The Wealth And Poverty Of Nations
- Little, Brown Book Group
- Publication Date:
- 01 April 1999
- General & World History
Showing 1-4 out of 4 reviews.
A monumental book on the influences and causes of the wealth and poverty of nations. Eye opening, well researched,well written. Read it now.
Despite the title, this isn't a book about why, say Botswana is doing so much better than Zimbabwe these days due to such and such a policy or Germany versus Greece or practical advice on how the poor countries can turn things around and the rich countries help them. It's more descriptive than prescriptive. Rather it's a world economic history that deals with forces centuries, even millennium old. I appreciated that Landes wasn't afraid to be controversial; he takes dead aim at all forms of political correctness, multiculturalist cant, and such theories as those found in Said's <i>Orientalism.</i> Looking at other reviews, some complain Landes is too Eurocentric. Given the theme of the book, the wealth and poverty of nations, I can't blame him much. It's like that old joke about robbing banks--you go where the money is. Mind you, he seems to me to be not just Eurocentric but Anglocentric--although again, it does tie into his theory given Britain was arguably ground zero for the Industrial Revolution. And that is definitely at the center of his answer to the question posed in his subtitle concerning nations: <i>why some are so rich and some so poor</i>.The book did leave me with questions. Landes begins with an analysis of geography. On the North/South axis, Landes believes the difference between tropical and temperate regions are crucial. But if that's so, why didn't North America develop a technologically sophisticated culture before contact with the West? Why then would the most impressive indigenous civilizations in the Americas rise out of jungles, such as the Mayans and the Incas? It's not a question asked in the book, which doesn't deal with the Americas until the era of exploration and colonization. Though to give Landes his due, Eurocentric doesn't mean triumphalist or apologist. If for whatever reason, you're ignorant of the atrocities committed by Europeans in the Americas or of the savagery of the Atlantic Slave Trade, Landes will certainly provide an education. (Especially when it comes to the Spanish Conquistadors. Landes is not kind to Catholicism or Islam, which he sees as stultifying upholders of dogma.) When Landes comes to examine the East/West axis, he sees as crucial the differences in property rights and development of markets. I'd be the last person to dismiss such factors out of hand, yet Landes' thesis as to the definitive factor that gave rise to the differences did raise both eyebrows: <i>Europe's great good fortune lay in the fall of Rome and the weakness and division that ensued. (So much for the lamentations of generations of classicists and Latin teachers.) The Roman dream of unity, authority, and order (the <i>pax Romana</i>) remained, indeed has persisted to the present.... [yet] fragmentation was the strongest brake on wilful, oppressive behavior. Political rivalry and the right of exit made all the difference.</i>Really? Because I do find it hard to believe the fall of Rome wasn't a tragedy for the West. Ancient Rome at its height is estimated to have had a population of one million. After its fall, no city, in Europe at least, would hit that threshold until London in 1811. Trade, literacy, urbanization all collapsed in the former Western Empire and arguably wouldn't fully recover for nearly a millennium. I do get Landes' point that authoritarian empires could do much to cripple technological and economic progress, but that still seemed a rather breathtaking claim. It is key to his theory however. Because if for Landes the key to the wealth of nations is the Industrial Revolution, the key to the Industrial Revolution is a culture of scientific inquiry and invention spurred on by a rivalry between nations, allowed room to breathe by a fragmented authority and fostered by a strong work ethic. (He sees this fragmented authority and work ethic as crucial in the rise of an industrial Japan as well.) In the end, geography isn't destiny, for according to Landes it's "not resources" that made the difference between nations but what "lay inside--culture, values, initiative." (And a constant related thread--the importance to growth and development of the "status and role of women" and the rights of minorities--Jews in history often being the canary in the coal mine.)This work is erudite, entertaining, thought-provoking and written with style. (The kind of book that stretches vocabularies so have a dictionary handy.) The author is apparently an American, but he has a dry, at times acid, often deadpan humor I associate with the British. It's also hard not to respect a book that garners praise, as seen in the blurbs, from such celebrated yet ideologically diverse economists as John Kenneth Galbraith and Robert Solow. Landes himself, for all that he stresses the importance of property rights, is far from free market--he made frequent stabs, if not arguments, at free traders. I saw one reviewer that claimed this book was taught as an example of flawed historiography. Maybe so, but it's not evident to me. I appreciated that Landes often related the various controversies in the field, and there are extensive notes and bibliography. It <i>seemed</i> sound and told a great story. So many of the connections Landes made are fascinating; the breath of the technological and social details he presented and global scope he took in was impressive. It's a book well worth reading and thinking about.
A great book that takes a broad look at the successful and unsuccessful countries/regions of the world over the last 700 years or so. While this was not a difficult read, it was not a really engaging read either, it is simply loaded with just too much information to be a real page-turner. However, one learns a lot. The book suffered a little bit I think from very poor editing, there were many mistakes that a simple spell check would have caught, sometimes I had to re-read a simple sentence (you will expand your SAT or GRE vocab in this book for sure) & figure out the missing word. Landes is not afraid to unapologetically say that the West (Europe) has done the best and it is largely because of culture. This book was a refreshing bit of realism & he really takes on those who would nay-say the West's technological & prosperity leadership, or who would try to say it is all just an accident. He does highlight those few non-Western countries that have done well recently, and we can see those even more so (like Korea) now, 12 years after this was published. He also shows how some of the losers in Europe went down the wrong path, so there is again, realistic balance.
Difficult read, and much longer than it needed to be to get to the point. Refreshingly non-politically correct, contains many useful arguments against wimpy post-modern academic theories. P.466 makes some interesting parallels between fascism & socialism.
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