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 the top down, and the institutions to maintain a civil service at a higher level of literacy than the populace.
But information technology has changed the game of both corporate and political governance completely. Now everyone can express views in writing and exchange them at will on the internet. There is no real differential between agents of government and ordinary people; on the contrary, social networking sites such as Facebook enable unprecedented amounts of self-organisation—like the 30-year class reunion that has just taken place at my old secondary school, flushing out a dozen long-lost pals.
The world, in other words, has left behind the old top-down command structure. In its place has arisen a host of interlocking and overlapping networks. The positive “externalities” created by the mere existence of these networks can hardly be overstated. It is not that I buy the theory of the wisdom of crowds: people in the aggregate can and do make horrendous mistakes. It’s more that networks allow information to flow to where it is needed, making all kinds of markets work better. They may be prone to violent mood swings. But so, in case you hadn’t noticed, are rulers. And while markets may occasionally throw millions of people out of work, they tend not to murder them and toss them into mass graves.
So my answer to the question of what I would do if I ruled the world is quite easy. I would use my power for a period of, at most, a week, to stamp out traditional systems of rule and to replace outdated hierarchies with networks. I would begin by deposing all autocrats and giving their former subjects a simple constitution modelled on that of the United States. I would then round up all the “imperial CEOs” in the world economy—I would be tempted to start with Michael O’Leary of Ryanair—and pension the lot of them off, delegating their power to executive committees.
You may say that this would be recipe for anarchy. But no—because the rule of law is the one form of rule I would retain. (I might also retain football managers, because I really can’t see how else to discipline the teenage louts who play professional soccer.) And there would still be room for leadership—a very different thing from rule. The best thing about our networked world is that it greatly increases the chance that natural leaders will emerge, whatever the disadvantages of their birth. What else is Twitter but a Darwinian process for sorting the human race very efficiently into leaders and followers?
Now you may want to know what I would do if I led the world. But that is not what you asked. And the only binding rule in academic life is to answer the question set.