Ruling is an anachronism—it made sense in the 17th century, but not now. If I were in charge I’d stamp out rulers altogetherby Niall Ferguson / April 20, 2011 / Leave a comment
You don’t become an academic to rule the world—especially not an academic historian. What always attracted me to universities was their very weak structure of authority. Unlike my schoolteachers, my tutors at Oxford had no means of disciplining me other than by occasionally emitting weary sighs of disapproval. I, in turn, have rarely if ever sought to coerce my students. The best learning springs from mutual respect and shared enthusiasm, not from professorial diktat.
No, I never wanted to rule anything. While my university contemporaries rose to command soldiers in battle, direct actors on stage or hurl expletives at underlings on the trading floor, I eschewed power.
Thus far, all attempts to make me chair a university department have, thank God, ended in failure. I have set up a company or two, but none possess anything remotely resembling a command structure. Even as a father, as I think my children would confirm, I have generally spared not only the rod but also the harsh word. There was a period when I was a dog owner, but I never felt entirely comfortable with all that whistling and whacking. Dogs want to be ruled. They love it. But ruling is just not my scene.
I used to think this megalophobia was a sign of weakness on my part. Now, however, I begin to think it may be a strength.
You see, ruling is really rather an anachronism. In the 17th century, certainly, it made sense to say—as Thomas Hobbes did in Leviathan—that “during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in a war… of every man against every man.” Hobbes’s awe-inspiring, omnipotent sovereign seemed indispensable in an England far more violent than our own. The ideal of the all-powerful ruler had quite a career in the centuries that followed. He cropped up in the 18th century as an enlightened absolutist. In the 19th century he was recast as the patriarchal industrialist. The 20th century was the zenith of rulership: an age of uniformed dictators who aspired to rule not merely men’s actions but also their minds.
The act of ruling relies on a chain of command, where the ruler sits in his palace issuing orders to officials who must be willing and able to turn orders into actions. This works best when there are two things: the technology to transmit written orders from…