Niall Ferguson is an internationally-renowned historian whose interests span from WWI to Henry Kissinger to the history of money. His most recent book, Doom—completed at the height of the COVID crisis—attempts to rethink the distinction between “man-made” and “natural” disasters. Ferguson examines the historical record from Vesuvius to viruses and concludes that societies are guilty of repeated misjudgments and delusions, but he avoids ascribing any immutable pattern to the unpredictable trajectory of disasters. He is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a senior faculty fellow of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard.
In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Niall Ferguson discuss the dangers of bureaucratization in disaster-management, debate populism and the threat from China, and examine the common threads linking catastrophes throughout history.
This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: You have just written a book about the different disasters and catastrophes that have afflicted us in human history. When you think of starvation in the ancient world, pestilence in the Middle Ages, and nuclear accidents in the 1980s, they seem like three completely different things. Are there any commonalities?
Niall Ferguson: I think there are and that's why I wrote the book, [from] the sense that one ought to be able to discuss the history of disaster as a whole and seek those common factors. I was partly inspired by Amartya Sen’s observation many years ago that famines were not natural disasters, but were in fact man-made. And I remember thinking, as I was writing this book, “Why would it only be true of famines?” Maybe we should think of all disasters as having this kind of political or human dimension. And then the little voice in my head said, “Oh, what about volcanoes, or earthquakes?” And then the other voice said, “But, you know, it takes human decisions to build a city at the root of a volcano or right on a fault line.” And we were very good at that. And then to rebuild the city when the disaster has happened, and wait for the next one. So I wanted to write a book. And the subtitle gives the game away about the politics of catastrophe. And to argue that all disasters, even if you call some natural and some man-made, have to have this human factor to translate into really significant numbers of deaths.
The other thing that disasters have in common is that you really, really can't predict them. And that means that they always feel surprising. Even if you've been telling yourself for decades, “oh, there's going to be a big pandemic”, when it actually happens, you feel blindsided, and that seemed like an important theme to tease out. And the third theme, which I'm quite proud of, was inspired by reading about a completely different kind of disaster from a pandemic, namely the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger—the idea that the point of failure in a disaster isn't necessarily at the top. Although it's very tempting to pin the blame on whoever's at the top, it was the fault of mid-level bureaucrats at NASA.
Mounk: One of the things I learned from your book was that the design flaw that led to this particular catastrophe had been known. And there were some attempts made to remedy it, but [there] was pressure to meet an arbitrary deadline, which led to Challenger being launched with that design flaw in place. What does that tell us about the broader sort of patterns of disaster? I assume that in order to count as a man-made rather than a natural disaster, there has to be some form of foreseeability.
Ferguson: Well, let me start with the Challenger and then maybe try to illustrate the broader point with the COVID pandemic. This all comes from Richard Feynman—his amazing book on the disaster. He was the physicist at Caltech that they called to be on the commission of inquiry, and he was a thoroughly disruptive influence on that commission. [He] wasn't having any of the Washington formalities and wandered around asking NASA engineers to tell him what they thought. And he found out that the engineers had known that there was a roughly 1-in-100 chance that [Challenger] would blow up because of leakages. And they knew exactly what the point of failure was; there was this thing called the “O-ring,” which was supposed to be a seal that stopped the fuel in the launching rockets [from] leaking in cold temperatures. It was ineffective and the fuel leaked. Feynman’s question was, “What was their motivation?” If you've got this great space program, you want to keep it going. The funding is coming from Congress, and if you tell them, there's a 1-in-100 chance of failure, that could be the end.
Bureaucracies don't necessarily do good risk assessment. They can give the impression of it but, in fact, deliver something that's completely dysfunctional. And I think the best illustration of this is COVID. Because on paper—and this is the shocking thing—the United States was the best-prepared country in the world for a pandemic. Number two [was] the United Kingdom. And I delved into these findings, and sure enough, on paper, there were elaborate pandemic preparedness plans. It's just that none of them worked. We have the illusion of preparedness for disasters that we have good reason to anticipate, though we don't know their exact timing. We have all this paperwork that says we're ready. But when it actually happens, it turns out that much of this was just ass-covering, rather than real preparation.
Mounk: And this is a particular problem of a bureaucratic approach which is relatively new and modern. I don't know exactly when you would date the beginning of it. But isn't that just the latest form that a deeper set of human attitudes take, which is that we're very good at putting danger and risk out of our mind?
Today, Naples is one of the biggest cities in Italy, [and it sits] right at the foot of the volcano. It seems like well before the bureaucratic age, you have a lot of these same patterns. So what is specific about this bureaucratic agent and what of it is just the latest expression of a sort of universal human tendency?
Ferguson: Part of the fun—and it was fun—of writing this book was to address the fundamental question of our relationship to death, not only our own individual death, but death generally. And I think it's true to say that we have got into a strange relationship with death, compared with previous generations. On the one side, we’re quite fascinated by the idea of the end of the world. We’re drawn to science fiction that deals with this subject. And so there's a great deal of human culture going all the way back to the earliest times which is preoccupied with the end time. It's there in the Book of Revelation, it's copied-and-pasted into Islam. So we clearly find this idea very, very interesting. We over-predict doom, we over-predict the end of the world, because—you may have noticed—that it hasn't happened, despite thousands of years of prophecy. At the same time, I think we found it harder and harder to deal with the reality of our own individual death. And with the fact that death happens, and it happens on a large scale in a very populous country. So most people don't really have a clear sense of what death is like these days.
The reason that I got interested in the point of failure being bureaucracy was that I had to answer a question: Why, with our much greater scientific knowledge, vastly greater scientific knowledge than they had in the Middle Ages, when they were dealing with the bubonic plague, why with that knowledge are we not doing better? That's an important sub-question that the book addresses.
Mounk: The most shocking finding of COVID, to me, it is not the ways in which the United States did better or worse than Germany, or Germany better or worse than Sweden—it is the utter failure of all three of those countries to do what we would have predicted they would be able to do: to put in place a test, trace, and isolate regime to actually contain the pandemic [and] to minimize the number of deaths. How much should we worry about our ability collectively to deal with catastrophes in the future? And what does it tell us—even beyond, for example, our ability to deal with climate change—about our collective social cohesion?
Ferguson: Well, I think you're right, that the striking thing is not that one Western country did slightly better than another. The striking thing is that they all did pretty badly. And it didn't really matter terribly much whether you had a populist leader or not. The news would be better, actually, if all democracies had screwed up. But what really reproaches us is the fact that some Asian democracies did really well in Taiwan, South Korea, and New Zealand. A democracy can perfectly well ramp up testing, do contact tracing, isolate people who are potentially infected and protect the people who are most vulnerable. On the other hand, the picture would be worse if the Western democracies had also screwed up vaccines. But as I was writing Doom, I still didn't have the phase three results from the vaccines. But I was kind of fairly confident just on the basis of historical patterns that the Western vaccines were way better than the Chinese ones.
In the end, the Western countries got the most important thing right. So I think the picture is at once worse and better than we think. And now Taiwan is grappling with an outbreak, because they actually vaccinated practically nobody, and we're ready for a more violent, more transmissible variant to get through their defenses. There were lots of people last year writing awful Op-Eds saying, “This shows that the Chinese system is much superior to our chaotic, democratic system.” And this was just nonsense, because the Chinese system was the reason the pandemic happened. They had the Chernobyl problem at the beginning: that everybody lied in ways that you wouldn't have had if the virus had originated in a Western country. You just wouldn't have been able to keep it quiet for weeks and weeks and weeks that there was human-to-human transmission. So I don't think it's right to say that what happened last year was some great advert for the Chinese model. Nor was it a terrible indictment of the American system. I mean, at times you cradled your head in your hands thinking, “How much more can they screw this up, and how many more idiotic things will Trump say?” [But] it's not unfamiliar for the US to start a crisis really badly and then, with amazing self-repairing, get much better.
Mounk: The really striking thing, if you want to put a positive spin on the last year or two, is that we've had tremendous suffering. There is a significant number of people who died because of human failure and bureaucratic failure. And yet, at a high enough level of abstraction, the human species has this remarkable resilience. And when you look at average life expectancy around the world, number of humans in the world, affluence of humans, [COVID] will likely be no more than a dip in some of the aggregate statistics.
Ferguson: The age-adjusted death rate basically went up in the US by about 16%. COVID was responsible for about 1-in-10 deaths. When you tell people how many people die in a normal year in the United States, they're kind of incredulous, because at some level, Americans don't really think death should be allowed. And they hold politicians responsible for it when it intrudes in their lives unexpectedly.
I think, though, that there's something interesting [that’s] going to happen, which is that the population growth that characterized the last couple of hundred years is coming to an end. And we're actually entering a period of population contraction in many countries, including the most populous country, China. And if one looks out to the rest of the century, it's already pretty clear that we're kind of peaking. And if pandemics are going to become more of a problem—because this interconnected world, in fact, is very pandemic-prone despite our scientific knowledge—maybe that decline in population will be just a little bit faster than the UN Standard Model currently projects. And maybe COVID will show up as part of that inflection point that I think was already there. [Future historians] may say, “Well, these Western countries had allowed their populations to get historically quite old. They weren't very good at keeping people healthy. They kept them alive, but they weren't very healthy, and often they were very overweight or they had other existing conditions.” It wasn't too surprising that a virus figured out a way of taking those people out in significant numbers. Let's not exaggerate: it's not like a really large proportion of people over 65 have died in the United States. It's really quite a small fraction, even of that age group, that has been killed. So I think part of the point of writing Doom was to get these orders of magnitude, so that we can get a handle on how big a disaster this really is and how it fits into the great scheme of human demographics and human history.
Mounk: I want to go from the grand sweep of human history to this political moment. We have spoken in the past about the importance and the role of a rise of authoritarian populism and how much of a threat it posed to democracy. How do you see this political moment with people like Narendra Modi in power in India and people like Erdogan having consolidated the rule in Turkey, but the waters looking admittedly a little calmer in Western Europe? Donald Trump having been ousted, in a free and fair election, from office in the United States. How would you describe this political moment?
Ferguson: Well, as you know, I was never one of those people who thought [America] was the Weimar Republic on the Potomac, and that the American Republic was in grave danger. I was not a Trump fan. But I thought that the Constitution had been quite carefully designed by the Founders in anticipation that someone like him would one day become president, and it worked according to the design. Separation of powers really constrained Trump; the courts constantly thwarted his more rash actions. He lost the midterm, and then he lost the election. That's how it's supposed to work. And even on January the 6th, that seemed as if some kind of a coup could be happening. On closer inspection, there was just this fiasco in which Trump, who never really thinks through the consequences of his actions, exhorted a mob. And there was a disastrous failure of policing at the Capitol. The people who went in there included some obviously fanatical far-righters, but most of them just seemed like clueless losers. So this definitely wasn't a Weimar moment. You and I know enough about the history of interwar Germany to know that if we took everybody back in a time machine, to 1930-33, it definitely wouldn't be like what we've been living through. I think we got a little overexcited—the intelligentsia, the commentariat—about how bad things were in the United States.
The rumors of the death of democracy were distinctly exaggerated. The populist problem is a real one. I don't want to dispute that the harm that was done is still being done by populist leaders. I don't know what percentage of the excess mortality we can attribute to Boris Johnson and Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, [and] Narendra Modi. Most of this excess mortality would have happened to whoever was president because it was a failure of the public health bureaucracy, as we were discussing earlier, and I think the populists made it worse at the margin, but it's hard for me to believe that they really were the reason for such large numbers of excess mortality. I’ll take the sanguine view that Bolsonaro is going to lose. Maybe Lula could be back. And I think Modi's going to run out of road.
The problem of populists is that unless they change the constitution—this is the Latin American method—they lose, because they can't ever really deliver. They always come in saying to their voters, “I'm going to do amazing things for you. You can have growth and jobs and it's going to be amazing.” And it never is because they always screw up, and Trump was entirely true-to-form in that respect. COVID just exposed him—to a significant number of Americans who previously voted for him—as an incompetent, and he lost. That's how it's supposed to work. But I think we have some problems nonetheless, in that there are some proper totalitarian regimes out there, one in particular, which is really going from strength to strength. And at the end of the book, I suggest that that's really quite a worrying thing that the more one looks closely at Xi Jinping’s China, the more it looks like he's resuscitating many of the traits of mid-20th century totalitarian regimes: the ideological insistence on Marxism-Leninism, and Xi Jinping thought, the concentration camps in Xinjiang, the crackdown in Hong Kong. It's not really the weaknesses of democracy that worry me so much as the pathologies of an old-fashioned, totalitarian, one-party state.
Mounk: If this pandemic has given us reason to worry that it will be hard for the United States to come together in the face of future catastrophes, like perhaps climate change, it may also make us worry that we will have real trouble coming together in the face of a serious authoritarian challenge from rising powers around the world. Do you think that the West more broadly will prove equal to the challenge from authoritarian regimes around the world?
Ferguson: One of the key points I make in Doom is that after pandemics, the worst disasters in human history have been wars. And the biggest wars, the world wars, were, in many ways, the results of misunderstandings, underestimates of the other side's intentions. Certainly that was true of 1914. In 1938-39, in the same way as in 1914, Britain had fundamentally failed to deter Germany from taking an enormous strategic risk. And these are events that we must never cease to study, because I do see a way in which the same thing can play out between the United States and China. The Chinese right now think that the US is decadent and degenerate and past its prime, and they've definitely become more self-confident in a way that almost reminds me of Germany. And so you end up with the kind of familiar pattern, where a small country that doesn't hugely signify turns out to be strategically of existential importance. It probably doesn't seem to Xi Jinping that the United States will go to war over Taiwan, which he's committed to bringing back within the fold of the CCP and ending as a functional democracy. But he might be wrong about that.
The probability of a Taiwan crisis is very high. And it could be as soon as next year after the Winter Olympics. Remember, Putin went into Ukraine to annex Crimea after the Winter Olympics. Does it produce a war? I don't know. Because I just don't know whether the Biden administration would do it, or whether they'd fold. So you could either have 1914 or something like 1939 or 1950. Or you could have the Suez Crisis [in which] the US could just fold. And then everybody has some sort of moment of realization that “Oh, China is in fact now number one, and we no longer need to regard the United States as preeminent in the Indo-Pacific.” I don't really like either scenario. I'd prefer to deter China from making that kind of move. But if we don't deter China, we're going to confront this awful choice of either war or capitulation. And that's the worst choice in international relations that you can face.
Mounk: You've studied World War I and its origins early in your career, and you thought about the long-run history of catastrophe. What do we need to change about our politics, about our society in the coming years?
Ferguson: In many ways, that's been the great question of my career, ever since I wrote The Pity of War back in the late 1990s. I think there are two things. The first is that if you are going to have a verbal or treaty commitment to a country, then you must make sure that you can back that up with credible military force. Otherwise, it's a kind of terrible option. If your bluff is called, you have to execute the option before you're militarily capable of doing it, which is exactly what happened to Britain in 1914 and again in 1939. And I think the US could make that mistake, especially if the Biden administration continues to talk-the-talk of what amounts to Cold War II without really walking-the-walk.
And this brings me to my second point: the next war is never the war that you imagine. I think this next war will have a very, very significant cyber component to it. I think climate change is a relatively medium to long-term disaster, and it's a very important one, but we devote far too much of our time and energy to that one disaster scenario and not enough to things that can happen much more quickly. If there were a US-China showdown, I think the Russians and the Chinese together would launch a massive cyber attack, and they could shut this country down. We're so dependent on this technology now in every domain—from supply chains to just what you and I are doing—that I think the United States would be in a total and utter shambles pretty quickly if that were done even half successfully, and even if it were only for a week. I worry a lot about that. It seems to me like that will make 9/11 look like a walk in the park. And we probably have a preparedness plan for this cyberattack, and it's probably about as good as the pandemic preparedness plan. History points again and again to the danger of preparing for the last war, not the next one.
Mounk: You've been thinking very hard for the last year about the history of humanity and about our difficulty in confronting death. What's the lesson that you personally have taken away from this work? What do you think our listeners should take away, to equip them better for a world of danger, of human catastrophe?
Ferguson: I think the most important takeaway for me is just how crucial freedom of thought and freedom of speech and freedom of publication are to the kinds of thinking and action that are necessary to prevent disaster. And what troubles me a lot at the moment is that the places where we ought to be doing that kind of thinking—universities—are less and less congenial places for free thought, free speech, and free publication. I came to the conclusion that the biggest danger maybe of all is a world that descends into totalitarianism not because China invades and conquers, but because we opt for totalitarianism and we opt for surveillance, we opt for censorship, we opt for denunciation, we opt for informing on people. So I end the book by saying, beware a creeping totalitarianism from within, from below, [and] without. Without that no-holds-barred debate, we'll almost certainly screw up much more than if we're able to speak our minds.
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