Thursday, March 29, 2012

Niall Ferguson is Still Careless and Intellectually Lazy. Also, he's a Wanker


In the third chapter of Civilization for Me, But Not for Thee, Niall Campbell Douglas Elizabeth Ferguson addresses the relationship between property and liberty, with a sketchy comparison between (British) North America and Iberian South America. In North America, Ferg tells us, the "American dream" was, from an early date, "real estate plus [political] representation" (99), and for the most part migrants to the continent were able to achieve both. "Even the lowest of the low had the chance to get the first foot on the property ladder" (111), via land-grant clauses in indentured servants' contracts, local governmental institutions that secured property rights, and, after the American Revolution, through cheap land prices. (Secured through the subjugation or expulsion of the indigenous population, of course, but as we've noted before Niall doesn't particularly care about Indians.) Meanwhile, in Latin America, the "American dream" revolved around loot and martial glory, and the post-conquest elites were content to become the "idle rich" (113) while the Crown monopolized land ownership and the Indian, African, and mestizo populations stewed in poverty. Even after the 19th-century independence movement, economic inequality persisted, which destabilized the region's independent states: when populist insurgencies arose and demanded a more equitable distribution of property, landed elites backed dictators who were willing to protect their wealth.

There is one hole which a reader could immediately poke in Our Man Niall's argument: among migrants to North America, "the lowest of the low" were black slaves, who had access neither to real estate nor political representation for 250 years. However, to his (limited) credit, Ferguson has anticipated this argument, insofar as he devotes the second half of the chapter to a comparative study of slavery and racial ideology on both continents. Whereas slaves in British North America were property for life, with very few opportunities to obtain their freedom, and whereas their post-Civil War successors were subject to a century of violent racism and marginalization, Latin American slaves sometimes had opportunities to earn their freedom, or to move their children up a more flexible racial hierarchy through interracial liaisons. (The latter were more violent and exploitative than I indicate here, but Ferguson doesn't mention that fact either.)

In thus shouldering the White Historian's Burden, Ferg provides himself with a convenient excuse for continued inequality in the United States - "social problems" engendered by slavery and Jim Crow continue to "bedevil...many Afro-American communities" today (138). That these problems may be due to persistent institutional and economic factors - white racism, eroding tax bases, and the monopolization of land and capital by a plutocratic white elite - are unpleasant facts that Niall generally prefers not to confront. His solution to the problem of inequality in the 21st century is a classic conservative one: at the microeconomic level, hard work and access to credit; at the macroeconomic level, privatization of state assets and export-led growth, to which he attributes Brazil's recent economic boom (139). Brazil actually doesn't prove Ferg's point, since it had higher rates of annual per capita income growth during the statist 1960s and '70s (4.5% per annum versus 1.3% in the '90s), and since its recent growth is largely due to public investments in education, transportation, and alternative energy. Meanwhile, the microeconomic proposal of More Banks for Everyone, which Ferguson made in a previous book, seems ill-advised given the similarities between modern Western bankers and "loan sharks." (Ha-Joon Chang, 23 Things They Don't Tell You about Capitalism [Bloomsbury, 2010], 55; Niall Ferguson, The Ascent of Money [Penguin, 2008], iv.)

Still, in this chapter Ferguson expresses views about inequality and racism that would prevent him, if he were a natural-born American citizen, from winning the Republican nomination for president. I cannot imagine giving him any stronger praise.