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Every age needs its prophets of doom to warn humanity of the dangers that lie ahead unless urgent attention is paid to reform, but it is the fate of prophets to remain voices crying in the wilderness. Niall Ferguson must not be allowed to suffer this fate, because the problems he addresses need our urgent attention. Modern civilisation was built and sustained by a network of great institutions, listed by Ferguson as representative government, the free market, the rule of law and civil society. By showing how each of these is degenerating and in need of radical reform, Ferguson presents an epochal challenge to the leaders and peoples of western democracies.
A central theme of Ferguson’s argument is that people’s sense of community has weakened. Individuals have become more self-centred, pursuing their own ends without regard to others. This has led to great disparities of income and wealth which has further served to divide communities. Immigrants, both legal and illegal, are often accused of coming to western countries just to exploit the economic opportunities of greater affluence, but the indigenous populations have behaved in the same way, enjoying their inheritance but neglecting the institutions that nurtured the economic advance of earlier generations.
Ferguson gives many examples of the degeneration of community spirit, from the sharp reduction in the membership of voluntary organisations to the degeneration of the rule of law to the rule of lawyers. In all walks of life people are using their privileged positions to enhance their own wealth and power with an ever reducing sense of service to their community. This is nowhere more obvious than in the transmogrification of cooperatives, associations and building societies into private enterprises and banks.
Niall Ferguson’s book should be compulsory reading for all who aspire to public office in western democracies. One politician who seems to have responded is David Cameron whose promotion of the Great Society echoes Ferguson’s call for a higher level of volunteering and a realisation that people can still do much to help themselves. Ferguson recommends that people accept a greater degree of individual responsibility, working together on a basis of trust combined with a lower level of government regulation.
In a call for higher ethical standards Ferguson is close to advocating a spiritual revival and it is difficult to see how that could come about in modern times. One recalls the slow demise of the movement for moral rearmament of a few decades ago. If Ferguson is to be regarded as a prophet it would be of economic and political liberalism, but this is the same applied philosophy that he says is in crisis. Like prophets of the past, he comes not to bring a new religion but to reform the old one; it will be interesting to see if his disciples give his message a new name.