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

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

 

Its a combination of both, says Ferguson

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

In a first for humankind, China successfully sprouts a seed on the Moon

China's Chang'e 4 biosphere experiment marks a first for humankind.

Image source: CNSA
Surprising Science
  • China's Chang'e 4 lunar lander touched down on the far side of the moon on January 3.
  • In addition to a lunar rover, the lander carried a biosphere experiment that contains five sets of plants and some insects.
  • The experiment is designed to test how astronauts might someday grow plants in space to sustain long-term settlements.
Keep reading Show less

10 science photos that made history and changed minds

These photos of scientific heroes and accomplishments inspire awe and curiosity.

Surprising Science
  • Science has given humanity an incalculable boost over the recent centuries, changing our lives in ways both awe-inspiring and humbling.
  • Fortunately, photography, a scientific feat in and of itself, has recorded some of the most important events, people and discoveries in science, allowing us unprecedented insight and expanding our view of the world.
  • Here are some of the most important scientific photos of history:
Keep reading Show less

Love in a time of migrants: on rethinking arranged marriages

Arranged marriages and Western romantic practices have more in common than we might think.

Culture & Religion

In his book In Praise of Love (2009), the French communist philosopher Alain Badiou attacks the notion of 'risk-free love', which he sees written in the commercial language of dating services that promise their customers 'love, without falling in love'.

Keep reading Show less