Readers respond to a review of Niall Ferguson's "Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power."

Published April 18, 2003 7:00PM (EDT)

Read the review.

One of Ferguson's arguments for empire is that, under colonialism, gross domestic product (GDP) per capita in Africa, say, was much higher than today, relative to the GDP of the colonizers' home country. Thus, Africans were far better off economically, he claims, under their colonial masters than in independent states. This is a pretty brainless generalization, even for a disciple of neoclassical economics. Sure, GDP was higher in the old colonies -- because everyday subsistence activities were forcibly sacrificed for the production -- under grotesquely inhumane circumstances -- of minerals and other exports. But distribution of that wealth -- a key omission in Ferguson's argument -- was far less fair than even under the oligarchies of today's Africa (which in turn would never have existed but for colonialism). Ferguson is one of those myopically nostalgic colonialists who can't quite believe anyone would be happy in any other economic reality than his own. Anybody who has been to Africa (or India or pretty much anywhere south of the equator) knows differently.

-- David Frossard

If anyone has doubts about whether or not Britain maintained a "good" empire (warts and all), all they need do is look at the other European empires that existed prior to WWII. The French empire in Africa and the Far East maintained largely through the iron fist of the Foreign Legion rather than largely through the economic "fist" of the British Empire immediately springs to mind. Read about the horrors visited on the colonies of Belgium. Study what the Italians did in Africa. Empire, as a concept, has huge problems, but look at the countries in the world that maintain decent economies and considerable freedoms and you're likely to find a former colony of Britain: Australia, Canada, India, Hong Kong (prior to the takeover), and the U.S. These areas of the world were all exploited but, unlike the other European empires, not pillaged.

-- Grant Fritchey

By Salon Staff

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