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The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor Hardcover – January, 1998

3.6 out of 5 stars 217 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Professor David S. Landes takes a historic approach to the analysis of the distribution of wealth in this landmark study of world economics. Landes argues that the key to today's disparity between the rich and poor nations of the world stems directly from the industrial revolution, in which some countries made the leap to industrialization and became fabulously rich, while other countries failed to adapt and remained poor. Why some countries were able to industrialize and others weren't has been the subject of much heated debate over the decades; climate, natural resources, and geography have all been put forward as explanations--and are all brushed aside by Landes in favor of his own controversial theory: that the ability to effect an industrial revolution is dependent on certain cultural traits, without which industrialization is impossible to sustain. Landes contrasts the characteristics of successfully industrialized nations--work, thrift, honesty, patience, and tenacity--with those of nonindustrial countries, arguing that until these values are internalized by all nations, the gulf between the rich and poor will continue to grow.

From Publishers Weekly

Landes (Revolution in Time), Harvard professor emeritus of history, undertakes an economic and cultural history of the world during the past five centuries. His well-written, sometimes witty analysis is the kind of work one wants to pause over and reflect upon at each chapter before moving ahead. Landes's principal argument is that the richest nations continue to prosper while poorer nations lag behind because of their relative ability or inability to exploit science, technology and economic opportunity. In every case?from ancient China to modern Japan?he maintains this is largely the result of national attitudes about a myriad of cultural factors. Landes traces the story of England's industrial revolution and America's system of mass production as indicators of the West's superiority over the rest of the world. Some of his historical illustrations are thought-provoking: for example, the importance of air conditioning to the development of the New South in the U.S. and the impact of a lifetime of eating with chopsticks on the manual dexterity of Asia's microprocessing workers. Most of all, Landes stresses the importance of cultural values, such as a predisposition for hard work, open-mindedness and a commitment to democracy, in determining a nation's course toward wealth and power.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 650 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (January 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393040178
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393040173
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.7 x 2.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (217 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #207,848 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
As Amazon readers may note this is a controversial book, generating more than 140 reviews since it was first published in 1998. The continuing interest is due at least in part to its promotion by some political conservatives as an answer to books like Guns, Gems, and Steel by Jared Diamond. Indeed the very relevance of this book to contemporary policy-making is the fuel that maintains the flames of a healthy debate between those on the Left and Right. Landes' arguments are forceful and convincing as far as they go and his book is essential reading for every student of world history and economics. Whether his model takes us ultimately in the direction we as a civilization really want to follow is a more subtle and profound question.

First, let's refute some false charges against Landes. He is not a racist, or an apologist for capitalist exploitation, or an ethno-centrist. He fully acknowledges the influence that geography and natural resources have on a nation's development potential and his critique of European colonialism is devastating. He completely rejects the theory of comparative advantage and long sections of the book are devoted to describing the exploitation of women and children in the early industrial periods of England and Japan.

Landes is equally critical of forces that restrict or deny freedom of thought, showing clearly how they held back nations that should have played a more dominant role in world economics. In the case of European development the single most important villain was the Catholic Church but authoritarian and totalitarian regimes of all stripes come in for condemnation.
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You and I are part of a fortunate minority. We are literate, we have access to phones and to the Internet, we are likely (save some unexpected disease or misfortune) to live to an old age. We are almost certainly belonging to what is known as 'The First World', or to small rich minorities within the rest of the world. Most people in this world do not have those privileges - we live in islands of fortune within an ocean of poverty. And professor Landes tries to understand why. He tries to find out what is special about Western civilization (and Japan) - why Japan and the West got rich while the rest of the world lagged behind, and most of it still does.
It is by the nature of such a book to be controversial, and Landes doesn't pull his punches; his approach is neoclassicist, although hardly a dogmatic one. He is rough on Postmodernists, Saidian Anti-Orientalists, French and Japanese protectionists, Spanish Roman Catholics, and many others. Among the reviews you'll read here, Landes irritates Catholics, third world enthusiasts, anti-Western intellectuals, extreme right wind Capitalists, anti-Japanese, and so on, and so on.
So, you've got controversy. But what is Landes actually saying? Well, in brief, Landes book focuses on three major reasons for Wealth/Poverty: Geography, Infrastructure, and Culture.
The discussion of Geography, early in the book, is at best half hearted. Some of the points seem valid - but you're always inclined to say 'On the other hand'. Are there really fewer diseases in Europe then in Africa? maybe, but transportation is easier. The black death annihilated a third of the European population in the 13th century. Does Heat makes labour harder and less efficient?
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Format: Paperback
The object of this book is to survey and explain the fast or slow economic development of different parts of the world from about 1500 to the present. Landes mainly takes a regional perspective looking at Europe, Asia, Middle East, Latin America, and so on with some refinement to the national scale (e.g. China vs. Japan, Britain vs. Spain).
Landes strongly advocates the point of view that cultural values (work ethic, thriftiness, attitudes toward change, technology, women) are primary determinants of economic success or failure. Although many, including myself, find this thesis lacking and controversial, there is still an abundance of interesting and useful information in this book.
On the plus side, Landes offers a wealth of fascinating anecdotes, introductory information on the history of technology that was new to me, a clear and definite argument, and above all gives the reader some sense of the importance of culture in the economic realm. Although I personally feel that Landes overstates the importance of culture, the points he makes do have some validity and are generally under appreciated. Moreover, the author is remarkably fair minded for someone advocating a controversial thesis.
Don't be fooled by the reviewers that make fun of the author for suggesting that eating with chopsticks has given Asians manual dexterity that is advantageous to their high-tech manufacturing sector. In fairness to the author, this statement is a single sentence in a 500 page book and he immediately admits that most of his colleagues smirk when they hear it.
On the minus side, the author verges on severe cultural stereotypes a few too many times. The Asians are all thrifty and hard working while the Latins have been brain washed by the Catholic church.
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