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 ever-increasing tax cuts under all circumstances).

Originally published at Fabius Maximus and reproduced here with the author’s permission.