- Paperback: 658 pages
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1st Edition edition (May 17, 1999)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0393318885
- ISBN-13: 978-0393318883
- Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.2 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 190 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #58,417 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor Paperback – May 17, 1999
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“Powerful and lucid.... There are few historians who would not be proud to be the author of this book.”
- Eric Hobsbawm, Los Angeles Times
“Mr. Landes writes with verve and gusto.... This is indeed good history.”
- Douglass C. North, Wall Street Journal
“You cannot even begin to think about problems of economic development and convergence without knowing the story that Landes tells. ...I know of no better place to start thinking about the wealth and poverty of nations.”
- J. Bradford DeLong, Washington Post
“Enormously erudite and provocative.... Never less than scintillating, witty, and brilliant.”
- Kirkus Reviews
“Truly wonderful. No question that this will establish David Landes as preeminent in his field and in his time.”
- John Kenneth Galbraith
“A picture of enormous sweep and brilliant insight... embodied in a light and vigorous prose which carries the reader along irresistibly.”
- Kenneth Arrow
“A masterly survey... with verve, broad vision, and a whole series of sharp opinions that he is not shy about stating plainly.”
- Robert Solow
About the Author
David S. Landes (1924―2013) was professor emeritus at Harvard University and the author of Bankers and Pashas, The Unbound Prometheus, and Revolution in Time.
Top customer reviews
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This a great book on the history of how the world came to be as it is. The book answered many questions I've wondered about for a long time, not the least of which is how European nations were able to leap frog over the far east when they were centuries ahead of the west on many developmental fronts. Its a slow but a great read, savor it.
It is worth the price of admission just for the bibliography and footnotes as well as his humor and cynicism. Again a great read!!!
The basic idea of this book is that national culture is the principal determinant of economic success - along with all the other factors. In other words, the short list is: quality individuals, thrift, education, freedom for entrepreneurs, and some ill-defined sense of national spirit that should combine to produce a proper industrial capitalism (as opposed to a pillage or extraction economy). Furthermore, there is virtually no room for public policy, indeed any attempt to right things such as trade imbalances are disdainfully dismissed as sour grapes. Sounds suspiciously like a Barry Goldwater formula to me. In this peculiarly simplistic narrative, the good guys are North America, Western Europe, and East Asia. Among the failures: Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Islamic countries.
As a history book, it starts off roughly at the time of the Renaissance, when Europe has not yet pulled ahead of the world and in particular, China. This was the time when much of the groundwork for the later economic advances was established, including the printing press, the articulation of the scientific method, evolution of global markets, and certain democracy-oriented political theories. I wouldn't dispute any of this, but Landes ticks them off with a pedantic arrogance that grated on me for the first third of the book. (I mean, what high school student doesn't know moveable type was an important invention?) The most interesting section for me was the comparison of what kind of colonies were established in the new world: the US and Canada appear to have welcomed a cross section of earnest workers interested in the creation of wealth, while in Latin America it was more akin to simple pillage. Though crudely expressed by me here, Landes' portrait is indeed nuanced and to the point (even if he neglects that fact that North American indians shaped their landscapes in ways that met their criteria for economic security).
Where the book begins to get into real trouble is the section on the early stages of industrial capitalism. Landes paints a picture of how smart, far-seeing people took advantage of emerging technology, markets, and methods (administrative, organizational, etc.) to create wealth-generating engines for entire nations. To be fair, Landes acknowledges the exploitation of slaves, early industrial workers, and colonial subjects; they really suffered as they cleared forests, operated rudimentary machinery, or harvested cotton.
However, he blithely passes over any argument that would criticize the early capitalist system as inherently flawed or sine qua non dependent on colonial empires or slavery. In my opinion, he is wrong: slaves enabled the cotton-based industry to arise (in the 1st industrial revolution) by a horrendously destructive system of labor compulsion, thereby generating the capital required for investment in industrial manufacturing and logistical infrastructure - without it, such an accumulation of capital might have taken centuries instead of decades. The same is true of low-wage workers and colonial subjects. In my view, this renders the entire middle section of his book into the worst kind of tendentious, willfully ignorant conservatism. I would refer interested readers to Empire of Cotton.
But it is in the final section, which purports to explain the lessons of all this for today, that the book completely falls apart. Rather than hone his argument and backing it up with observable facts, Landes offers a jumble of detail, ranging from personal stories to debunked tropes about "national character", property ownership, "freedom", and the like. Underneath it all, his explanations harken back to Ayn Rand or the Barry Goldwater formula, ie. thrift, right-mindedness, etc. It is insipid and conventional rather than questioning or stimulating.
Indeed, when he tries to explain what has been regarded as success, the cases he presents are extremely feeble. For example, he loves Japan and the reasons for its success, he argues, is Deming quality control, Kaizen, education, and the like. Beyond a grain of truth, this is ridiculously superficial, the kind of junk explanations that came out of business schools in the early 1980s; most of those theories were largely debunked a decade before Landes wrote the book and, given Japan's economic slowdown over nearly 30 years, it is clear that something else determines its growth rate. He does not even contemplate whether much of Japan's growth was due to the modernization of its economy (e.g. the introduction of cars and electricity), coupled with a mercantilist policy to promote the development of national industrial export capacity at home (also called producer economics, whereby trade barriers protect home industries, forcing their consumers to pay more for goods they could have imported and subsidizing those that they export, which China and Korea now do - it is a public policy and economic model they have chosen).
Finally, even though China was beginning to become an industrial superpower as the book was written, Landes ignores the ways in which China contradicts some of his most basic precepts. To wit: 1) many of China's successful companies (e.g. the Haier Group) are still legally state- or city-owned, i.e. they are not strictly speaking capitalist; 2) the government is still communist and repressive, so that democratic freedom appears unnecessary for entrepreneurs to operate. If Landes would claim that the "culture" is different but still successful, then his entire thesis about western and Japanese national "virtues" is nonsense.
I got to the end of the book and felt like I had learned almost nothing. I cannot recommend this book beyond a few valuable tidbits. Landes does write well, but he develops no cogent theory to explain his subject, offering instead only glib, conventional economics.