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Niall Ferguson: Reith Lecture pt.3 - The Landscape of the Law

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Richard Fenton-Smith 09:03, Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Editor's note: In the Reith Lecture this week, Niall Ferguson talked about The Landscape of the Law. The programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - PMcD

niall ferguson


"Some score members of the... bar... are mistily engaged in one of ten thousand stages of an endless cause, tripping one another up on slippery precedents, groping knee-deep in technicalities, running their goat-hair and horsehair warded heads against walls of words and making a pretence of equity with serious faces, as players might..."
- Charles Dickens, Bleak House

Lawyers were something of a fascination for Charles Dickens, appearing in around a dozen of his novels.

From the sharp-dealing Dodson and Fogg featured in The Pickwick Papers to the down-right lazy Mortimer Lightwood in Our Mutual Friend - The Old Curiosity Shop's Sampson Brass was "one of the greatest scoundrels unhung". Dickens, it seemed, was not particularly enamoured with the legal profession.

Still, the evolutionary, organic nature of the English common law system, we are led to believe, is one to be envied - emulated even, especially for its economic effectiveness.

After evolving over centuries, it's still working, so must be good, right?

But how justified this claim to superiority over other systems really is, is the key theme of Niall Ferguson's third Reith Lecture.

"Like the human hive of politics, or the hunting grounds of the market economy, the legal landscape is an integral part of the institutional setting in which we live our lives," says Prof Ferguson.

But as the American economist and social scientist Mancur Olson argued, over time, all political systems are likely to succumb to sclerosis - mainly because of rent-seeking activities by organised interest groups.

Prof Ferguson says, in the case of the law, the biggest self-interest group is arguably the legal profession - especially in the USA, once the benchmark for justice, where the rule of law has become the rule of lawyers.

But there other signs indicating the decline of the English common law system, says Niall Ferguson:

  • The erosion of civil liberties by the national security state - something which is not exclusive to the post 9/11 world.
  • The intrusion of European law, in particular the incorporation of the 1953 Convention on Human Rights - "Napoleon's revenge," says Ferguson.
  • The increased complexity and sloppiness of statute law, as a result of a mania for elaborate regulation among the political class.
  • The increasing cost - to both citizens and the business world.

Reform to a system which Prof Ferguson says is on the decline is hard to imagine when, as he claims, there is so much other rot - among the legislature, the regulators, as well as the legal system.

"Ultimately, the change must come from outside the realm of public institutions," he says - "It must come from the associations of civil society. It must come from us: the citizens."

And that is the subject of Niall Ferguson's fourth and final Reith Lecture, Civil and Uncivil Societies, which you can hear on Radio 4 next Tuesday at 0900.

Listen to Niall Ferguson's Reith Lectures

Download Niall Ferguson's 2012 Reith Lectures

Follow Radio 4 on Twitter and Facebook


Niall Ferguson's third lecture, The Landscape of the Law, will be repeated on Radio 4 on Saturday, 7 July at 22:15 BST.

In his fourth and final lecture, titled Civil and Uncivil Societies, Niall Ferguson asks asks what constitutes a vibrant and independent civil society. This will broadcast on Radio 4 on Tuesday, 10 July at 09:00 BST.


  • Comment number 1.

    I have the transcript of the third lecture. What are the URLS for the other transcripts?

  • Comment number 2.

    Bingham's criteria for the rule of law include the requirement that ministers administer with integrity. Perhaps this should be considered a major problem in the USA, UK and France?

    The difference between "legalism" and "rule of law" should be emphasized. Culturally, the ad hoc of the shariia may be deemed to be more just than endless argumentation of the Yeshiva. Of course, in Anglo lands, ad hoc decisions are not generally thought to follow the rule of law.

    Those familiar with the "Pursuit of Happiness" statement by the Sons of Liberty in the Preamble to the US Constitution will recognise an implementation of Locke's view about commerce and liberty.

  • Comment number 3.

    Hello MadMaxtheProf9 - here are the links for Niall Ferguson's first two Reith Lectures:

    Lecture 1: The Human Hive: https://bbc.in/LAb8do
    Lecture 2: The Darwinian Economy: https://bbc.in/N9AhPs

  • Comment number 4.

    Perhaps from need to entertain, to engage current mind-sets, perhaps appease power, Professor Ferguson is atomising, spinning-out and re-weaving the story of our past, and so threatening to write the story of our future.

    The Human Hive, to survive, needs a foundation of trust. The Darwinian Economy, dependent on initiative, needs to 'select' enterprises rather than people, initiative free under the rule of conscience. In order that The Landscape of the Law should become and remain democratic, the focus of law, of legal action, of the profession of law, should be the protection not of 'rent-seeking' but of income-share equality.

    As made clear by Bob Diamond and the Treasury Sub-Committee in parliament yesterday, the best of intentions are undermined if we accept rule of our culture by Fear, Greed, 'self-interest' or 'firm-interest' or even 'customer-demand' above common interest.

    Let us hope that in his final lecture the professor addresses our culture of service to Mammon, a culture of Vulnerability to Rogues, of the crushing of conscience, of likely self-extinction. The latter phenomenon is NOT science fiction: cellular apoptosis is integral to embryological development, and as conscious beings we are as 'free' to destroy as to bequeath life to our children.

    We are right to be concerned about 'ancient liberties' and the 'mania for elaborate regulation', right to take alarm at the spiralling costs of 'competition' focussed on the extraction of fees rather than production of value, not least with respect to health and law but monstrously with respect to financial advice, taxation, social security, politics, industrial capacity and defence.

    Professor Ferguson's final title, Civil and Uncivil Societies, is intriguing. Our history is of the rise and fall of 'civilisations', but overall the rise of 'civil society' towards the 'civility' of democracy. The professor will, I am sure, not seek to categorise today's 'societies'.

    To know how far we are from 'civil' democracy, we need to share understanding - and faith - in 'the real concept': Rule of, for, by The Equal People'. If democracy means anything, beyond whatever any contented dictator or slave chooses it to mean, it means the rule of Equals, not just in slave-votes, in degree of access to whatever together we can make of life.

    The professor bids us look to ourselves for change, to (private) 'associations' rather than (public) 'institutions'. Without 'the institution of democracy', we may be bidden to 'go hang ourselves', to accept 'unequal austerity' and folly without end.

    What will 'uncivil' society make of Armed Forces disbandment, quite possibly the reverse of post-Cold-War wisdom.

    Our supposed super-powers may have incited as much as controlled: but their economic and military decline, in a world left without even knowledge of Equal Democracy, might easily see upsurge in local conflicts.

    Too many ruling elites have demonstrated functional inability to find 'use' for the time and energy of millions left 'unemployed'.

    As we think perhaps of beginning to rectify this situation, some 'use' will come to be recognised, from all perspectives, in the boosting of police and military numbers.

    I would commend the roll-out of a teaching programme, our young to be 'armed' with understanding of conditions of approach to full democracy.

    Our service-personnel could be made ambassadors for civil liberation, themselves progressively able to move on from military commitment. Professor Ferguson might make an excellent sergeant-major.

  • Comment number 5.

    “Democracy” and the “rule of law” are frequently conjoined in claims for regime change. Western representative democracy is often intended, but even that is variously implemented. Where the public can initiate or approve legislation, or recall public officials, there is evidence that direct democracy exists. In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez has provided for such popular control and has sought to devolve government functions to the local level. Yet, in the ideology of North America, Chavez is styled as “anti-democratic”.


    The “rule of law” should include an impartial judiciary. It also presumes that public officials act in good faith within their powers as defined by law. The laws, even if so applied, might be quite unjust. Thus, some claim that respect for “fundamental human rights” is part of the rule of law. Unfortunately, these rights are subject to wildly differing interpretations.


    In contrast to a codified body of law, one can have judges who decide a particular case according to principles. Such principles can be religious (shar’ia) or government policy (China). In which would the public have more confidence?


    The USA offers examples of legislation to serve special interests and ministers who are far from being impartial. For example, if one seeks a US definition of “terrorism”, the Congress has decided that one on a government payroll cannot commit terrorism, but that states can be “sponsors of terrorism”. Similarly, the funding of “unconvential warfare” is hedged about with legalistic evasions.**

    The public can discover these things only in a tardive and fogged manner, for the media in Anglo lands are controlled by moneyed interests, interests integral to the Anglo concept of “freedom and democracy”.


  • Comment number 6.

    I live in Edinburgh and would like to go to the lecture is this possible?

  • Comment number 7.

    Hello JP - unfortunately the lecture has already been recorded and broadcast.

  • Comment number 8.

    madmaxtheprof9 @5

    I like your reference to 'integrity', desire for self-respect in conduct with respect to others, desire to show the same good face to all, that face reflecting the same sun, moon and 'Laws of God', in all lands.

    The 'Laws of God', we trust, will comprehend mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, politics, even psychology and idle thought, no 'escape' but in discovery and heed, refinement and 'profit'. We may assume 'profit' in any recognition of the 'self-evident', the logically derived, or in any proof from scientific experiment. More tricky is the evaluation of 'truth' from loved ones, from 'authorities', perhaps especially from claimed 'revelation': questions of trust and faith and mental reservation.

    'Application' of even our physical laws requires heed of context. Unsurprisingly, laws that 'should work' for 'point presences', are deviated from in populations of molecules with different mass, size, shape, etc, and in different conditions of temperature and pressure. Similarly, the applicability of 'moral laws' is affected by states of mind, in the moment and in retrospect, experience to some extent conditioning perception, and reflection perhaps changing 'the lessons of experience'.

    For 'proof or faith' with respect to 'moral law', we can hope to see what to others might be accepted, irrespective of our own purposes, using imagination and logic to 'take' different positions, aggressively selfish, calculating, or egalitarian. All of us in a real sense 'unique', some may feel entirely 'alone', or even 'extra-special to God', tempted to find 'permission' to exert power over others. Most will develop affinity with others, directly, by thought, from study, perhaps first through 'stories' - in history, imagination and the more shareable of 'revelations'.

    All 'born ignorant', our views 'develop', and may in the light of experience be re-developed, with special difficulty though for the 1-3% said to be born with psycho-sociopathy. For those seeing and wishing fulfilment of the potential of democratic 'emergence', integration of the freedom of all in decision and activity, hopes and endeavours towards 'educated convergence', on the shareable with respect to morality and politics, are further complicated by 'the stories' of those, more than 1-3%, often in positions of great power, either incapable or rejecting of empathy.

    I wonder if the 'ad hoc' potential you ascribe to the shar'ia might resemble the 'justice in equity' stance of Lord Denning, his judgements often against abuse that sought to rely on 'the power of law'. Sadly, equity was trimmed in English Law in a dark moment, only a jury or an exceptionally inventive judge being currently in some cases able to avert 'the unconscionable'. More to the point here, the shar'ia, I believe, favours equity over interest: a 'revelation' that goes to the heart of democratic purpose, the sharing of 'equity' rather than division by 'usury'.

    The 'confidence' you would find, 'for the public', is surely above all in maintained equality of input to the making, re-making and application of law, possible only with maintained equality of individual power, of income-share, for all. As you relate, much is the potential for 'fogging' from 'moneyed interests': but these are not of the 'true heart of the Anglo' or any other conscience, merely those of the temporarily possessed, mainly unwitting Quislings of Mammon.

  • Comment number 9.

    "More to the point here, the shar'ia, I believe, favours equity over interest: a 'revelation' that goes to the heart of democratic purpose, the sharing of 'equity' rather than division by 'usury'..."

    This is, indeed, a key point.

  • Comment number 10.

    Would Professor Ferguson deign to enter the lists here?

  • Comment number 11.

    madmaxtheprof9 @10

    Britannica has Shari'ah or Sharia, "the path leading to the watering place"

    Any particular reason for Shar'ia?

    Other spellings presumed attempts to capture different pronunciations or conventions across 'the Muslim world' and wider: Sha'ria, Shariah, Shari'ah, Sha'ariah, Sari'ah, Shariat?

    Perhaps enlightenment will come in the fourth lecture, or in questions after.

    Sue Lawley might deliver the fifth talk, her determined civility and professional scepticism much appreciated.

  • Comment number 12.

    Starting from Lord Bingham's criteria for system design, Professor Ferguson fails to observe that the Lord Chief Justice is almost certainly addressing his advice to democratic law-makers. The 'first two criteria' should therefore have been: "Reflecting the Love of God" and "Reflecting the Love of Neighbour as Self".

    With direct logical relation, these 'greatest of criteria' can be expressed as "derived or approved by democratic processes, to be assured by general understanding of, and acceptance of, and defence of, the conditions of viable democracy".

    As noticed by Dworkin, to the extent that a rule of law can be said to exist, it will depend not only on the existence of legislation, but of "present commitment" in the community, to the "morality" and so the enforcement of "owned" laws. Pareto might stretch the reach of legitimation to any 'accepted' dictatorship, but for most, again, the implication is of need for democratic legitimacy.

    Having acknowledged 'ethical roots' but evaded their nature, the "leap" made to "economic consequences" is naturally precarious. Jane Austen is recruited, as in Old Harry's Game, to underline paradox. While the democratic state will exert its power to protect the agreed shareable freedoms of individuals, the language of Ferguson's envisioned state, that which the rule of law must "particularly" restrain, is the rapacity of "the grabbing hand".

    How we miss the good Lord Denning! "Respect Democracy and Do as you Please", he might have said. Equity held that a 'contract' could be written, spoken (and witnessed), or inferred (evidenced). Our dealings would be 'in the presence of God', paper and word much to be relied upon, but not in abuse, not for the evidentially 'unconscionable'. Back to the 'greatest criteria', to the foundations the professor may have overlooked. Time-consuming, irritating to power, but missed.

    Whereas for Professor Ferguson '"the problem is getting the (nebulous) state not to abuse its power", the problem for the democratic state would be how to handle the conduct of youth, of low intelligence, of psycho-sociopathy, of brain-damage, of 'toxic' or intoxicated states, of 'somehow chosen' mischief or malice either against individuals or against the state-as-such or against the democracy favoured at least by most adults.

    That there have been deep hypocrisies 'in past systems' is acknowledged, and the inconsistencies of the present are later freely conceded, but at the heart of the lecture there is an attempt to make the undoubted individual value and economic utility of home and premises as 'private', to be matters of dispute with the state rather than the state's gift to its creators and upholders.

    "In economics", in all of civilised life, the protection of life, liberty and property (fairly held, not against the rule of laws that are created, approved and reviewed in agreed democracy), will be vital as a "fundamental" whole.

  • Comment number 13.

    The purpose to which Professor Ferguson drives, is not explicitly democratic. He observes benefit in "evolution", taken as distinct from "imposition", but favours the path of "empiricism", avoiding any sudden perhaps fatal leap of theory, perhaps himself limiting vision to "the best of a bad lot". Confronted by what appear to be opposed principles, the unarguable legitimacy of tax avoidance within the law, and the open expression of opinion on avoidance that is apparently against what Dworkins has called our "background scheme of political morality", our professor sees the latter as another lapse into media "faux morality". The observer of evolution is become a participant, without a "philosophical" compass.

    Prior attention to 'the greatest criteria', to the conditions of democracy (as our likely informed choice amongst modes of government), would have guided to distinction between the 'personal' property of the individual, and the 'private' property of the enterprise, both properly to be protected by the rule of democratic law. Professor Ferguson follows 'what has been', thereby failing to discover or to value the impact of democratic priority on notions of 'ownership'.

    No individual, however clever, respected or democratically empowered, can in a democracy be either divorced from the economic reality that is our shared task to maintain and improve, or be possessed of material power for personal political ends beyond the means of other citizens. Breach of these 'conditions' will of course destroy the basis of trust, dictating conflict of interest and inevitably corruption, to the lethal and degrading detriment of very many if not all, history testifying.

    Failure to make explicit the aim of democracy may reflect a great variety of reasons, not least the rule of Fear & Greed that otherwise obtains. At a conscious level there is desire to 'get on with life as it is', to 'make the best of a short span', not to over-reach, to be content 'to hand-on the gift of life'. All very understandable: but history and projection suggest, tragically unwise.

    We really should 'think of the children'. Even if today we 'despair' of the ignorance, casual injustice and depths of inhumanity in our world, we can try to educate, to tell the story and give the future a chance.

    Meanwhile, all of us holding all institutions suspect, how are we to judge our own state, and any private associations, the morality of the property magnate or comic star, their 'earnings' or 'tax affairs', or their political donations, or the consequences for others, 'consigned to unemployment' or 'sent to die for democracy'?

    There will remain parts of the world where even the word, 'democracy', will be taken to mean threat from 'Bolsheviks' or from 'Western capital' or from a manipulated 'popular religion'. Even where there is a 'superficial civility', peace sustained by superfluity enough to pay-down unrest, not a few will take any 'threat to inequality' as inherently evil, their debts 'to God and Man' going no further than 'to win and to hold'. From history none can doubt the risks in 'talking peace', to be weighed in-the-moment against the daily toll and the inevitability of shared doom if appeasement of Mammon is 'too long' on-going.

    As ever, it is 'for the individual', in conscience and prudence, to decide. In the world proclaimed as 'free', we might at least invite our private associations prominently to endorse democracy, its nature and its advantages made clear, offering asymptotic approach to 'the best of all possible worlds' for all who would share goodwill for all.

    How else can we hope for law consistently to reflect the coherent will of The People, no more the worship of uncaring gods, of Fear and Greed?

  • Comment number 14.

    The idea that law serves capitalist economics is deeply rooted, but is ingrained ideology rather than a natural evolution.

    All journalists on the BBC's DATELINE LONDON today agreed that confidence in institutions has reached a low and that there is universal distrust.

    Is this also your perception?

    If so, this is the sort of climate that allows strong leaders with non-democratic solutions to emerge.

  • Comment number 15.

    All may be called natural, even mankind and economics.

    Within the constancies of 'law', all is change and at every level of analysis we see 'evolution', the history of emergence and of survivals, arguably at the biological level of analysis towards 'co-operation', at the human level towards 'civilisation'.

    Our ideas, the weighting of drives and concerns, are validated - selected - in long interaction, in history and lives, in stories half-fact and half-fiction. The history of political and economic relations is one of successive 'ingrained ideologies', with many variants at each level from tribal to proto-democratic.

    Good to know that distrust, perhaps awareness of need to devise a 'contractual' basis for 'rational trust', is allowed to be expressed amongst 'all journalists'. Self-doubt the first step to wisdom, courage required. It is regrettable that so much of the Earth's resources, so much of our 'oil-fired time', has been 'wasted', that we come to 'the real questions' only when foreseeable troubles are upon us.

    Such is now our 'power of error', we probably cannot for much longer afford to put-off the exercise of 'moral intelligence'. If what you describe as "strong leaders with non-democratic solutions", were to be heralds of something like 'Christ's Second Coming', then imposition of Equal Democracy would afford such an experience - of Heaven on Earth - as to put our choice of happy survival beyond question.

    My perception… six decades and counting… is that both trust and understanding are low, dangerously low. I once asked a regional meeting of boffins whether, others in society all agreed, any would object to Income-Share Equality. None would 'confess', but I was not long for that world. Clearly, we do need figures able to lead, with the trusted authority of such as Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, to explain and win agreement for the - sedulously derided - Brotherhood of Man, made real with universal equality of shares, man, woman and child.

    Such leadership is needed to make overwhelming the disapproval of such inane objection as today holds the stage. No particular disrespect to 'economics', but a quantum leap is needed, as likely from the shoulders of past heroes, Smith, Keynes and Galbraith, as from Keen or Stiglitz or Ferguson.

    If choice of Income-Share Equality IS that 'dictated' by our care for each other, and for the future, then any supposed 'problems' would be expected on examination to prove readily soluble. That is of course the case: but much work of 'correction' is ahead to enable self-help at all levels of enquiry.

    The 'strong non-democrats' are with us already. From their number, or from the ranks of the military or mafia, greater 'strong-men' might emerge, but only to finally sweep away all illusions of proto-democracy, to confront us with our choice, at the last ditch.

  • Comment number 16.

    As Ferguson suggests the real issue in the west is how does one tackle the predatory state and in doing so seek to unwind the symbiotic relationship that exists between it and powerful interest groups/rent seekers, whether they be lawyers, public servants, the BMA, artists, beneficiaries, regulators or bankers. Governments through law making, tax expenditures or directly through public spending have promoted these interests in return for votes and by and large against the wider interests of society and the economy. The message is clear; the west must change course; it must face up to these huge agency problems or walk the trail towards terminal decline. The only conceivable solution is a return to the principles of classic liberalism.

  • Comment number 17.

    fallingTP @16

    Good to have your take on "the wider interests of society", some company for the professor!

    All of us know 'something is wrong', of course. It is tempting to lash out, at 'God' for delay in the Second Coming, at flaws in 'human nature, and at any number of individuals and classes of individuals, themselves of course similarly 'aware'.

    The diagnosis is disputed, and of prescription it seems that 'nothing works', or at least that 'nothing has taken'. Our religions and philosophies, our sets of economic principles, all as if 'games' that not enough have wanted to play. If experience in other fields of discovery is relevant, we might expect 'the solution' to be elegantly inclusive, surprising and long almost 'known''.

    Whatever underlies, that we are 'not working well together', most will readily agree. There are such widely differing senses of priority.

    Some are more concerned by poverty and disease, ignorance and war, planetary degradation and human extinction. Others are genuinely frustrated by resistance to the 'natural rule' of Fear and Greed, believing 'the wider interests of society' only to be met by self-serving competition, resignation to caste, perhaps even trust in slavery.

    The frustration of our joint address of both 'external' and relationship problems, has in fact a common root, not any weakness in the Golden Rule, or Good Accounting, or Sensible Investment, but a simple confusion.

    Over the millennia, and in our own lives, realisation has come of great benefit to all from the sharing of liberty-in-restriction, living together under the rule of law, property being respected in our personal lives and our business lives. We would long ago have seen Heaven on Earth but for the naivety of the brave, the ragged disciples of Jesus, the encumbered Levellers, the disappointed Adam Smith.

    Smith, like Jesus, relied too much on independent development of 'moral sentiment', crushed of course by context and the simple confusion. Because the rule of law protects 'property'; because respect for property is key to the enjoyment of life and liberty, home and family; and because property is key to the growth of businesses, a fatal myth has been perpetrated upon us, that individual 'ownership' of firms is best, even vital, for initiative and enterprise, discovery and development, ambition and survival.

    The reality only now surfacing, is that 'ownership' (free use within the law) in social enterprise must belong to 'the firm' and not the founder or manager or workers. The reason is that if 'the firm' is owned by an individual or group, then it becomes 'legal'
    to 'take profits', perhaps to take the firm in anti-social directions, and certainly with income-inequality to undermine what by now 'should be' our (intelligent) choice of government, that is genuine (equal income-share) democracy.

    So, rather than the prescription of despair, enemies (in a sense truly) everywhere, I would suggest - against 'terminal decline' - consideration of the conditions of viable democracy, and the role of conflict-of-interest today dictated by inequality.

    Life without corruption.


  • Comment number 18.

    The final lecture is so dishonest that I feel it is disgraceful.

    The USA does indeed have many outstanding universities, both in the private AND PUBLIC sectors, a little fact that demolishes an important part of the professor's argument.

    The UK has many of the world's leading universities, despite the professor's sweeping comments about the "crisis" in this sector. Perhaps he should ask the many international students why they choose to come and study in this sector! And the UK's only private university (Buckingham) is very far from out-shining the many state-supported centres of excellence: far from it!

  • Comment number 19.

    What Prof Ferguson said about the education system is either short-sighted and misguided or completely in keeping with the trend among the right wing to denigrate British state schools and then to call for reform (read takeover by private businesses). It's the default position for Tories when speaking about public services. I do not believe for one moment that what Prof (soon, I'm sure, to be Lord) Ferguson is saying is for the benefit of the lower strata of British society. If he cared for working class people, and if he feels that the education system can lead the way to a more equal, just and tolerant society, he would be calling for the complete abolition of private schools.
    Thankfully one of his questioners pointed to the 'mixed evidence' of research on free schools and academies in other parts of the world, and indeed amongst academies in the south of England. Academies are preparing the way for the education system to enter the market place. I expect that there will be no benefit from academies in terms of results (allowing that the results themselves are manipulated by exam boards year on year) but that, within five to ten years, most schools in England will not only be academies but will be owned by multinational companies.
    Ferguson goes further than most. He calls for more private schools. He then claims this will help everyone. He seems here to be missing the very obvious point about how peer pressure can work in positive ways in schools. Go back to the towns in south east England that still have Grammars. Look at the neighbouring schools that are left with the lower achieving pupils.
    It is always interesting to hear a Professor display ignorance. We've seen it recently in the shape of David Starkey. And again in the disdain of Ferguson confronted by an audience of his peers and confronted with the failings of his reasoning
    So thank you to the questioners who made far more sense than the speaker.

  • Comment number 20.

    19. Ahh that explains why the UK is doing so well under he current state lead system. Now where was it in the OECD 2010 estimates of literacy and numeracy. that's right 20th out of 34. Real testament to quality.

  • Comment number 21.

    Professor Ferguson might not be amongst the most hard-pressed of tax-payers, but many will appreciate his efforts, and the work of the Lions, to clean his local beach in South Wales.

    The professor's parable highlights 'the beauty' of social inequality, as a 'divide and rule' strategy, the poor majority of tax-payers made perhaps especially grateful for 'tax-saving' avoidance of employment creation, their neighbours left on the dole.

    That said, it is 'our system' that fouled the beach, and left it fouled, and it is for us to consider what element(s) of the local, national or global 'system' might be responsible, doing our best not to reduce the question to 'which of the two caricature systems', Right or Left, might most be to blame.

    Some, perhaps even most, will have difficulty setting aside the caricatures: the world through funny glasses does look funny, and reciprocation in funny behaviour does to an extent legitimise. Despite his goading, Professor Ferguson sees and uses well what many will acknowledge as a social priority for all of us, that of education.

    It is conceded that 'through the state' we have been brought to near universal literacy and some numeracy; but many with means still send their children to the private sector, often for 'established academic quality', but also for choice of ethos, special training, social connection or disconnection, and supposed responsiveness to changing needs and opportunities.

    There are no, repeat no, controlled experiments in this field, and the Hawthorn effect - from attention and enthusiasts - is well to be born in mind. 'Any system' might 'work', with a reasonable balance of discipline and encouragement, backed up by reasonable parents, with reasonable prospects of 'benefit' from 'success'. Though circumstance might dictate, and resilience win-through, it would be folly to assume 'one size or shape fits all', or that even for the majority we can settle upon' final compromises' in academic balance, or between social and economic aspects of scale.

    What 'The Left' perhaps non-reflexively is 'inclined to denounce' with respect to the offer of 'a thousand flowers', is inequality of access, unfair transfer of funding, and supposed 'unfair' futures. To which our professor might reply, "Let them have Academies", under the wing of a neighbouring 'good school': vouchers, bursaries and scholarships can be looked-to for those with special needs.

    Eventually, it might be envisaged, most will be 'middle class', in good jobs, with time to give to civil associations, all free to patronise the educational market as they see fit, hardly noticing that a new stratum of school has sprung up for those with very special needs (how to cope with inherited power at the 1% or rather 0.000001% level), and that the 'more entitled class' is growing and growing 'hungry'.

    We could of course settle straightaway for universal choice, liberating parents and teachers in a market made safe as well as 'interesting', by agreed equality of income-shares for all. As a bonus we would be allowing ourselves democracy, the rule of conscience, and survival.

  • Comment number 22.

    My response to this year's final lecture was one of hearing arrogance
    dismissing counter argument contemptuously, and, aren't they supposed to eschew politicking?

    Reith Lectures Nobbled & Demeaned

    This year’s Reith lecture was arrogant, self opinionated
    And self-righteous. No doubt he’ll pat his own back for that
    Provide his own award, clap himself... and applaud.
    Tidying up a beach is no polluted ocean fix
    Yet do it with utter confidence and even detritus
    Will transform into plausible statistics.

    Outspoken is fine, radical views might become dynamic
    But arrogance is flaw-secreted by its own conceit.
    Riding bareback upon over-confidence’s saddle-seat,
    A kind of blindness that feels only that which crawls
    Touches its opinionated ‘bleather’ deferentially;
    Measured bespoke, yet edited evidence for one size fits all.

    Based on research that seeks affirmations
    Research that frames the bigger picture into neat self gratification
    From which to chose your confirmations.
    Ring fenced by conjecturing
    An overload of arrogant lecturing, too smug, too off-pat
    The arrogance of dismissing any counter argument: “I knew you’d say that!”

    Contemptuousness from stars of self congratulation.
    Reminds ‘one’ of parliament: that debating house
    Of blatant distortion, wheedling and unfounded accusation.
    An overload of arrogance, but more... a dearth of humility
    Humility before the loaded unfairness’s of society and its have-nots.
    It’s left outs... its small hope, down trodden, underbelly.

    Worthy as debate, discussion beach-combings
    But so much dismissed
    So many un-kissed by this utopian bliss.
    ‘What! What!’
    But we can’t dismiss you... can we?
    Because there are those who would lift your views from nought
    And make a panoramic effusion. Lemonade made crusade.
    And because you have abused wisdom’s academic platform
    With political intrusion
    With a dangerous runaway train of thought.

  • Comment number 23.

    Surely it's the case that if you have more private schools the best teachers will migrate to those schools while disruptive pupils are excluded from them. This would result in the state schools being left with second best teachers and all of the less gifted, more disruptive, more difficult pupils leading to kids at these schools getting a worse education than they currently have. If there is an average level of state education which under Ferguson's ideas some students - mostly middle class - would do better than, whilst other students - mostly poorer - would do worse than, that surely is elitist.

  • Comment number 24.

    Niall Ferguson's lecture began with a vivid passage from Dickens's Bleak House about the cost and inefficiency of the common law system during the 19th century, as an argument against the legal origins thesis. Only one problem: at this time the Court of Chancery was not a Common Law court. It was an Equity court, which operated under the civil law, adding even more evidence to his arguments against the civil law. Chancery had long specialised in cases of inheritance and debt, providing legal remedies not unavailable under the common law. Since Parliament was beginning the long process of merging the Common Law and Civil Law courts at about the time that Bleak House was written, Dickens's passage was particularly pointed. It seems likely that Ferguson is aware of these details. This is consistent with a more general tendency to misuse evidence. For example, the reference to "translation" when Bottom was turned into a donkey was more likely to have been a joke against the Church of England, whose bishops were moved from one diocese to another, technically known as "translation", than a reference to language.


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