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Compelling argument to fix economy by returning to simpler times

The theme of British economic historian Niall Ferguson's newest work is deceptively simple: the institutions at the core of Western civilization have become over-complex, misdirected and stagnant, and our only hope to avoid economic and social decline is for citizens to step up and breathe life back into them.

This short book, based on a series of BBC lectures, is not calling on people to storm the Bastille. Quite the opposite.

The Tory populism of this occasional adviser to George W. Bush and John McCain harkens back to simpler times when government was smaller and communities took care of their own, when laws were applied sensibly, fairly and quickly, and capitalism pretty much regulated itself.

Over more than two decades and numerous books, Oxford-educated Ferguson has established his credentials as a scholar who, while intimately familiar with the finer points of international finance, could make the "dismal science" engaging. He has also gained a reputation as an academic provocateur though unconventional opinions on the First World War, the British Empire and the rise of modern Europe.

In 2011, he revealed the "full monty" of his political incorrectness by retelling the story of "civilization," focusing on the six "killer apps" the West had and the "Rest" didn't: competition, science, democracy, medicine, consumerism and the work ethic.

These, more than accidents of geography, resources or demographics, explain the historical success of Western Europe, Ferguson said. Today, the West no longer has a monopoly on these factors and, mired in financial and institutional complacency, is losing its pre-eminence to rising economic powers, most notably China.

Against this backdrop, despite embellishing his arguments with choice thoughts from political thinkers Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville and Walter Bagehot, The Great Degeneration seems rather thin and almost conventional. Except that Ferguson is not finished being a contrarian.

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