It's impossible to ignore Niall Ferguson

Niall Ferguson, it is fair to say, is a one-man book factory. In fact, if the American economy cranked out goods as prolifically as Ferguson does histories, we might not be in half the fix we are in right now. But then Ferguson wouldn’t have nearly as much to write about. The onetime enfant terrible of the Oxbridge historical establishment, Ferguson specializes in finding fault with great powers, especially the way they mismanage their empires. Ferguson first came to notice a decade ago with “The Pity of War,” a revisionist tour de force arguing that Britain made a world-historical error by entering World War I (and thereby destroying its empire) when it should have simply waited out the swift German conquest of Europe and remained a superpower, with Europe the better for it. More recently the Scottish-born Ferguson, who now spends half the year teaching at Harvard and the other half at Oxford, has turned his attention to the prodigal young heir to the British imperial crown, the United States. In “The Cash Nexus” (2001) and “Colossus” (2004), he urged Americans to emerge from their self-denial and fulfill their obvious destiny as the next “liberal” empire spreading the light of democracy and Anglo-­Saxon legalism across the globe. “The greatest disappointment facing the world in the 21st century,” Ferguson concluded in “The Cash Nexus” (published in the opening months of the Bush presidency), is that “the leaders of the one state with the economic resources to make the world a better place lack the guts to do it.” Ferguson later supported the Iraq war as evidence that Washington had finally gotten up its courage, imperially speaking.

Whatever one thinks of his arguments, it’s impossible to ignore Niall Ferguson. He’s like the brightest kid in the debating club, the one who pulls all-nighters in the library and ferrets out facts no one thought to uncover. And in his latest book, “The Ascent of Money” — humbly subtitled “A Financial History of the World” — Ferguson takes us on an often enlightening and enjoyable spelunking tour through the underside of great events, a lesson in how the most successful great powers have always been underpinned by smart money. “The ascent of money has been essential to the ascent of man,” he writes, making a conscious reference to the BBC production he loved as a boy, Jacob Bronowski’s “Ascent of Man.” (In fact, like Ferguson’s three previous books, “Colossus,” “Empire” and “The War of the World,” “The Ascent of Money” was written as a companion to a TV documentary series.)...

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