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Monday, March 16, 2015

“The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor”, by David S. Landes

650 pages, W. W. Norton & Company, ISBN-13: 978-0393040173

In his landmark (and controversial) book The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor, David Landes, retired history and economics professor from Harvard University, has written an epic and grandiose work of economic history that attempts nothing less than to explain why some societies were economically successful and why others were not over the last 1000 years. He has not retired, however, from academic controversy, for in the politically correct discourse that passes for open debate in today’s universities, it simply is not fashionable to attribute economic success to cultural factors. Landes doesn’t hesitate to demolish along the way arguments of those who explain the West’s success in terms of exploitation of the Third World, imperialism, colonialism, and racism; these may have been symptoms of the West’s success, but not the causes. The breadth of this work is staggering as he covers not only economics, but technology, religion, military history, cultural practices, politics, and geography.

Though the scope of this work may be vast, the author’s assurance never falters as he manages to find just the right balance between sweeping overview and illuminating insight. His views are often fresh and arresting, as, for example, when he identifies the technological factors in Medieval Europe that laid the foundation for take-off and sustained economic and industrial growth from the 15th Century onwards. He is particularly impressive on the theme of why the West achieved worldwide dominance in the last half-millennium, not just in terms of outright power and wealth, but of thought and values, as well, and on why potential competitors – such as China and India – got left behind. The treatment of the First and Second Industrial Revolutions, and of the relative fall and rise of Britain and Germany in the process, is especially enjoyable; also effective is the treatment of the success of Japan in making the transition to an industrialized society, this being very interestingly counterpointed with the failure of Mohammed Ali’s Egypt to do the same. One’s enjoyment of the book is enhanced by the fact that the writer does not hesitate to state his case with strength and conviction, and is obviously not concerned with concessions to transient fashions in historical retrospectively. One may not agree with each and every opinion or viewpoint but it is a pleasure to see them expounded with such conviction, energy and elegance.

The problem some readers may have with The Wealth and Poverty of Nations is that Landes gives an unvarnished, no-holds-barred, tell-it-like-it-is, narrative; many individuals (to say nothing of nation states) want to blame everyone but themselves for their short comings. But that’s what made this book so valuable (the only part I might disagree with is the implied generalization that some groups of immigrants to the United States do well because of their homeland’s culture; I believe that many of those that emigrate to this country are a sub-set, a non-representative group that is NOT a cross section of their home population, a select group of entrepreneurs, risk takers, or else the desperate, and are looking to make a killing or else have nothing to lose and take risk and make it big or else fail trying and try again). Reality can be a bitter pill to swallow, but this is Landes’ topic in a nutshell: This is how things are, not how we would like them to be. The West is dominant; capitalism has triumphed; socialism has failed; Imperialism spread much that was good and, yes, was concerned with material profit (and there is nothing wrong with this: “God, Gold and Glory”, to quote Landes). Like it or not, this is simply the honest-to-God truth. This book contains not only lessons but solutions to anyone who wants to see them and should be required reading for every political candidate, from dog catcher to President.

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