The Ascent of Money

by Niall Ferguson

Niall Ferguson has an excellent reputation and this book is highly regarded by reviewers, so I bought it seeking to learn the development of large-scale capitalist systems in the period between the Renaissance and the American Revolution. I was disappointed. Mr. Ferguson does indeed march through the history, describing the earliest forms of barter, how coinage developed, the first bills of exchange, joint stock companies, and so on. However, I did not see the clear overarching appreciation of a complex evolutionary process. Where was the discussion of Greek and Roman law as it applied to business?

The development of the bill of exchange in the late Middle Ages had profound impact, yet his explanation of the process makes it sound almost humdrum. There were a lot of problems arising from bills of exchange, and it took centuries to iron them out, but nothing of this appears in Mr. Ferguson’s book. The evolution from the bill of exchange to the bank note was another huge development, but Mr. Ferguson treats it as a given.

I was also disappointed by his brief discussion of the development of the joint stock company, another immensely important milestone. He makes it seem like mostly a matter of getting the right laws in place, but there was so much more going on, a great many zigs and zags arising from the features peculiar to that institution.

Even his discussion of the bubbles of the seventeenth century is inadequate; while he does a good job explaining the Laws affair, there’s little or no treatment of the other bubbles of those days. His explanation of how banking systems developed and the many schemes devised to control them – and the many failures in this regard – is also too quick and dirty.

All in all, I think this book suffers from too much concision. Mr. Ferguson breezes through all the milestones, touching on each one as he breezes past it, but his explanations are too brief to give me a clear sense of the big picture. It’s a good thing that I already know so much of the material; I would have walked away from this book thinking that I understood the basic history of our monetary system.