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Review of The Great Degeneration by Niall Ferguson


It should be painfully obvious to any observer that the Western world is decaying. We don’t know our history, families are almost non-existent in some ethnic groups, we’re struggling under a mountain of debt, and most people seem unhappy and aimless. And, to top it all off, our economic growth is anemic at best. Even the seemingly booming Trump economy has delivered under 3% growth compared to China’s 6%. In The Great Degeneration, author Niall Ferguson explains why that is.

Summary of The Great Degeneration

Ferguson’s 153 page The Great Degeneration is a concise but much-needed explanation of why things are going so poorly for the Western world.

Yes, many nations in it are rich compared to the rest of the world, but that gap is shrinking by the minute. Why is that?

Well, in Ferguson’s view, it’s happening because our institutions, formal and informal, are dying. I tend to agree.

Want some examples? How about these anecdotal ones- church membership is down, far fewer people are members of clubs or interest groups, increasing numbers of children from all races are born out of wedlock, as Charles Murray wrote about in both The Bell Curve and Coming Apart, and few Americans have faith in the legal system, perhaps because of men like James Comey representing the FBI and lying to Congress.

The Great Degeneration explains why all of those institutions are dying and what their disappearance means for the West. Because it’s such a short book, I don’t want to give too much away. But suffice it to say that it’s a book you need to read if you want to understand the threats facing the West and its economy.

Ferguson attacks Big Government, over-regulation, a distorted legal system, and the declining morals of our citizenry. He’s spot on.

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Analysis of The Great Degeneration

Few Americans are willing to accept the hard truth about our current social contract- it’s unsustainable. The skyrocketing national debt, which is a problem and will remain one, is growing day by day to pay for unaffordable welfare programs. Unsustainable Social Security, which should be abolished, Medicare and Medicaid, and a smattering of other programs are draining the national coffers. Overtaxation and increasing the level of debt to pay for them is destroying our ability to innovate and grow the economy.

Why? Because every dollar the government takes in the form of taxation is a dollar that was not spent on productive use in the economy. Or, as Ferguson describes it in The Great Degeneration, a shrinking number of worker bees are being harassed by non-worker bees to pay for the social programs that other, lazier non-worker bees demand.

It’s an unsustainable system that breeds resentment on part of the taxpaying class against the welfare-receiving class. Who wouldn’t get mad at the fact that hours upon hours of their days at work were spent not on making money for themselves, but on earning money for the many moochers of society? That’s why books like Atlas Shrugged and The Free Market Revolution are so popular among the working classes.

And, the government’s roll in trying to cure society’s ills means that no one feels the need to participate in the many institutions that once made this nation great.

Alexis de Tocqueville, who in his book Democracy in America wrote about everything from impeachment to Congress bribing voters to the American diet, saw and understood how crucial clubs and private societies were to American life. Unfortunately, the era of Big Government means that we’ve forgotten that just as we’ve forgotten that the government is like a wolf.

To support his argument in The Great Degeneration, Ferguson pulls from some of my favorite books. In the first few pages alone, The Wealth of Nations and Murray’s The Bell Curve are both cited. Had Ferguson read The Libertarian Reader first, he might have had even more great defenses of capitalism and small government to draw from.

In any case, I thought the number of influential works that Ferguson used to support his argument made it quite strong. We’re losing our institutions, as a result, we’re losing our national identity and ability to grow the economy.

The loss of institutions is manifested in many ways in society. Two particular ones that come to mind are the opioid crisis, described in Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opioid Epidemic and illegal immigration (which is brought up in The Great Degeneration). If our governing and private institutions remained intact, those problems would be manageable. But because of the decline of institutions, they are not. That should fill everyone with a sense of foreboding.

If we want to avoid future problems that might be even worse than those, we need to rebuild our institutions. Otherwise, problems will spiral into crises that could destroy the nation.


The war between East and West described in 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople never ended. It’s still ongoing. We need to keep that in mind as we progress through the next years and try to deal with the problems described in The Great Degeneration.

China’s economic growth has allowed it to embark on an ambitious military buildup, which is a huge problem for the US due to it’s new Cold War with China. Similarly, India’s economic growth, described in The Billionaire Raj, could pose challenges for the US.

So, we need to find ways to grow the economy. Deregulation and tax cuts help but aren’t the only piece of the puzzle. The other pieces relate to civil society- we need to relearn how to nurture institutions that preserve the American spirit.

Rather than men like Comey, Brennan, or Strozk in the intelligence apparatuses of our government, we need patriots. Rather than bureaucrats promising more entitlements, we need churches and private charity. Rather than government debt, we need private-sector innovation and growth.

Reading The Great Degeneration is crucial to learning how to make that happen.

By: Gen Z Conservative