Niall Ferguson – Empire – Review

Niall Ferguson - Empire

Niall Ferguson argues that the British Empire was an overall good entity and today’s modern world needs another nation to step up and be a world leader.

In Niall Ferguson’s 2002 book Empire, Ferguson argues that while the British Empire had its faults, it was better for the people over whom it ruled and for the world as a whole. Ferguson suggests the world would do itself well to get itself another essentially “good” empire to maintain order today and he strongly indicates this should be the United States.

The Innovation of the British Empire

Ferguson brings forth many new ideas that arose due to the British Empire. The first was the modern notion of easily available public credit. This allowed governments to pay for very expensive endeavors. The British were the first to send both men and a large number of women to new colonies. Men like T. E. Lawrence prevented jihads and high-powered weapons gave them an advantage in fighting. Ferguson also points out successes such as capitalism and the internationalization of the English language.

Ferguson Ignores the Plight of Natives

Ferguson does not seem to give adequate attention to the cultures that were dominated by British imperialism. The Mughals of India are barely discussed and Qing Dynasty China gets even less attention. Ferguson rationalizes that these cultures and their leaders were no better than the British who came to rule over them.

Ferguson argues that, since the British were efficient governors, they can be excused for colonization. He contends that the British were so good at invisibly running their colonies that the natives might not have felt the psychological weight of being ruled from afar.

Thankful to the British Empire?

He also states that the reader should thank the British Empire for “the triumph of capitalism as the optimal system of economic organization” in the world; “the Anglicization of North America and Australia”; the “enduring influence of the Protestant version of Christianity”; and the worldwide adoption and ultimate “survival of parliamentary institutions, which far worse empires were poised to extinguish in the 1940s”; related to that, we should also credit Britain with promoting “the idea of liberty.”

Ferguson’s and the Problems of Imperialism

Ferguson seems to ignore many problems involved with imperialism. The main problem he ignores is financing. He does state that imperialism brought capitalism to much of the world but what kind of capitalism is he talking about?

His argument that the state created a public debt system seems to fly in the face of true capitalism. There was no true capitalism brought about by colonization. It was just one group of people using an army to gain control of an area of land and the people who lived on it from another group of people in order to mine the area for its wealth.

Also, this was funded the only way a state can fund anything, through taxation, borrowing, and inflation. All of this eventually caught up to Great Britain following World War II, when they could no longer afford their vast empire.


  1. Ferguson, Niall. Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power. London: Penguin Books, 2002.