Why We Study History with Niall Ferguson on Conversations with Tyler Podcast with Tyler Cowen

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Key Takeaways

  • People are haunted by doomsday scenarios because they’re seared in their subconscious by religion
  • “We’ve created a whole bunch of technologies that have actually increased the probability rather than reduced the probability of an extinction-level event.” – Niall Ferguson
  • Humans are interested in history’s implications, in the light that it sheds on their own predicament
  • Naill likes Michael Burleigh’s The Third Reich: A New History because it emphasizes Hitler’s messianic political-religious side and explains his terrifying star quality
  • “The redeeming feature of Keynes’s life is the heroic effort he made to keep Britain from going under in World War II – he had to fight to prevent Roosevelt and his advisers dismantling the British Empire in 1945.” – Niall Ferguson
  • Naill’s view is that the benefits of the British Empire outweighed the costs and believes it was a benign empire compared with other available empires
  • The great defect of British investment in India was that there was a serious shortfall in investment in basic education
  • Doctor Who was Niall’s favorite science fictional character because he was the only superhero who used his brain, not his muscles

Intro

Niall Ferguson – is the author of sixteen books, including his latest, Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe. He is an award-making filmmaker and won an international Emmy for his PBS series The Ascent of Money.

The Persuasive Case for British Pessimism

  • Marx’s vision of the Industrial Revolution was inspired by the British Isles and the Industrial Revolution because the English are obsessed with class
  • Das Kapital is a prophetic work about England and about the route of the Industrial Revolution and class society
  • “I can’t think of any more influential pessimistic view of history than Marx’s and it was hatched in England.” – Niall Ferguson
  • The modern bureaucratic state is a German or Prussian idea

James Bond – A Scottish Prophet of Doom

  • Connery’s Bond had a big influence on Niall in that Britain was “second fiddle” to the United States during the Cold War, but Bond had something that the Americans weren’t so good at then– intelligence
  • “Doctor Who was my favorite science fictional character when I was a boy. Doctor Who’s the only superhero who uses his brain, not his muscles. All American superheroes are bodybuilders. Doctor Who doesn’t have a muscle in his body. I think that’s the point of both of those characters — that you’re trying to compensate for your dwindling economic muscle with superior brains.”- Niall Ferguson
  • Niall says that the plot twists are relevant to our own time because the people who are the villains are not direct employees of the Soviet Union, of the Russians but semi-freelancing organized criminals – waging cyber-warfare
  • Criminal gangs who are semi-officially working with the Kremlin are already a major threat to our political and economic stability

Modernity’s Epistemic Crisis 

  • People are haunted by doomsday scenarios because they’re seared in their subconscious by religion
  • “We’ve created a whole bunch of technologies that have actually increased the probability rather than reduced the probability of an extinction-level event.” – Niall Ferguson
  • The epistemic problem is that these scenarios are a low probability – but there are more likely scenarios that lie between them
  • “We spend too much time thinking about the quite unlikely scenarios of the end of the world through climate change or some other calamity – I think we’ll end up with something that’s rather more mundane, and perhaps a relief if we’re really serious about the end of the world” – Niall Ferguson

If You Had Been Alive At The Time and the Glorious Revolution Were Going On, Which Side Would You Have Been Rooting For?

  • Niall would have been a Whig because he’s from the Protestant Lowlands of Scotland
  • He likes to read Walter Scott because he explains Scotland’s extraordinary historical trajectory – violent warring clans in the mountainous north and a group of extreme Calvinist zealots in the Lowlands, overall “a barbarous place”
  • Then in the course of the 18th century, Scotland became the cradle of the Enlightenment, in a short space of time with a small number of people in Glasgow and Edinburgh

The Most Profound Philosopher of History

  • R. G. Collingwood because he was a part-time archaeologist, part-time philosopher of history
  • Collingwood stated that the historical act is essentially one of reconstitution of past thought
  • People juxtapose that past thought with their own thoughts, the thought of their own time in order to be informed by it
  • Humans are interested in history’s implications, in the light that it sheds on their own predicament

Where Do You Think A.J.P. Taylor’s Second World War  Went Wrong When It Described Hitler As A Bumbler?

  • Taylor’s method  adhered to the diplomatic documents of the time with the conclusion that Hitler was just a traditional German statesman and the war was a kind of accident mainly due to misunderstandings
  • “I think Taylor knowingly underplayed Hitler’s ideological motivations because he was pursuing that contrarian argument and had the material to pull it off. But he ignored the diabolical and ultimately catastrophic impulses that were Hitler’s primary motivations.” – Niall Ferguson
  • On the other hand, Michael Burleigh’s The Third Reich: A New History, emphasizes Hitler’s messianic political-religious side
  • It captures the political-religious quality of national socialism, the sense that some national redemption is taking place, that Hitler is the redeemer
  • Michael Burleigh explains that Hitler has this terrifying star quality that led Germans into the abyss again

The Future of Northern Ireland

  • “I don’t think they really are that many people north or south of the Irish border who want to go back to the bad old days.” – Niall Ferguson
  • Naill says that history shows a “shape-shifting” quality to the United Kingdom
  • It’s only been the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for about a hundred years – before that, Ireland was united
  • As a historian, Naill says Scotland had a “great deal” out of the Union—entirely to the advantage of people to be a part of a greater political unit

Niall on John Maynard Keynes

  • “The redeeming feature of Keynes’s life I think is the heroic effort he made to keep Britain from going under in World War II – he had to fight to prevent Roosevelt and his advisers dismantling the British Empire there and then, which they were in a strong enough position to do. It took a lot of intellectual effort to keep Britain in the game in 1945.” – Niall Ferguson
  • But Keynes was also an adviser to the Weimar government during the Versailles peace negotiations after World War I and right through to the complete collapse of their currency
  • Niall doesn’t think Keynes gave the Germans good advice and notes that when the whole thing ended in catastrophe in 1923, Keynes distanced himself from it

What View Do You Hold That Makes You So Much Less Anti-Victorian than The Woke Of Today?

  • Naill’s view is that the benefits of the British Empire outweighed the costs and believes it was a benign empire compared with other available empires
  • “This is a deeply unfashionable view. It has made me a hate figure for the academic left because, in the last 20 years, it has become mandatory to regard imperialism as an unmitigated evil, to dismiss economic cost-benefit arguments, to ignore counterfactual rigor, and just to engage in a massive act of condescension to the past” – Niall Ferguson
  • He believes that his book, Empire couldn’t be published today because it would encounter all kinds of pushback 
  • The basic argument of Empire is that the British empire became in the 19th century became an empire of liberalism, of free trade, of free migration, of free capital movement and turned away from slavery before others did
  • The great defect of British investment in India was that there was a really serious shortfall in investment in basic education
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Notes By EWerbitsky

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