of Oxford (his previous employer) and Harvard. More surprising is the reception that his book has received in established academic journals and magazines.

One might have thought that, in the most respectable organs of the liberal intelligentsia, a book calling for the resuscitation of colonial rule would have met with at least a few raised eyebrows. Instead, it has been given a surprisingly warm welcome. John Lewis Gaddis goes so far as to single out for special praise the call for the United States to colonize parts of the world to save them from their infirmities; in fact, Gaddis worries that the book’s other shortcomings might prevent a more serious consideration of the need for American “tutelage” of these deserving states. Further to the right, Charles Krauthammer has echoed Ferguson’s fond remembrance of the British Empire. In the fall 2004 issue of The National Interest he offers that the United States “could use a colonial office in the state department—a direct reference to British institutions.

Were it not for this warm reception, there would not be a pressing call to engage the arguments in Colossus. The book doesn’t cohere especially well, being more a concatenation of loosely connected essays than a well-structured argument. Ferguson writes in a highly discursive fashion, scattering the text with claims and asides that are often only distantly connected with the theme at hand. Some of them are so outlandish that they seem less the handiwork of a respected historian than of an academic shock jock. What, for example, are we to make of the notion that the United States ought to have seriously considered using nuclear weapons against China during the Korean War? The actual arguments Ferguson makes to support his case are by no means new; to the contrary, he trots out some of the hoariest myths of the colonial experience. To make matters worse, his own narrative undermines several of his central points, as I shall demonstrate below.

The main reason to examine the book closely, then, is that it reflects a widening current of opinion among American intellectuals, including its liberal wing. It is the fact of the book’s success, and the warm praise showered upon its author, that warrants a sustained examination of its arguments.

Colossus is a short book that makes many claims. In assessing them, we need to ask two main questions. First, are the claims true? In particular, was British rule basically about sound governance and the building blocks of democracy? And second, if they are true—if colonialism did have the beneficial outcomes Ferguson attributes to it—was colonial rule necessary to producing such outcomes? Was succumbing to external rule the price that colonies had to pay for democracy and modern economic growth?

Ferguson bases his defense of colonialism principally on the Indian experience, so I’ll start on the subcontinent. As it happens, the Victorian era provides a strong test of Ferguson’s claims about the quality of British statecraft, since it was marked by a series of severe droughts in areas of colonial rule. Thanks to Amartya Sen, we now know that famines are not naturally occurring phenomena; they can largely be averted, or at least minimized, if authorities intervene swiftly and decisively. If drought does turn into severe famine, it is most likely because of a breakdown in, or an absence of, well-functioning social institutions. On the Indian subcontinent, which relies heavily on the timeliness of the annual monsoons, droughts occurred periodically. Over the centuries, local elites and villagers had built up a rudimentary apparatus—in effect, an insurance system—to blunt the worst effects of the crop failures, and the British inherited this system as they took over. So at the very least, a regime that prided itself on good governance ought to have performed at least as well as its predecessors in minimizing damage from droughts.

In reality, the Victorian era witnessed perhaps the worst famines in Indian history. Their severity, and the role of colonial authorities in this pattern of disaster, has been brought to light by Mike Davis in his stunning book Late Victorian Holocausts. Even before the onset of the Victorian famines, warning signals were in place: C. Walford showed in 1878 that the number of famines in the first century of British rule had already exceeded the total recorded cases in the previous two thousand years. But the grim reality behind claims to “good governance” truly came to light in the very decades that Ferguson trumpets. According to the most reliable estimates, the deaths from the 1876–1878 famine were in the range of six to eight million, and in the double-barreled famine of 1896–1897 and 1899–1900, they probably totaled somewhere in the range of 17 to 20 million. So in the quarter century that marks the pinnacle of colonial good governance, famine deaths average at least a million per year.

Two factors contributed to this outcome. First, the structure of the colonial revenue system—with its high and inflexible tax rates—drastically increased peasant vulnerability to drought. Whereas pre-colonial authorities had tended to modulate revenue demands to the vagaries of the harvest, the British rejected this tradition. Agrarian revenues during the 19th century were critical to the colonial state, and to funding British regional and global military campaigns. So the screws on the peasant were kept tight, regardless of circumstance. This remorseless pressure drove a great number of peasants to the edge of subsistence, making them deeply vulnerable to periodic shocks in the agrarian cycle. Hence it is no surprise that, according to a report of 1881, 80 percent of all the famine fatalities came from the poorest 20 percent of the population—precisely those peasants who lived on the brink of disaster.

The second, more proximate factor was the administrative response to famine, which is neatly summed up in the Report of the Famine Commission of 1878: “The doctrine that in time of famine the poor are entitled to demand relief . . . would probably lead to the doctrine that they are entitled to such relief at all times . . . which we cannot contemplate without serious apprehension.” So Viceroy Lytton sent a stern warning that administrators should stoutly resist what he called “humanitarian hysterics” and ordered that there be “no interference of any kind on the part of Government with the object of reducing the price of food.” British officials energetically held the line against humanitarianism as grain prices skyrocketed upward. “Sound” public finance—according to Ferguson, one of the great gifts of Victorian governance—trumped even the most meager efforts at relief the moment they strained at the exchequer. Curzon, who oversaw the decimation wrought by the 1899 famine, warned that “any government which imperiled the financial position of India in the interests of prodigal philanthropy would be open to serious criticism; but any Government which by indiscriminate alms-giving weakened the fibre and demoralized the self-reliance of the population, would be guilty of a public crime.”

To help Indians internalize this Spartan ethic, Lytton, Elgin and Curzon shut down all but the most anemic relief efforts across the country. Grain surpluses in states where rainfall was adequate were not used for famine relief but were shipped instead to England, which apparently could relinquish its own self-reliance in agriculture without descending into moral turpitude. To further help the Indian peasant pursue his virtuous path, all pleas for tax relief were rebuffed, and collection efforts were redoubled: not a rupee of revenue was to be left on the parched plains. And in case peasants didn’t get the point that they were supposed to pay the government and not the other way around, relief camps were closed down in areas where tax collection threatened to fall short of normal receipts.

These taxes, it should be noted, were not covering the administrative costs of good governance, but were paying for British colonial wars—the Afghan wars in Lytton’s time, and the Boer War in Curzon’s reign. So as the British extended their empire across new frontiers, the bodies of the Indian peasants funding the effort were piling up outside the Viceregal verandas. The colonial state consciously forswore any attempt at intervening and averting these catastrophes. In so doing, it reversed centuries long traditions of famine relief, set aside known techniques of reducing mortality, telling the “natives” all the while that it was being done for their own good.

This last point bears emphasis. It isn’t that the British responded to the crisis with insufficient alacrity, or that they showed a want of resolve. The point instead is that they resolutely—indeed, with homicidal intensity—pursued policies that predictably escalated the human disasters. Ferguson notes that the late Victorian famines were indeed a pity but “were far more environmental than political than origin.” But he does not advance a shred of evidence in support of this thesis. A far more appropriate conclusion is the one drawn by Davis himself, that “imperial policies toward starving ‘subjects’ were the moral equivalent of bombs dropped from 18,000 feet.”

Chibber’s review continues on, demolishing much of Ferguson’s analysis.  What’s sad is that Ferguson’s views retain such wide currency despite their overthrowing what we know about the colonial era (much the same is true about conservative economics in recent years, such as the prescription of tax cuts under all circumstances — boom and bust).

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

Posts about America’s empire:

14 thoughts on “Niall Ferguson, poet-laureate of the American Empire

  1. In Liquidity preference, loanable funds, and Niall Ferguson the problem is identified as one where desired nominal interest rates are negative. Here: “Negative interest rates: when are they coming to a central bank near you?“, Willem Buiter, blog at the Financial Times, 7 May 2009.

    Is a link that posits the notion of using a negative interest rate to deal with crisis like the current one. Having quadrants and half planes you’re not allowed to wander into is bad for business in applied mathematics. What better way to weaken the dollar, and restore our global trade balance than this? Not to mention directing savings toward real investment (sorry folks, investment risk is part of life, the new message is do the best you can in an imperfect world), rather than parking funds in government paper. At some negative rate, capital would have no choice but to flow into new ventures, some of which should yield positive real returns, but all of which will put people back to work.
    Fabius Maximus replies: The current situation requires negative real interest rates. The standard formulas, such as the Taylor Rule, prescribe rates of -5% or lower. Due to the “zero bound problem”, nominal rates cannot go below zero. Hence the Fed’s policies, such as massive credit expansion and (implicitly) inducing inflation. Buiter speculates about even more radical measures to force negative nominal rates, should the Fed’s current policies fail.

  2. Perhaps the colonization and turnover of Japan and would be a better example to follow? It was a military rule, for the most part, but without destroying most of their traditions. Nor did we plunder their resources. But the Japanese were technologically advanced and highly organized- could that be the wildcard? The African nations are not, nor were the people of India when the Brit’s took over. After reading the articles above it seems that the implementation of colonization is the key, not whether Ferguson nails every argument. Sometimes and idiot can be correct/and the experts wrong.

  3. Let’s not forget to mention Hong Kong in the above- the Brit’s did learn something about ruling from abroad.

  4. These points about drought in India are well taken, and to that should be added a similar story behind the Irish ‘potato famine’ in which there was plenty of food but none of it given to those who needed it, as a result of British imperial policy. Add to this the genocides in Australia and Tasmania, the latter utterly successful… the oppression here that led to Revolution and was followed by impressment of our seamen and invasion, and support for the Confederacy… and of course the record of duplicity and dealmaking in the Middle East after WWI, abhorred even by their own Lawrence… and one has to wonder at the utter lack of objectivity in American attitudes towards the British Empire. The best analogy is perhaps the current utter unreality of attitudes towards Israel and the illusory, recently invented ‘Judeo-Christian tradition.’ One would think that Judaism, rather than Islam, acknowledges Jesus as a prophet and commemorates his mother in every house of worship. It all seems to be about spin and PR and speaking and writing English well, and the losers of history having essentially no voice. Orwell would be proud.

  5. Didn’t know this during my last two rants, but if you really want the case against Imperial Britain stated with panache and detail, let the War Nerd put it: “When Pigs Fly–and Scold: Brits Lecturing Sri Lanka!“, at The Exile Online, 22 May 2009 — Opening:

    You see some pretty sick stuff when you do my job, but I just read something sicker than any Congo cannibal buffet. It’s an article by a posh little limey named Jeremey Brown condemning the Sri Lankan government for being too messy in putting down the LTTE, and demanding that we stop buying the cheap textiles the poor Sinhalese make their living churning out.

    What’s sick about this is that the British establishment destroyed the Sinhalese people completely. Completely and purposely, sadistically. Stole their land, humiliated and massacred their government, made it Imperial policy to erase every shred of self-respect the Sinhalese had left. You can talk about the Nazis all day long, but for my money nothing they did was as gross as what you find out when you actually look into the history of British-Sinhalese relations. If you can even call them “relations”; I guess a murder-rape is a relation, sort of. …

  6. It is more than a little ironic that so many Americans, whose patriotic traditions were born in a bloody rebellion to get out of the British empire, should look back on it so fondly. And we had it much better than most colonies (even, in many respects, than the home isles). Of course Ferguson is a Scot, whose treatment at the hands of the British is not exactly an advertisement for imperialism either.
    Fabius Maximus replies: All great points, esp about Feguson. His Scottish ancestors must be spinning away in their graves.

  7. We are trying to kill off Empire as an idea, including “promoting democracy” not improve it. Ferguson is very hard working, literate and a panderer. Made his bones studying House of Rothschild which rode steam and iron to the greatest fortune at the end of the 19th century. Nice piece of work but you would think he would give some attention to how the House of R created the capital to begin its march to glory. Very able people obviously, the founder but he aleady had the bread to work with: they handled stolen cattle and horses brought from central Europe among other items, trading everything moving toward Amsterdam and Rotterdam. Hardly alone and hardly exclusively a Jewish business, they were just better at it. You will find no discussion of their origins in Ferguson or any other of the biographies of the family. Hard to get invited to dinner if you talk about reality — or get tenure at Harvard

  8. Ferguson’s argument for empire was irritating, if completely of its time. His latest book is on the history of finance, which I want to pick up–but want my library to pay for it–is uncanny in its timing also, no?

    I quite liked the idea of canceling all debt a la the Jubilee. Not entirely sure why killing some creditors by fiat, but thereby resetting the playing field, as opposed to killing them by inflation–eventually–isn’t the best solution. I don’t think that a creditor nation will politically be able to take deflation for long.

  9. The Famine-Foreign Aid Mobius Loop , spinning off limousines and armed bodyguards like a Catherine Wheel .
    The Big Bad IMF , breaking the back of Zimbabwe .
    Taxes vs Protection money . Oportunities for entrepreneurs in an ungoverned state.
    Starving children in an untaxed country .
    China exporting wheat in their famine .
    Russian cotton tribute from the -istans . Now grow rice instead , use more water , drought ahead .
    One could be head of the Foreign Office and wouldnt have time to make war , because too busy slavering over Google .

  10. Perhaps what we need as the top level universities top subjects ( as well as Sustainable Agriculture ) is ” History as an Analytical Science “.

  11. “You don’t get the biggest empire in the World by being nice”. My repeated comment in so many forums.

    Hitler admired the British and copied them. He was happy to a deal with them, though he was also conspiring with the Japanese to strip off large junks of the ‘Empire.

    Concentration camps: British. Gas attacks on civilians: British. Torture: very British. Bribery/corruptio: they wrote the book. Divide and conquer: I remember a friend of my father, ex SAS who (in a particular Arab country) blew up a bar/coffee house one area for Muslims, the other night a place for Jews. Get them fighting against themselves.

    Ethnic cleansing: the Masters.

    Oh, who remembers that SAS crowd, in civilian clothes, in a car with a lot of explosive in Basra, caught by Iraqi police?

    Oh the great Britih Empire. Not surprisingly ordinary British people did not get any benefits from this (rickets was endemic in the UK until the scientific rationing in WW2), but the ‘elites’ did so very well. Thats your future US people unless you change. Watch a UK historical drama.

    And, unless you change, learn to touch your forelocks to your betters (women courtesy by the way).

  12. A few points.

    Concentration camps as used by the British (and before them, by the Spanish) are different to the usual cultural definition of the term. Most people use concentration camps to refer to the Holocaust. This is wrong. The Holocaust was carried out in death camps or extermination camps. Concentration camps merely exist as a place to hold a mass of people against their will. There is no denying that the Boer war era camps were run incredibly badly but they were not death camps. And as mentioned the Spanish were using camps they called ‘Concentration camps’ a few years before the British in S. Africa. Semantics but important.

    Bribery and corruption, writing the book? Really? Bribery is hardly new so its difficult to imagine the British ‘writing the book’ without access to time travel (Damn you Doctor Who!). No attempt to defend the British Empire here but really, perspective is necessary. It very often seems to me that Britain is less a historical empire and more a Whore of Babylon figure, in whom is redolent all the sins of empire.

    On the use of gas and bombing Sven Lindqvist’s ‘History of Bombing’ is an excellent resource (though some parts are sadly rather dated and really need to be totally rethought).

    I find the mention of Ferguson’s Scottishness rather entertaining. Historically its been the Scots and Irish who provided the largest (proportionally) numbers to conquer, hold and rule the British Empire. Ferguson probably had more ancestors fighting for than against Empire! It also rather ignores the fact that most every part of the UK has been conquered brutally at some time or other. Scotland is hardly unique and the last truly brutal treatment, the crushing of the Highlands, was (a) mostly conducted by Scots, (b) was in response to an attempt to overthrow and replace the existing government of the UK rather than seek independence or anything similar and (c) those suffering were Whigs, historically the most fervent imperialists.

    All that sounds a little defensive though I hope it won’t be read that way, its intended more as an attempt to provide perspective than defence.

  13. “Hard to get invited to dinner if you talk about reality — or get tenure at Harvard.”

    Well said, Jonathan! The principle applies to so many influential writers today. I wish there were a small mountain range somewhere, where the peaks were not yet named. We could call the whole “The Range of Shame”, with peaks like “Mount David Brooks”, “Mount Friedman”, “Mount Arianna” (yes, she’s a sell-out too!)

    It’s particularly galling when cultured Brits, like Ferguson or Christopher Hitchens, who should or once did know better, come over here and pander to the yahoos.

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