Niall Ferguson: Is history driven by individuals, or larger forces?

Niall Ferguson is a Scottish-born historian, political commentator, and public intellectual. He is also the Lawrence Tisch Professor of History at Harvard.  Ferguson graduated from Magdalen College and studied for two years as a Hanseatic Scholar in Hamburg and Berlin. Before joining the Harvard faculty, Ferguson taught at Oxford University and New York University.

A prolific commentator on contemporary politics and economics—he came out in favor of the Iraq War in 2003—Ferguson is a contributing editor for the Financial Times and publishes regularly elsewhere in the British and American press. In 2004, Time magazine named him one of the world's hundred most influential people. Ferguson is the bestselling author of the popular histories The Pity of War: Explaining World War One, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, and The War of the World. Ferguson splits his time between the United Kingdom and the United States.

  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Question: Is history driven by individuals or by larger forces?

Niall Ferguson: Well the larger forces are in some measure the product of individual action, too. Naturally there are natural phenomena over which we have limited control. And most of history was shaped by the weather, because most of history consisted of agricultural societies trying to eke out a living with pretty poor technology.

Now I don’t tend to study that period. I’m a modernist concerned with the post industrial world. And in that world the role of the weather diminishes, though it still remains an important factor. And who knows? It may become more important as time goes on.

But allowing for those natural constraints under which all historical processes operate, the individual decisions never stop being taken. Everybody is making a decision every day, even if it’s a very humble decision. Do I plant tomorrow or wait a week? But the great forces that historians used to talk about when they tried to make deterministic arguments are just the net result of all the individual decisions collected together.

Adam Smith in “The Wealth of Nations” says that when everybody pursues his own self interest, there’s an invisible hand that operates which actually produces benign positive economic outcomes if people are left to decide freely. Now I don’t think the world is quite so simple, and I don’t believe that the free play of individual choice necessarily produces optimal outcomes. Still I think that’s a reasonable working assumption for decisions about economics.

Trouble is that people don’t live their lives just with some simple economic utility function trying to profit maximize. Often we make our individual decisions for quite batty reasons because, for example, we believe in the imminent end of the world. Or we believe in the attainable utopia that’s being promised to us by some secular prophet.

And then our individual decisions can really become quite dysfunctional and produce wars. And war is one of the things I like to study – the great disruptions that more or less account for most of the big changes in human history and society.

 

Recorded on: Oct 31 2008

 


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