Scottish historian Niall Ferguson is one of the most interesting thinkers of our day...
A public intellectual is somebody who is best-known for an ability to transmit ideas effectively to the general public. Past examples include Voltaire, Bastiat, Bertrand Russell and John Maynard Keynes, and the modern Left can of course rely on Paul Krugman. After the death of Sir Roger Scruton, I see at least four public intellectuals in this sense steeped in the conservative-liberal political tradition: Two Americans, Judge Richard Posner and economist Thomas Sowell, the English biologist Matt Ridley and the Scottish historian Niall Ferguson, born respectively in 1930, 1939, 1958 and 1964. Ferguson has been a prolific writer, with his latest book being released just a month ago, Doom. It is on quite a current preoccupation, the politics of catastrophe. Time and again Ferguson has reminded us that the unexpected and unpleasant may happen. Indeed, at a luncheon in Reykjavik given by the Icelandic bank Kaupthing on 16 May 2007 I heard Ferguson explain why a new economic depression, in some ways similar to that of 1929, might be on its way. I then served on the Board of Overseers of the Central Bank of Iceland, and I must confess that I did not believe him. Neither did the bankers.
For the individual, death is certain. Science suggests that our species is also eventually doomed, although Ferguson rightly dismisses modern millenarians. What we have to fear, he submits, are large-scale disasters. There are more of them than we care to know. Two major pandemics, the Plague of Justinian (541–549 AD) and the Black Death (1346–1353), may each have claimed the lives of 30 per cent of the world’s population. The two world wars in the twentieth century were the deadliest ones ever fought, killing respectively 1 and 3 per cent of the world population. Mongol chief Genghis Khan was responsible for the murder of what was probably 10 per cent of the world population at the time. Again, recall volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, wildfires, floods, severe droughts, nuclear explosions, cyberattacks and economic depressions. However, Ferguson plausibly argues that a sharp distinction cannot be made between natural and man-made disasters. A hurricane only becomes a disaster if it hits and destroys a human habitat. An epidemic turns into a pandemic if it is spread by human networks.
The crucial question is whether disasters are predictable and perhaps to some extent avoidable or reparable. Ferguson agrees with Chicago economist Frank H. Knight about the fundamental difference between risk and uncertainty. A measurable uncertainty, or risk proper, ‘is so far different from an unmeasurable one that it is not in effect an uncertainty at all’. Ferguson demonstrates, in telling detail, how our many unconscious biasas make it difficult for us to cope with risk, let alone uncertainty. As the Danish wit once said: the only thing we can safely predict is the past. Even that is doubtful, because we may try to make sense of something which is really senseless. We sometimes seek to construct about the past a narrative which is solely based on hindsight. Ferguson observes: ‘History, broadly conceived, is the interaction of natural and man-made complexity. It would be very remarkable if this process resulted in predictable patterns.’
Ferguson makes an illuminating comparison between three kinds of disasters. A ‘gray rhino’ is something which is dangerous, obvious, and highly probable, such as cyberattacks and economic downturns. A ‘black swan’ is something which seems to us, on the basis of our limited experience, to be almost impossible, such as wildfires or earthquakes. A ‘dragon king’ is an event so extreme and vast in magnitude that it is statistically and mechanistically different from black swans, although equally surprising. Ferguson accepts the randomness, complexity and unpredictability of many situations. He remarks: ‘The history of disasters is a history of a poorly managed zoo full of gray rhinos, black swans, and dragon kings.’
One example of an avoidable disaster was the First World War, as Ferguson argued some time ago in his provocative Pity of War, now repeating and reinforcing the point in Doom. Perhaps a war between Germany and France was inevitable after France’s humiliation in 1871. But if the United Kingdom, with her Dominions, had not intervened in this continental conflict, the war would probably have been over in six months, with Germany and Austria-Hungary defeating France and Russia. After all, Serbia’s secret service had been responsible for the assassination in 1914 of the heir to the Habsburg Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife in Sarajevo. What would have emerged if the Anglo-Saxon powers (including the United States) had stayed out of the war, would have been a German-dominated federation of states on the European continent. But this is precisely what can be observed today—but it would have been brought about without the enormous human sacrifices dictated by Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler.
I would add that the invasion of Poland in 1939 was also a pretext for rather than a cause of the Second World War. The United Kingdom and France had simply (and rightly) reached the conclusion that Hitler had to be stopped. Winston Churchill had seen this earlier, as Ferguson recites: ‘There can never be friendship between the British democracy and the Nazi power, that power which spurns Christian ethics, which cheers its onward course by a barbarous paganism, which vaunts the spirit of aggression and conquest, which derives strength and perverted pleasure from persecution, and uses, as we have seen, the threat of murderous force.’ That Hitler’s invasion was more of an excuse than a reason can best be seen by the fact that the United Kingdom and France did not declare war on Stalin when he attacked Poland a fortnight later. A further irony is that a war to save Poland from Hitler’s totalitarianism ended in Poland being handed over to Stalin’s totalitarianism.
Ferguson writes with Olympic detachment like Adam Smith and Alexis de Tocqueville. He is always reasonable and almost never wrong, also very much like them. He displays exceptional erudition in his account and analysis of catastrophes, to which my brief note does little justice. His subject matter makes the book a somewhat difficult read, although the style is lucid and easy. ‘To each administration comes the disaster it is least prepared for and most deserves,’ is just one of his many pithy statements. Obviously the present pandemic is discussed at length in the book although it was sent to the printers late in 2020 whereas a lot has happened since then. Ferguson convincingly argues that a total lockdown was probably an overreaction to the spread of the Wuhan virus: the most sensible initial policies might have been to test vigorously for the virus, isolate the infected, and limit infections by masks, social distancing and other non-pharmaceutical means. Ferguson makes the further point with which I would also agree that the problem in the West was not so much erratic leadership as a bloated, inefficient bureaucracy, especially in the health sector. While both President Donald Trump in the United States and Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom may have been somewhat fumbling in the beginning, as Ferguson believes, they were right on target (unlike the leadership of the European Union) when they then focused on the development of vaccines against the coronavirus, as we now see.
It would be petty, in response to a work so thoroughly researched and detailed, to complain about the absence of certain topics. But one field where Ferguson could perhaps have applied his insights is the revolutionary process, the forces unleashed when small bands of zealots try to reconstruct society, tearing apart fragile social webs and creating political turmoil. It seems to me that both the French Revolution of 1789 and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 gained their own momenta which brought their instigators far from where they intended to go. Both revolutions were more than failures, though: they were disasters. The French Revolution ended in the Terror, succeeded by Napoleon’s military dictatorship, even if civil society could reassert itself in France during the nineteenth century, remaining however much weaker than in Anglo-Saxon countries. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia cost at least twenty million lives and seven decades of oppression, producing little but stagnation and poverty. As Romanian writer Panait Istrati asked early on: I can see the broken eggs, but where is the omelette?
These were certainly man-made disasters, but the results of human action rather than human design. It may not however take only a small band of zealots in power to transform a whole society. Orwell’s dystopia Nineteen Eighty-Four was about an end state: What about the process itself? Friedrich von Hayek, in the chapter on ‘Why the Worst Get on Top’ in The Road to Serfdom, briefly described a process by which a democracy could become totalitarian. Churchill liked his book, but confidently told Hayek: ‘This will never happen in Britain.’ Nevertheless, in the early 1960s Constantine Fitzgibbon wrote a remarkable novel about such a possible development in Britain, When the Kissing Had to Stop. More recently, Michel Houellebecq, in the novel Submission, mentioned by Ferguson, described how Islamists might take over France.
Perhaps my own little country Iceland could have been a topic in a book about doom. For one thousand years, from the original settlement beginning in 874, the inhabitants of this windswept, remote island in the North Atlantic struggled against one disaster after another, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, avalanches, floods, droughts, drift ice, cold spells, epidemics, and famines. As Julian Huxley once pointed out, the Icelanders truly lived on the margin of the habitable world. Whereas the Icelandic settlements in Greenland went under, the population of Iceland hovered around 50,000. Two epidemics, Black Death in 1402–1404 (fifty years after the rest of Europe) and Smallpox in 1707–1709, killed however between one-half and one-third of the population. The nadir of Icelandic history was reached in 1783–1784 when a huge volcanic eruption in Laki contaminated the air and the soil, killing livestock and destroying crops, subsequently leading to a famine in which one-fourth of the population starved to death. The impact was felt all over Europe, as Ferguson observes in his book. A subsequent earthquake destroyed many buildings. The Danes, ruling Iceland since 1380, seriously considered moving the few survivors to some other more hospitable parts of the realm.
However, sometimes a danger can be an opportunity. In the 1780s, the Icelandic landowning elite, including the two bishoprics, went bankrupt and therefore lost their political clout. They had long, in conjunction with the Danish Crown, suppressed the most productive sector of the economy, the fishery. A wave of what now would be called privatisation followed: ownership of most land was transferred from the bishoprics and the Danish Crown to individual farmers; fishing vessels belonging to the Crown were sold; the Danish trade monopoly was abolished. The reforms were guided by some disciples of Adam Smith in Denmark. It was a case where ideas conspired with circumstances, in John Stuart Mill’s happy phrase.
Slowly, but surely, Icelandic capitalism developed, with the fishery replacing agriculture as the most important sector of the economy and with Iceland’s many waterfalls and hot springs being harnessed to produce energy. No longer were the Icelanders totally helpless when confronting Nature. For example, in 1973, all the inhabitants of a fishing village were evacuated in a single night after a nearby volcano erupted. An enormous and largely successful effort was made to halt the lava flow by spraying sea water on it. Within a year, most residents had returned. Again, 2008 was the first year in Icelandic history when no fisherman drowned at sea whereas in early twentieth century the male population of many fishing villages had been decimated by vessels sinking in rough weather into what the Icelanders called the ‘wet grave’. It is true that in the same year, 2008, the international financial crisis hit Iceland hard, but because of the flexibility and social cohesion of this small society, greatly strengthened by comprehensive liberal reforms between 1991 and 2004, recovery was quick.
Nature still rumbles. As I write this, I can watch volcanic activity near Reykjavik (illustrated in the photo above). It had been preceded by a series of earthquakes which I could clearly feel at my office when the books and computers shook. At present, engineers are busy building barriers of dirt and rock to halt the possible advance of lava towards inhabited areas. However, the fact remains that Iceland escaped the scarcity trap after one thousand years. She is today one of the world’s most prosperous and peaceful countries. Her example may instil some hope in us. Disasters will strike again, but perhaps sometimes danger can be turned into opportunity, making destruction the prelude to rebirth.