Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Ascent of Money

Niall Ferguson. The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World. New York: The Penguin Press, 2008

Reviewed by T. Hatch

Rock star historian Niall Ferguson's latest effort concerns the subject of money as the root of all progress. It is money that has freed mankind from the Hobbesian brutishness of hunter gatherer societies and the drudgery of subsistence agriculture. “Though the line of financial history has a saw-tooth quality its trajectory is unquestionably upward.” Well, that's one reading of history!

Ferguson chronicles the rise of money, credit, the bond and stock markets, insurance, real estate, and the world of international finance. Despite nearly all of the evidence of human misery and catastrophe that he weaves into this page-turner of a narrative Ferguson is reduced to offering apologies such as “A world without money would be worse, much worse, than our present world.”

In concluding this tour de force (which is likely to be well received at the Council on Foreign Relations and the Cato Institute) Ferguson makes an explicitly social Darwinist argument in favor of modern capitalism. It is tempting to compare his view of economics to that of William Graham Sumner and the root-hog-or-die days of the Gilded Age but that would be unfair to the late professor Sumner insofar as Ferguson is much softer on imperialism.

Consistent with a recently made new year's resolution let me lavish encomia upon The Ascent of Money by saying that Thomas L. Friedman is not the author and the illustrations are first class.

On order for Burling Library

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