So I read Niall Ferguson's small book The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die (Penguin Press, 2013). It's a theme I am familiar with from Mancur Olsen's The Rise and Decline of Nations (1984), with Ferguson adding three decades of new data and events to the argument. Two quick reactions to this rather depressing book.
First, I wonder if the argument extends to the degeneration over time of religious institutions as well as economic, political, and cultural institutions? Do churches become encrusted with traditions, procedures, doctrines, and self-interested (rather than institution-interested) maneuvering? Become, in a sense, less and less relevant to the next generation, whether within or outside of that religion or denomination? Sounds like an alternative, even naturalistic, Great Apostasy narrative.
Second, I like the way that Ferguson, a historian, links each part of his four-pronged argument (essentially that the West is in decline) to a contemporary historical figure, a careful observer who wrote about developments that now, with hindsight, seem so obvious and so relevant. Here is how Ferguson summarized each part of his argument, a fair summary of the book as a whole.
1. Breaking the generational contract.
I have represented the crisis of public debt, the single biggest problem facing Western politics, as a symptom of the betrayal of future generations: a breach of Edmund Burke's social contract between the present and the future.
2. The over-regulated economy.
I have suggested that the attempt to use complex regulation to avert future financial crises is based on a profound misunderstanding of the way the market economy works: a misunderstanding into which Walter Bagehot never fell.
3. Rule of law.
I have warned that the rule of law, so crucial to the operation of both democracy and capitalism, is in danger of degenerating into the rule of lawyers: a danger Charles Dickens well knew.Well, in the chapter he focused more on the advantages of the common law system to continental systems and the utility of inexpensive mechanisms for assigning property rights and enforcing contracts. The problem is that using formal process to adjudicate disputes has become too time consuming and too expensive. It's not just lawyers that are the problem, it's the system.
And, finally, I have proposed that our once vibrant civil society is in a state of decay, not so much because of technology, but because of the excessive pretensions of the state: a threat Tocqueville presciently warned Europeans and Americans against.
Christianity is going strong in Korean and the Philippines, in South America and Africa. But not at all in Europe and increasingly not in North America. Ever browsed the religion bookshelf at your local bookstore? A few books on Christianity but lots on spirituality, New Age stuff, and Buddhism. Modifying his subtitle, is this a reflection of how (Western) churches decay and (Western) religion is dying? And is the process reversible?