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ICYMI: Public Intellectual Niall Ferguson Tells a Princeton Audience How a Country Can Lose Its Way

Niall Ferguson - Speaking at Princeton
Thought Leader: Niall Ferguson
February 8, 2024

Princeton, NJ – An antiquated classroom in Guyot Hall on the Princeton University campus was at near capacity – filled largely with community attendees — for Niall Ferguson’s February 6 lecture entitled “Liberty in a Cold Climate.” The event was sponsored by the University’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions,

The debonair Ferguson is a member of a dying breed, the public intellectual.  Born in 1964, Ferguson is a Scottish-American historian who is a senior fellow at both Stanford’s Hoover Institution and at the Belfer Center of Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. He writes and lectures on international, economic, and financial history and other topics. In 2004, Ferguson was one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. He has written and presented numerous television documentary series, including “The Ascent of Money,” which won an International Emmy Award for Best Documentary in 2009.

In his wide-ranging, engaging presentation, Ferguson endorsed and recommended the philosophy of an earlier Scottish Ferguson, Adam Ferguson, born in 1723, who was a historian and philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment. That movement asserted the importance of human reason combined with a rejection of any authority that could not be justified by reason. In Scotland, the Enlightenment was also characterized by the values of improvement, zeal, virtue, and practical benefit for the individual and society as a whole.

Niall Ferguson said that there is widespread agreement that liberal democracy is in crisis both in the U.S. and abroad as most liberal democracies are not prepared for the challenges of a new cold war against undemocratic opponents. He continued that liberal democracy had produced governments that operated with the consent of the governed and which in so doing ensured fairness and equality. He added that this ordered system is now threatened by crushing national debt, bad regulation, and the failure of the rule of law. He continued that “rule of law” lawyers now grow fat on litigation opposing over-regulation.

As an example of America’s failure to follow the rule of law, Ferguson said that the current open border policy is a disaster and would cause many problems. For example, some states could allow undocumented residents to vote. He added that America needs immigrants, but not in the current uncontrolled way. Both he and his wife, he said, became legal immigrants through a time-consuming and costly process. Ferguson’s wife, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, is a Somali-born, Dutch-American writer, women’s rights activist, and former politician.

Ferguson vividly described the factors that caused countries to lose their way.  He said that we live in an era of negligence and complacency and to change this trajectory would require heroic leadership and radical reform. For example, the U.S. spends more in interest on the national debt than on the Defense Department budget. Expanding on the concept of leadership, Ferguson said leaders are never praised for averting a crisis, and so prefer to do nothing and hope that the crisis disappears on its own.

As an example of a forceful leader, Ferguson cited former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the subject of Ferguson’s book “Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist,” in which Kissinger is quoted as saying “America could not just throw its weight around, but had to stand for something else.” Later Kissinger told his friend Nelson Rockefeller, “Our strength is principle, not manipulativeness.   Our historical role is to identify ourselves with the ideals and deepest dreams of mankind.”

In conclusion, Ferguson noted that some baby boomer U.S. Presidents had not served in the military, mentioning Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden, which impacted their decision-making.  He noted optimistically, however, that this may change as some current political leaders are military veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. That could, he opined, have a positive effect on their decision-making.

The next James Madison event will be on Wednesday, February 14, at 4:30 p.m., a film screening and discussion of “Free Exercise: America’s Story of Religious Liberty.” The event is in Maeder Hall Auditorium 002, in the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, at the corner of Olden and Prospect avenues. The speakers include Mark Movsesian, professor of contract law and director of the Center for Law and Religion, St. John’s University; Richard Brookhiser, senior editor, the National Review; and Robert P. George, professor of jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program at Princeton.

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