Who let the killer apps out?

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Niall Ferguson has had fun speculating why the West dominated the East, but is its end really nigh, asks Devangshu Datta

Prophecies Historian Niall Ferguson
Photos: Shailendra Pandey

THERE ARE many approaches and meta-approaches to historical analysis. Some academics are more concerned with narratives about what happened than developing theories of why. Others support varied political hypotheses by (sometimes selectively) citing facts. Classic historians concentrate on the pomp of empire and conflict, whereas subalterns examine the mundane. Perhaps, the most ambitious present an unabashedly personalised vision of the past, in abstracting broad generalisations about possible futures.

Of course, all historians attempt some explanations of why the past panned out as it did. Equally obviously, much of that is driven by 20-20 hindsight. But some focus on developing models that arguably have strong predictive value. If one might coin a term, this is “speculative history”. Not in the sense of being nonfactual. But it often stretches logic in creating frameworks that go far beyond retro-fits. In order for it to work, the thesis must be compelling and the writer must possess both intellectual courage and rigour. Along with the provocative Jared Diamond, Ferguson would be accounted among the pre-eminent modern practitioners of this art. Speculative history has a venerable tradition. Influential thinkers like Hobbes, Adam Smith, Fukuyama, Huntingdon and Marx have produced classics. Hitler too, in a warped way.

In Civilization, Ferguson examines the astonishing change in the global pecking order between the 15th century and today. Circa 1400, the great civilisations were mostly Eastern — the splendid empires of the Ottomans, the Chinese and the Indians. The West was far behind. Yet, by the 18th century, the West had become dominant in every sphere. It is also indisputable that the Eastern nations such as Japan, China that have caught up have only done so by adopting Western mores and norms.

Civilization : The west and the rest Niall Ferguson Allen Lane 432 pp; Rs 699

 

 

Why did this happen? His thesis is that the West developed six killer applications. They were ferociouslycompetitive, this drove science and technological advance in general. Western medical science in particular made massive advances. Along the way, democracycreated incentives for the populace at large and helped Western citizens develop both a strong work ethic and an ethos of consumerism.

Is it enough to explain so many centuries of dominance? Perhaps — one could find counter-examples and, indeed, Ferguson does. As always, he’s entertaining and presents his case with his trademark mix of entertaining writing, scholarship and rigour. Unusually for a serious academic presenting a serious thesis, it’s also a very personal, almost first-person narrative.

Ferguson also revisits two pet themes. One is “Chimerica” — the interplay, co-dependency and tensions between the two largest national economies. Then, there is his gloomy conviction that the West is losing its edge. He may be right. Or not. The future could pan out in multiple ways. But he’s certainly had fun writing this book and you’ll have fun reading it.

devangshu@gmail.com


Mr inflation and the Kafka economy

The government’s Chief Economic Adviser Kaushik Basu’s new book is a strong critique of free enterprise capitalism, says Paranjoy Guha Thakurta

An inflated view Basu’s groundwork
Photos: Shailendra Pandey

PROFESSOR KAUSHIK Basu has studied in and taught at some of the most prestigious educational institutions across the world before he became the Chief Economic Adviser to the government of India in the Ministry of Finance, in his latest avatar. His book, first published in 2010, seeks to explain to the lay reader and the professional economist why free enterprise capitalism does not always work wonders and is meant to be — to use the blurb — “an impassioned and sharply nuanced critique of mainstream economics”.

An important tenet of economic theory is that under particular conditions, self-interested behaviour by a large group of individuals would bring about social good as if orchestrated by an “invisible hand”, a phrase first used by 18th century Scottish social philosopher and political economist Adam Smith. Basu points out up front that what powerful people (including lobbyists, lawyers, politicians and journalists) who are overly enamoured by this tenet fail to recognise is that this textbook conceptualisation of a free market “does not and probably cannot exist in reality”.

Beyond the invisible hand: Groundwork for a new economics Kaushik Basu Penguin 292 pp; Rs 399

The academic is clear that while the free-market proposition is a “powerful intellectual achievement” and one holding “great aesthetic appeal”, there has been “rampant misuse” of Smith’s theory that, in turn, has distorted the way government policies have been crafted, views about globalisation structured and dissent dismissed. He hopes to provide a form to those who are unhappy about the impacts of globalisation and corporatisation on our planet. He attempts to articulate the views of those who disagree with the contention of traditional economics — that the current system of free-market capitalism is the only viable one and, in the process, ends up serving the interests of those who prosper from the system to the exclusion of others.

Basu points out how Smith’s proposition about the invisible hand has been taken out of context and “used as the cornerstone of free-market orthodoxy”, hampering our understanding of how the economies of nation-states function, why some succeed and others fail and on the role and nature of government intervention in economic life. Comparing the contorted view of Smith to the amoral vision of human endeavour depicted in the writings of German novelist Franz Kafka, Basu calls for collective action and highlights the need to not just pursue goals of “efficiency” but also create a society that is just and fair.

This reviewer found it particularly ironical that this book is published in India when the author, by his own admission, is being pilloried continuously as “Mr Inflation”, when his prognostications about the movement of the wholesale price index have gone awry and when the Central government (of which he is a part) is being justifiably attacked for its inability to control food prices which have widened the already-wide rich-poor divide.

paranjoy@gmail.com

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