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How The West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation Of The Industrial World Paperback – June 1, 1987


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (June 1, 1987)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465031099
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465031092
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #578,813 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Nathan Rosenberg, a leading expert on the history of technology, is an economist at Stanford University.L.E. Birdzell, Jr. is an attorney and legal scholar, based in Newport, Rhode Island. Nathan Rosenberg, a leading expert on the history of technology, is an economist at Stanford University.L.E. Birdzell, Jr. is an attorney and legal scholar, based in Newport, Rhode Island.

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3.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

20 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Fredrik Gustafsson on March 21, 2006
Format: Paperback
Monographs dealing with West's rise from a backward feudal society to the most technologically advanced and wealthiest civilization this world has ever seen, seem to come a dime a dozen nowadays. Given the large amounts of books available on this topic, and the fact that it was published twenty years ago, what reasons are there for reading How the West Grew Rich? Quite a few I would argue.

The main question of the book is of course: how, or rather why, did the West (as opposed to the South or the East) achieve modern economic growth? The authors come to the correct conclusion that standard growth models can only provide the proximate causes of growth. Innovation and accumulation of capital, labour and natural resources is growth, it does not explain growth.

So what, according to R&B, are the fundamental causes of growth? The answer lies in favourable institutions and freedom from political restrictions - more specifically, secure property rights and the freedom to engage in any line of business and to acquire and sell goods at an unregulated price. This meant that the process of innovation was delegated to private firms and that individuals themselves were forced to bear full responsibility for their failures and reap the full benefits of their successes.

Why then did such favourable institutions and political and economic freedoms arise in the West? The answer according to R&B is political fragmentation and competition between different territories in Europe. Investments and the merchant class were drawn to areas were property rights were respected and where they could carry out their business without too much political interference. There was no single empire in Europe.
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Format: Paperback
It is entirely safe to generalize: innovation is more likely to occur in a society that is open to the formation of new enterprises than in a society that relies on its existing organizations for innovation." Feudalism thus had to be eclipsed for serious change to occur since it "was a society which dealt with the risks of life by legislating rigidity. Economic growth is inherently a byproduct of change, and the political and religious ideology of the Middle Ages guarded against the heresies of change in every way it could," argues the authors herein as they set out to explain "how the West generated the organizational and technological skills required to produce and exploit" its wealth. A "decentralization of authority," thus was crucial...and this was greatly spurred by the Protestant Reformation, the long term effect of which, economically, "was the progressive removal of religion from intimate involvement in the sphere of business activity." "In the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries , the business sphere was, in a word, secularized." "Protestantism sanctioned a high degree of individual responsibility for moral conduct and reduced the authority of the clergy." Under these circumstances, it would have been too much to expect the Catholic clergy to continue to stress doctrines which could only turn prosperous parishioners toward Protestantism." The authors argue moreover that this "was not wholly a question of the theological content of either Catholicism or Protestantism.Read more ›
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22 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Chad M. Brick on December 20, 2000
Format: Paperback
"How the West Grew Rich" is a thorough treatise on the rise of capitilism in the nation-states of the west, from feudal society towards modern times. Rosenthal and Birdzell discuss in the appearances of the requirements for capitilism, such as acknowledgment of property rights and consistent and predictable law. Also discussed are the political, social, or economic changes that caused feudal society to crumble and a variety of free markets to gradually take root and then blossom in Europe.
This book was thorough and informative, though a bit repetitive and somewhat dry. It makes a wonderful companion to Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel", filling in where the later left off.
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By Roger on March 12, 2015
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I have read every book and article I can find on what I will call the Modern Breakthrough -- from a destitute, illiterate, unhealthy Malthusian world of pretty much every place for all time, to the modern world of relative prosperity, health, freedom and knowledge. This book is probably the single best summary of the factors which were necessary to the breakthrough, or series of breakthroughs (they actually mention at least five -- the expansion of trading and markets, the first and second industrial revolution, the modern information/technology revolution, and science).

I will allow, no encourage, everyone to read the book themselves for the details, but the basic concept is that what was different in Western Europe from other times and places was decentralized authority and decision making. Problem solving necessary for the advancement of the human condition is a cooperative affair, but cooperation can emerge both top down (via hierarchy and control) and bottoms up in a decentralized, diverse way. The West blossomed by allowing more of the latter to emerge than in other societies controlled by custom, bureaucracy, despotism, the status quo, and guilds.

The West, concentrated first in Britain and later much broader, first and foremost did less to stop innovation. Just as dramatically, it created (greatly without conscious intent) institutions which actually required or demanded innovation, experimentation, incremental improvement, efficiency and organizational adaptiveness. The book is about the details illustrating this unique situation. How it evolved. Why it evolved. Why it was so different.
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How The West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation Of The Industrial World
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