In the first part of my review I explained some of my initial misconceptions about Niall Ferguson’s new book, particularly confusion over his historiography and content focus. In this review I want to discuss some of the things I like about this book and here are some of the good things. My interest in the material grew considerably during Chapter 4 on Human Networks. Here, Ferguson begins with another list, summarizing what he sees as six major discoveries in modern network science. (He’s not lacking in humility, dear reader) The list seems a bit random, but he’s raising a fundamental tension in what he’s talking about. We live in an interconnected world that is profoundly vulnerable to epidemics like the ones we just faced. Our global and interconnected world is ripe for the rapid spread of infectious diseases.
And yet that interconnectedness is one of the reasons we’ve built resilience by increasing global wealth. This summer (June 21st), an earthquake struck Afghanistan, one of the world’s poorest countries with underdeveloped infrastructure. Tragically, and yet surprisingly, the death toll was staggering – more than 1,000 people died. Such consequences would be unimaginable in the developed world. We are actively trading resilience for vulnerability to future pandemics. And yet, imposing restrictions on international movement and international trade or burdensome government regulations that undermine our wealth production are unlikely to prepare us for future plagues. If we try to reduce risk by shutting down those networks, we may expose ourselves to greater losses when disaster strikes.
Ferguson does an excellent job of reviewing some of the factors that can lead to optimal governance and leadership in times of crisis. Here his broad sweep of trends across disciplines, events, and time paints a compelling picture of how individual choices at critical moments can avoid or exacerbate catastrophic outcomes. For example, he discusses the various droughts and famines that hit parts of the world including Bengal in the 1770s, the Irish potato famine, the mass deaths in the USSR and China under Stalin and Mao, the devastating famine in Ethiopia. 1984. Death rates were staggering in each with autocratic political leadership. Compared to the droughts of the 1920s and 30s that hit the United States, which was ostensibly democratic and market-oriented, very few people died, and while displacement and political upheaval were significant, few were revolutionary or fatal.
The next chapter on the little-remembered Asian flu pandemic of 1957 (yes it actually happened) is perhaps the book’s strongest and certainly the most provocative. Interestingly, the death rate from Covid appears to be much higher than the Asian flu, which is much more deadly than the Spanish flu to which it is regularly compared.
Covid is slightly more lethal than the Asian flu, but not as deadly as the Spanish flu. Interestingly though, unlike Covid, the Asian flu hit young people And Most seriously out of date. From our perspective today, this should have led to school closings and lockdowns, but then-President Eisenhower did not pursue those tactics. Instead, based in part on his experience in the army during the Spanish flu and the remarkably rapid development of a vaccine, no part of the country was ever closed. Eisenhower handled the crisis with a hands-off approach, and while he suffered an electoral defeat in the 1958 midterm elections, the political consequences were minimal. There is a very nice bit at the end of Ferguson’s chapter about how risk aversion seems to have increased dramatically since the 1950s. That five and a half page section of the book alone is worth reading. It’s also apt to reflect that in a world where we seem so obsessed with reducing risk to children – justifiably so – we continue to assess the trade-offs so poorly. As a transition to my third post, consider that long after we knew the risk of Covid was minimal when we made kids wear masks in school, we didn’t fully appreciate the academic, social and developmental consequences of these policies. The choices we’ve made can be daunting, especially in the developing world where many schools with little capacity for online learning have been effectively closed for nearly two years. But Ferguson largely ignores this, because the way he writes the book makes it impossible. More on that in my final post.
G. Patrick Lynch is a Senior Fellow at Liberty Fund, Inc.