In the first part of my review I explained some of my initial misgivings about Niall Ferguson’s new book, in particular confusion over his historiography and content focus.  In this review I’d like to discuss some of what I like about this book, and there is some good stuff here.  My interest in the material perked up considerably during chapter 4 on human networks.  Here, Ferguson begins with yet another list providing his summary of what he views as the six major findings of modern network science. (Humility he does not lack, dear reader)  The list seems a bit random, but he’s raising a fundamental tension in the topic he’s addressing.  We live in an interconnected world that is profoundly vulnerable to pandemics like the one we just faced.  Our global and interconnected world is well suited to allow infectious diseases to spread rapidly.

And yet that interconnection is one of the reasons we have developed resilience by increasing global wealth.  Just this summer (June 21st), an earthquake struck Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in the world with one of the least developed infrastructures.  Tragically, and yet unsurprisingly, the death toll was staggering – more than a 1,000 people perished.  Such an outcome would be unthinkable in the developed world.  We are actively trading off resilience for vulnerability to future pandemics.  And yet, restrictions placed on international movement and international trade or burdensome government rules that undermine our wealth generation will be unlikely to prepare us for future plagues.  If we try to pursue risk abatement by closing those networks we are likely to make ourselves vulnerable to larger losses when disaster strikes.

Ferguson does a very nice job reviewing some of the factors that can lead to suboptimal governance and leadership during crises.  Here his tendency to range widely across disciplines, events, and time paints a compelling picture of how individual choices during critical moments can avoid or exacerbate catastrophic outcomes.  For example, he discusses various droughts and famines that have struck different regions of the world including Bengal in the 1770’s, the Irish potato famine, the widespread death under Stalin and Mao in the USSR and China, respectively, to the devastating famine in Ethiopia in 1984.  In each, with dictatorial political leadership, the death rate was staggering.  When compared to the 1920’s and 30’s drought that struck the United States, which is obviously democratic and market-oriented, few died, and while the displacement and political upheaval was significant, hardly revolutionary or deadly.

The next chapter on the little remembered Asian Flu pandemic of 1957 (yes that actually happened) is perhaps the book’s strongest and certainly the most provocative.  Interestingly, the mortality rate of COVID appears to fall closer to that of the Asian flu than the much more deadly Spanish flu to which it is regularly compared. 

COVID is somewhat more deadly than the Asian flu, but not nearly as deadly as the Spanish flu was.  Interestingly though, unlike COVID, the Asian flu struck the young and the old most seriously.  From our perspective today, this should have led to school closures and lockdowns, but then President Eisenhower did not pursue those strategies.  Instead, based partially on his experience in the military during the Spanish flu and the remarkably quick development of a vaccine, no part of the country ever shutdown.  Eisenhower managed the crisis with a hands-off approach and while he did take an electoral beating in the 1958 midterm elections, the political consequences were minimal.  Ferguson also has a very nice bit at the end of the chapter about how risk aversion seems to have increased dramatically since the 1950’s.  That five-and-a-half page part of the book alone is well worth reading.  It’s also well worth reflecting in a world where we seem obsessed with mitigating risks to children – reasonably so – that we continue to assess trade-offs so poorly.  As a transition to my third post, consider that while we kept kids masked at schools long after we knew the risks from COVID were minimal, we did not fully grasp the academic, social and developmental consequences of these policies.  The choices we made may well turn out to be horrendous, particularly in the developing world where many schools have been effectively closed for almost two years with little capacity for online learning.  But Ferguson largely overlooks this, because the manner in which he wrote the book made it impossible.  More on that in my final post.


G. Patrick Lynch is a Senior Fellow at Liberty Fund, Inc.