In THE WEALTH AND POVERTY OF NATIONS: WHY SOME ARE SO RICH AND SOME SO POOR, David Landes, professor emeritus of history and economics at Harvard University, attempts to answer the dilemma posed in the book’s subtitle. In his discussion, Landes is destined to raise hackles in portions of the academic community, because it is his contention that all civilizations and all societies are not necessarily of equal importance, at least in contributing to the origins of the modern world. As George Orwell said in another context, some are more equal than others, and for Landes that is the West.
It is his thesis in THE WEALTH AND POVERTY OF NATIONS, which refers to Adam Smith’s THE WEALTH OF NATIONS (1776), that the cultural characteristics of a society’s history is the key to explaining success, particularly economic success, in today’s global world. In a wide ranging historical survey covering the last millennium, Landes explores the differences between the West and the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The West succeeded because of the totality of its past experiences, including political, religious, social, technological, economic, and geographical aspects. In contrast, Landes contends that China was too self-satisfied, turned inward, and lacked the competitive curiosity of western culture, and the Middle East has been in thrall to Islam, in comparison to the division between the religious and secular worlds which evolved in the West.
Landes predicts no miracles regarding the future, and he leaves the reader uncertain about whether “the Rest” will ever catch up with the West. THE WEALTH AND POVERTY OF NATIONS is worth reading, both in explaining how we possibly got where we are and by alluding to the difficulties in breaking from the past.
Sources for Further Study
Commonweal. CXXV, May 22, 1998, p. 19.
The Economist. CCCXLVII, May 16, 1998, p. S5.
Foreign Affairs. LXXVII, March, 1998, p. 128.
Harvard Business Review. LXXVI, July, 1998, p. 171.
The Journal of Economic History. LVIII, September, 1998, p. 857.
The New York Review of Books. XLV, April 23, 1998, p. 37.
The New York Times Book Review. CIII, March 15, 1998, p. 15.
ORBIS. XLII, Fall, 1998, p. 631.
Publishers Weekly. CXLV, February 9, 1998, p. 84.
The Times Literary Supplement. August 14, 1998, p. 25.