Niall Ferguson on Civilization’s “Killer Apps”

Niall Ferguson on what he considers Western Civilization’s “Killer Apps:”

  • COMPETITION Western societies divided into competing factions, leading to progressive improvements.
  • THE SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTION Breakthroughs in mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology.
  • THE RULE OF LAW Representative government based on private-property rights and democratic elections.
  • MODERN MEDICINE 19th- and 20th-century advances in germ theory, antibiotics, and anesthesia.
  • THE CONSUMER SOCIETY Leaps in productivity combined with widespread demand for more, better, and cheaper goods.
  • THE WORK ETHIC Combination of intensive labor with higher savings rates, permitting sustained capital accumulation.
It is tough to argue with this list. All of his items contribute to the wealth, comfort and standard of living we currently enjoy .
Utilizing Occam’s principle, his list could be reduced to two items:
  • Competition
  • The Rule of Law
Free markets, free men and the rule of law are the critical applications for progress. The scientific revolution and its applied benefits, modern medicine and the consumer society arguably all are outcomes of these two. As such, I maintain that Competition, and The Rule of Law (especially well-defined property rights) are the primary killer apps. Ferguson’s other “apps” evolve from these two. It is impossible to conceive of them existing, at least in such sophisticated states, without the two primary ones.

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