When they sat down over coffee for the new Daily Wire series, “The Search,” podcaster Ben Shapiro and renowned historian Niall Ferguson couldn’t have known just how timely their interview would prove to be. During a roving discussion taped in late January in Palm Beach, the pair dissected the United States’ inability to properly weigh risk when it comes to foreign policy and what that fecklessness might mean to China and Russia.
With a now-eerie prescience, the Hoover Institute fellow tells Shapiro that, based on his knowledge of world skirmishes over the last 100 years, the Biden administration’s weakness on the international stage will undoubtedly lead Russia to launch an attack on Ukraine. “The threat of sanctions is not going to stop Putin invading Ukraine,” he says with surety. “I still think it’s quite likely that he will increase his military aggression towards Ukraine because financial sanctions are not an effective deterrent, and I don’t think they’re an effective deterrent against the Chinese, either.”
Weeks later, bombs began to fall in Kyiv.
The West’s bizarre overreaction to the marginal danger posed by COVID-19 compared to its apathy toward the serious threats China and Russia present dominates much of the 90-minute dialogue, available to Daily Wire subscribers. “This is one of the odd things about safetyism — the cult of treating all risks as incredibly high,” Ferguson points out. “Oddly enough, it desensitizes you to the real risks. And I think the U.S. has become pathologically incapable of thinking realistically about risk.”
How this has manifested, he explains, is with federal authorities pushing to mask children and force vaccines on young people who face almost no danger from the coronavirus while blithely ignoring the fact that the world’s most powerful authoritarian regimes have suddenly begun behaving as allies.
“We’re closer to a really big war than most civilians want to face,” he concludes.
Legacies Over Risk
The looming reality of seismic geopolitical events leads the friends to reflect on just how endemic distorted perspectives have become in America.
Ferguson says working on his last book, “Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe,” made him realize that, while fear of a virus might have highlighted the problem, defective public choice has been around for at least 20 years. Generations ago, he explains, both the public and the federal government were better at assessing risk because they had no choice.
“I mean, coming out of the 1930s and 40s, you confronted some very profound risks, nuclear war being the biggest,” he says. “But my sense is that the further away we got from World War II, the less good our elites have been at assessing risk and the more inclined they have been to say, ‘Why worry about probabilities? Let’s assume that everything is a huge risk. And then let’s design extraordinarily complex regulations to prevent risk.’” The unrealistic goal, he argues, appears to be to prevent death.
For Shapiro, this shallowness that views the mere preservation of life as the greatest objective also explains our current national obsession with identity, as well as the epidemic of mental health issues plaguing younger generations. He points out with a bit of gallows humor that such a value structure can’t help but breed a culture-wide sense of meaninglessness and unfulfillment.
“Like if [assassins] get me in the Everglades, honestly, they deserve it,” he jokes about a recent vacation with his family, where it dawned on him that if his haters were to successfully gun him down (as online trolls have threatened to do over the years), he’d have to give them credit for their marksmanship. “Like if they get that shot and they nail me and I’m floating among the mangroves and alligators,” he laughs, “I’ll just have to give them credit. Like, really, that’s an excellent hit.”
What’s clear a moment later is Shapiro’s dark amusement comes from his deep sense of mission, his conviction that his life has a greater purpose than merely preserving his heart-beat. Like the men who founded the nation, he says he cares more about building something of lasting value than in being physically safe.
“My dad used to be kind of paranoid about [me voicing my political opinions],” Shapiro reveals, “and he used to say, ‘Are you sure you want to say this about Islamists or are you sure you want to say this about the Chinese?’ Shapiro’s answer: “Yeah, I am. I mean, at a certain point, you’ve got to say what you’re going to say.” Because that’s what it takes, he argues, to build institutions that have the potential to transform a society from one in which happiness is found in the arbitrary notion of feeling personally “affirmed” to one in which meaning is derived from accomplishment.
“If the ages have taught us anything,” Shapiro says, “it’s that your happiness has very little to do with how you sit on a given day and has a lot more to do with whether you’re building things of consequence.”
Though their critics often like to pretend otherwise, over the course of the discussion both Ferguson and Shapiro are clear that their hope for the future doesn’t lie solely in winning elections or “owning” libs, but in creating organizations that leave legacies for the future.
When Ferguson reflects on the attitudes of Millennials and Gen Z today, histrionic as they are over thought-crimes and emotional offense, he admits the situation looks bleak. But he finds hope in what he calls “Generation T — kids who began to develop societal awareness during the presidency of Donald Trump. There, he already sees what he believes is a sense that “wokeness is boring and counterintuitive.”
But he doesn’t believe their tendency to think in more levelheaded, fact-based terms than the generation just ahead of them will flourish without help. They need, he argues, new institutions dedicated to developing an active and well-organized citizenry.
“There needs to be a strong sense of the citizens’ ability to organize outside the structures of the State,” Ferguson says. “Part of the answer is to build institutions. We have to be better organized. People who thought of themselves as conservatives or classical liberals were terribly badly organized and basically lost control of the universities. It wasn’t even that hard for the Left to take over the universities.”
It’s for this reason, that, though he’s personally an atheist, Ferguson believes so deeply in the power of religious community to breed civic responsibility. Part of the Left’s interest in destroying the influence of faith in something beyond government, he argues, is that it destroys the impulse to band together to protect individual freedoms.
It’s also what inspired him to join Bari Weiss, Steven Pinker, Larry Summers, and other independent thinkers to found The University of Austin — a new academic institution dedicated to a “fearless pursuit of the truth.”
“I’m quite interested in this challenge of institution building,” Ferguson tells Shapiro, “You’ve done that [with The Daily Wire]. And that’s one of the things about you that I find most impressive.”
Near the end, Ferguson returns to Shapiro’s point that he’s not worried about dying so much as he’s worried about leaving such work unfinished.
“I’d like to be able to die knowing I’ve started a bunch of things,” he says. “Institutions that will keep going.”