American essayist and novelist William Styron once said that “A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end.” If we judge the late David Landes’ ‘Wealth and Poverty of Nations’ by this criterion, it most certainly fits the bill of a ‘great book’. It is a majestic display of his deep insight and vast knowledge of global economic history. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the book has been all but universally acclaimed by literary critics.
David Landes was Professor of History and Emeritus Professor of Economics at Harvard University. His other works include Bankers and Pashas, Revolution in Time, The Unbound Prometheus and Dynasties. As one might expect, therefore, ‘Wealth and Poverty of Nations’ is no short and easy read: half a millennia of global economic history are covered in over 600 pages and 29 chapters.
Landes’ primary aim in the book is to better understand how nations have evolved to reach their current state. Landes’ main thesis of the book is that cultural traits and cultural values play a key role in determining whether a country fails or succeeds economically. As he points out in the Preface, the analysis is not one of a “multicultural, anthropological sense of intrinsic parity: all peoples are equal and the historian tries to attend to them all. Rather, [to]…understand how we have come to where we are, …[through] making, getting, and spending” (page xi).
In this sense, ‘The Wealth and Poverty of Nations’ provides a fascinating and distinctive historical angle that considers the cultural circumstances, as well as the economic trends of the time – thus, viewing economic history through a cultural lens.
Landes opens up the discussion with the premise that the old dichotomy of the West vs. the East, or better said, West vs. the ‘Rest’ has largely dissolved (page xx). The more pertinent split in today’s ‘globalised’ world is between ‘Rich’ vs ‘Poor’ countries. The common thread of questioning that is present throughout the entirety of the book is this: why have some countries come to be so poor and some so rich?
In the opening chapters Landes presses the idea that the technological and cultural advancements enabled the (relatively small) nations of western Europe to significantly punch above their weight (page 137). The Industrial Revolution in Europe brought technological innovations that had tremendous long-term impact on economic development. Basic advancements cotton manufacturing for instance, enabled the creation ‘washable’ clothes. This in turn led to better personal hygiene and therefore, better health and an increase in life expectancy. The technological advancements improved all areas of life in the Continent
Landes also points out that throughout the late 17th Century and 18th Century, England’s relative open society enabled it to flourish at a faster pace than its European counterparts, many of whom were deeply embattled with religious persecution (page 223). As a result, England managed to ‘profit from other nation’s self-inflicted wounds’ (ibid).
Yet arguably one of the most powerful and convincing arguments of the book is raised in Chapter 12 (page 175 – 181). Here David Landes reinstates Max Weber’s thesis on the Protestant work ethic. The core argument here is that the Protestant revolution in Europe brought with in a change in the role and responsibility of work. The influence of Protestant thinking encouraged people to value, creativity, hard work, timeliness, and free-thinking. This in turn acted as a catalyst for economic growth not only in Europe, but also in the early development of America (CEME’s Director, Richard Turnbull, wrote on the impact of Quakers in Quaker Capitalsim: Lessons for Today)
The latter half of the book bring the discussion back to the impact of culture on economic performance and how the two are intrinsically linked. In Thailand for example, young men are encouraged to spend a few years in religious (Buddhist) monasteries before entering the world of work. Landes argues that this sets their priorities right – and makes them more effective once the do enter the ‘materialistic’ world of work, where money plays a major role (page 517).
Landes concludes the book with a discussion on the current tensions between globalisation and the nation-state, but also the merits of free-trade and some of the benefits and dangers of international aid (Page 519-521). In a nutshell (and without giving too much away), the book argues that free trade between nations is disproportionately beneficial and foreign aid can do as much damage as it does good. Landes overarching conclusion is that the adoption of a free market economy (especially by poor countries) is the surest and safest way to long-term economic development and wealth creation.
‘The Wealth and Poverty of Nations’ leaves its reader with a completely new, and unique understanding of the role that culture plays in the historic economic development of countries. Finding criticism for this book is a challenge in itself, I have found myself nit-picking at best. One possible observation is that, even in 600+ pages, it remains difficult to comprehensively capture half a millennia of world history.
Some may say that it is too Eurocentric. Yet the book’s apparent Eurocentrism is part of the presentation and hypothesis that is put fourth – it is the angle that the author adopts rather than an inherit bias. In response to this perceived ‘Eurocentrism’ and being a ‘Westerner’, Landes himself acknowledges that, “I feel surer of my ground” (page xxi). Nonetheless, one could argue that the cultural intricacies of each geographical region can, and deserve to be explored in greater depth.
‘The Wealth and Poverty of Nations’ has become a staple in the field of economic history.
A definite read.
“The Wealth and Poverty of Nations” was published in 1999 by Abacus, ISBN-10: 0349111669, 672pp.
Andrei Rogobete is a Research Fellow with the Centre for Enterprise, Markets & Ethics. For more information about Andrei please click here.