Was Dave Weigel Fair with Niall Ferguson?

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ABC News has picked up on the John McCain-Niall Ferguson connection, long after "Hawkeye" Dave Weigel did here and in an entry on Andrew Sullivan's website. Dave called Ferguson a "brilliant financial historian turned foaming-at-the-mouth national greatness conservative," and went on to observe that McCain, in particular, was "a class-A neoconservative and more hawkish than Bush. A president with Niall Ferguson on his shoulder is a president who'll stretch our military even thinner across the globe."

I beg to differ with Dave, if very belatedly. As an economic historian, Ferguson is more aware than most that "stretching the military even thinner around the globe" could bring financial calamity. Forgive my quoting myself here, but as I wrote in a Reason review of Ferguson's Colossus,

Ferguson ends his book with an intriguing hypothesis: that America's decline will come not from outside but "as it came to Gibbon's Rome, from within." He argues the empire is more likely to collapse because of a ballooning fiscal crisis nourished by the American propensity to consume much and save little than because of motley "barbarians at the gates." The U.S., he warns, faces an impending Social Security crisis because Americans are living longer and the fiscal system remains entirely inadequate to pay for future generations. The self-defeating ways to deal with this, he continues, are to engage in massive increases in income and payroll taxes, to slash Social Security benefits by equally dramatic amounts, or to cut discretionary spending to zero.

That's not to say that Ferguson is not for an American empire, but he's aware of how spending a lot of money can bring empires to their knees. His argument is not normative or ideological: what he essentially argues is that an American empire already exists (a view that jars with that of the neoconservatives, who do not generally subscribe to the "imperial America" argument), therefore that it had better act like a successful one, or the international system will suffer from U.S. incompetence. His criticism of the conduct of the Iraq war is very much in line with this rationale. The left doesn't care for Ferguson because he leans their way in admitting there is an imperial America, but undermines their views by saying that the U.S. can be a cornerstone of international stability. The American right is uneasy, because they have trouble accepting the implications of America's taking on an imperial burden.

I find that Ferguson's argument is convincing inasmuch as, like many a libertarian, I agree with his reading of imperial American power, but also appreciate the deft way he works himself out of the dilemmas implicit in the arguments of the left and right, as described above.

(Since disclaimers are necessary when agreeing with anybody, I must add that I consider Ferguson a friend, if not a sufficiently close one: I recall that he graciously sent me the first piece I edited for the Daily Star's opinion page, for a pittance, and was a delightful drinking partner one evening in Beirut. I can add more, but won't.)

NEXT: What's in a Name?

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  1. Rather than Gibbon, I would recommend John Julius Norwich’s three volume history of the Eastern Roman Empire. What comes out of that book is not that Rome spent itself to death, but that the Byzantines just lost their optimism and faith in their system and were replaced by the new more self confident Muslim and Ottoman empires.

    I don’t think for a moment social security will end the U.S. a world power. If anything will do that, it will be out continuing habit of self-loathing and liberal guilt. When barbaric enemies murder thousands of Americans and the best response a significant portion of the society is to say “what did we do to inspire so much hatred” there is reason to fear for the future.

  2. This is an absolutely useless post. (“I can add more, but won’t.” What’d you do, Michael — make out with him?) Could someone PLEASE tell me why Reason runs Michael Young’s pro-empire crap?

  3. “When barbaric enemies murder thousands of Americans and the best response a significant portion of the society is to say “what did we do to inspire so much hatred” there is reason to fear for the future.”

    If a substantial portion of the population wants to be introspective about causes for attacks on us, that’s a feature not a bug. As long as a broader perspective is kept by the entire population, that’s what a marketplace of ideas in a liberal society does.

    It’s not about “will” or “will” alone (as in “self-confident”), but about being informed, using intelligence, avoiding collectivist/statist thinking, and acting within one’s realistic means. When barbarians attack and our protectors pull our forces OUT OF the area where the barbarians are located in order to attack an unrelated country, with no significant ties to those barbarians, and by incompetence thereafter to empower Iran’s allies in that country, then we can really fear for the future.

    On another subject: Rome didnt fall because of Social Security, but because a military state kept taking more and more of a share of the wealth, and sought continued conquest, instead of a government protecting an order of free trade and openness.

    Finally: what is Michael Young talking about? Neoconservatives, many of them, are comfortable with the term empire, usually preceded by “liberal” or some such.

  4. “Rome didn?t fall because of Social Security, but because a military state kept taking more and more of a share of the wealth, and sought continued conquest, instead of a government protecting an order of free trade and openness.”

    Bullshit. Rome didn’t conquer much of anything after about the second century AD. To the extent that it took money for the military it was to defend borders against other aggressive empires and for ambitious generals to fight civil wars over the throne.

  5. a, I hope that Michael Young continues to write for Reason, which I hope does not become some sort of intolerant echo-chamber for peacenik isolationists.

  6. I agree, Johnathan. I think Reason should also run more pieces in favor of higher income taxes, the Drug War, socialized medicine, and censorship. Wouldn’t want to be intolerant, y’know.

  7. Well, if nothing else Ferguson deserves credit for reminding us that the collapse of any civilization is a complicated issue and entails much more than illegal aliens or porn on the internet.

  8. The empire didn’t jiust spend itself to death, it mortally weakend itself fighting countless, and VERY bloody, civil wars.

  9. As of 1984, there were at least 210 different theories on the fall of Rome… we’re not going to settle this argument here. (For those interested in the subject, Michael Grant wrote a compact study summarising the major theories.) And I might add that any theory advanced has to explain why the West fell but the East survived another thousand-plus years…

  10. As of 1984, there were at least 210 different theories on the fall of Rome… we’re not going to settle this argument here. (For those interested in the subject, Michael Grant wrote a compact study summarising the major theories.) And I might add that any theory advanced has to explain why the West fell but the East survived another thousand years…

  11. “I agree, Johnathan. I think Reason should also run more pieces in favor of higher income taxes, the Drug War, socialized medicine, and censorship. Wouldn’t want to be intolerant, y’know.”

    Now don’t be a doofus, a. No libertarian worthy of the name would support any of those things. On foreign and defence policy, though, it is by no means clear whether the idea of pre-emptively hitting regimes deemed to pose a serious danger should be ruled out on principle.

    I personally think that the Bush pre-emption doctrine has suffered a grievous blow from the mess in Iraq, and I think containment/deterrence is the usual default position of a libertarian, but not always. That is why I am glad Michael Young writes here to challenge opinions from the usual strict anti-interventionists types. If that gives you the vapours, too bad.

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