Niall Ferguson: Civilization- Is the West History? Channel 4 Property

I was a bit disappointed with the episode on science last week, but this one was back on form.  There isn’t as much to say this time.  He looked at the histories of North and South America after colonisation by Europeans.  The Spanish seized all the land, enslaved the inhabitants and created a society where a small number of people owned nearly everything.  The natives were left without economic and political rights.  They remain poor to this day.

In North America by contrast the land was granted to a much larger group of people, and with land came the right to vote.  The United States was to become the world’s first property owning democracy.  It did very well out of it.  The fate of the native North Americans was not mentioned.  They obviously did not get to participate very much in either the property or the democracy.  African Americans were also excluded from the democracy bit.  Their role in the property side of the equation was to actually be property.

So, swings and roundabouts then.

Niall Ferguson was pretty clear though, that for all of its faults the American system of wide property ownership was the basis of the economic success of the United States.  The racism and genocide were flaws, but not ones that materially affected the rise to world dominance.

What I liked about this programme was the deft way small scale details were woven into the big picture.  We heard a few individual stories, a few tableaux from the history of the two continents and then the overall analysis supplied in plain language direct from Ferguson himself.  It was skilfully done and kept your attention for the full hour. He also has got hold of a good camera crew because the visuals are great.

But you do lose out a lot by this approach.  The historical narrative is simplified considerably.  I think French and Portuguese viewers would be surprised that their contribution to the development of America did not even get a mention.  And I am not sure that slavery in the South was really just a bit of an aberration with no economic effect in the long run. And as for property rights being key to American success, this was stated as a fact rather than made as a case.  Its an argument that is pretty well accepted, but it could have been developed a bit more in a series whose stated aim is to explain the power wielded by the West.

Well worth watching, but well worth thinking about afterwards as well.



Niall Ferguson Civilization Is the West History Episode 1 Competition

Niall Ferguson Civilization Is the West History episode on science

3 Comments

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3 Responses to Niall Ferguson: Civilization- Is the West History? Channel 4 Property

  1. Calvus

    “The racism and genocide were flaws, but not ones that materially affected the rise to world dominance.”

    L, as the kids say, OL.

  2. I have never seen the issue of the utter fundamental importance of land tenure systems explained so clearly. This comes after a century of economists telling us that land was no longer important in economics.

    The truth as I understand it is that land and natural resources in the US have become highly concentrated in ownership in the hands of a tiny percentage of people. The implication that might occur to many people after listening to Ferguson is that the people of America are being marginalized and impoverished in the same way that their Latin brothers and sister have always been.

    The really interesting thing about the economics of land is that the value of land and natural resources is created wholly and only by the community of all people and not by individual “owners” no matter what they do on the the land. This of course makes income from ownership of land wholly unearned in the same sense that income from ownership of slaves was wholly unearned. In both cases someone else other than the person/corporation collecting the vlaue created it.

  3. Exactly so Wendell. I am still looking for a good book that covers these issues a bit more clearly, can you recommend any?

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