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.
Question: What inspires you?
Niall Ferguson: Part of what inspires me is a desperate desire to understand the world better so that we don’t blow it up. I mean it sounds rather simplistic, but I start from the insight that most versions of the way the world works that are highly schematized of the sort that one encounters in the social and political sciences are wrong. They don’t capture anything like the complexity of the historical process. They’re often actually deeply misleading.
Like the democratic peace theory – the theory that if all powers were democratic, there would be no war because democracies don’t make war. There’s an enormous literature on this and most of it is rubbish. It comes in no way close to describing the world.
A great deal of what is written about the economic process is very good applied mathematics that simply doesn’t describe this world. It describes another imaginary world of perfect information, and liquidity, and a whole range of assumptions that don’t pertain.
So my initial insight is this world is highly complicated. It works in very strange ways. There are all kinds of nonlinearities which are all captured by the simplifying models that social scientists posit. If we can understand the world better and get a little closer to seeing how uncertain and complex its workings are, then we may stand a chance of avoiding the kinds of disaster that characterize the 20th century.
I have studied 20th century disasters. It’s been one of my major interests. I wrote about the German hyperinflation. I wrote a book about the First World War. Then I wrote a book about the Second World War. I’m engaged in writing through my biography of Kissinger a book about the Cold War, and that’s a lot of manmade death due to organized lethal violence.
And if you can work out why, say, between 180 and 200 million people died violent deaths in the 20th century-- That shouldn’t have happened because the 20th century was supposed to be a century of unparallel economic scientific progress. And it was. And yet it was also a century in which horrendous violence occurred, and that violence emanated from some of the most sophisticated societies. Figuring out why that happened seems like a pretty important undertaking, though I certainly wouldn’t put it up there with finding a cure for cancer.
But it’s what I do, and my hope is that each time I write a book, I’ve at least added some small amount to our understanding of what went wrong.
The other thing that motivates me is an interest in the things that work. Because I’m an economic historian first and foremost, and particularly a financial historian, I’m fascinated by the extraordinary success of capitalism as a way of organizing economic activity. I’m especially fascinated in the way that financial systems have arisen in certain places at certain times, and the benefits that they have conferred in the sense that through a good financial system, you get resources better allocated than in the absence of one. So another part of what I do is to try to understand that better, because when we’re not fighting wars, we’re usually caught up in the extraordinary ups and downs of financial markets, and processes like globalization that are not new. We talk about them as if they’re new. They’re actually quite old. They go back to at least 1700.
So these are the things that get me out of the bed in the morning. I just want to understand that stuff better – why the wars, why the stock market bubbles and busts – in the hope that a historical approach to these problems will actually yield better insights than some of the other approaches that people take.
Niall Ferguson: I’m constantly struck by the levels of historical ignorance that I encounter. In rooms full of very well-paid financial professionals, nobody appears to have read any of the major works of...