The Great Degeneration

The Great Degeneration

How Institutions Decay and Economies Die

Additional Formats
  • Ebook
  • ISBN 9781101608456
  • 192 Pages
  • Penguin Books
  • Adult


From renowned historian Niall Ferguson, a searching and provocative examination of the widespread institutional rot that threatens our collective future

What causes rich countries to lose their way? Symptoms of decline are all around us today: slowing growth, crushing debts, increasing inequality, aging populations, antisocial behavior. But what exactly has gone wrong? The answer, Niall Ferguson argues in The Great Degeneration, is that our institutions—the intricate frameworks within which a society can flourish or fail—are degenerating.

Representative government, the free market, the rule of law, and civil society—these are the four pillars of West European and North American societies. It was these institutions, rather than any geographical or climatic advantages, that set the West on the path to global dominance beginning around 1500. In our time, however, these institutions have deteriorated in disturbing ways. Our democracies have broken the contract between the generations by heaping IOUs on our children and grandchildren. Our markets are hindered by overcomplex regulations that debilitate the political and economic processes they were created to support; the rule of law has become the rule of lawyers. And civil society has degenerated into uncivil society, where we lazily expect all of our problems to be solved by the state.

It is institutional degeneration, in other words, that lies behind economic stagnation and the geopolitical decline that comes with it. With characteristic verve and historical insight, Ferguson analyzes not only the causes of this stagnation but also its profound consequences.

The Great Degeneration is an incisive indictment of an era of negligence and complacency. While the Arab world struggles to adopt democracy and China struggles to move from economic liberalization to the rule of law, our society is squandering the institutional inheritance of centuries. To arrest the breakdown of our civilization, Ferguson warns, will take heroic leadership and radical reform.


“[Ferguson’s] intellectual virtuosity is refreshing. ’The Great Degeneration’ won’t be popular in the Obama White House or other centers of power. Jeremiah wasn’t popular with the elders of Judea either. They tossed him in jail for his sedition. They had reason later to be sorry.”—The Wall Street Journal

“Brilliantly written, full of wit and virtuosity, stuffed with memorable lines and gorgeous bits of information. A great read.”—The Times (London) (on Civilization)

“A dazzling history of Western ideas … epic..”—The Economist

“This is sharp. It feels urgent. Ferguson… twists his knife with great literary brio.”—Andrew Marr (on Civilization)

“A masterpiece … fascinating facts burst like fireworks on every page.”—Sunday Times

“Brings history alive for the reader with a dazzling knowledge … peerless.”—Independent on Sunday
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