Commentary Magazine

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David S. Landes

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are So Rich and Some So Poor
by David S. Landes
Norton. 650 pp. $30.00

Why is the West not like the rest? That is the old question raised by Adam Smith, Max Weber, and other titans of modern social thought. Now the Harvard historian David S. Landes has tackled it anew in a work of deep historical scholarship and charmingly lucid prose.

The very terms of Landes’s inquiry represent a departure from much historical writing today. For over two decades, the postmodernists, relativists, and multiculturalists who dominate the history departments have denigrated the big, interesting, and important questions about human social evolution. Either these questions are said to be unanswerable, or they are deemed irrelevant to such “vital” contemporary concerns as gender and identity. Thankfully, at the same time the horizons of many academic historians have narrowed, a few unconventional scholars, Landes among them, have resolutely begun to widen theirs. What they have found is both more significant and more impressive than anything uncovered by world historians of an earlier era like Arnold Toynbee.

The astonishing fact about world history today is that the big questions—how societies came to be as they are, what causes them to change—can actually be answered on a far more solid basis of evidence than ever before. Although, as Landes writes, “no one has a simple answer” to the question of why some nations are rich and some poor, some democratic and others not, we do know that sustained development had a beginning in a particular time and place: namely, Europe, or to be more precise, England, in the 18th century. Without assuming that because the West became both rich and free it was fated to become so, or that the path to wealth and liberty is an easy one to follow, Landes enables us to separate out the elements that make for success.

He does so by setting the career of the West in a fruitful comparative context. By exploring the paths taken by China, India, Islamic societies, Africa, and Latin America—paths that led to poverty and stagnation—he highlights and isolates the peculiar symbiosis of elements that characterizes the rise and fall of nations. He also puts to rest—once and for all, one hopes—the notion that Western modernization was achieved at the expense of the East and South.

To this notion—that European prosperity was built on the backs of Chinese inventors, black African slaves, or Asian traders—Landes makes the obvious reply: if, as some historians assert, the Asians were civilizationally far ahead before being despoiled by rapacious Europeans, why was it the latter who showed up in the Indian Ocean to trade and conquer, and not the former in the North Sea? As for the inventions—gunpowder, paper, and printing—often touted by those who assert Chinese primacy in particular, these, Landes demonstrates, existed for centuries in China without spurring economic progress. By contrast, no sooner had they arrived in Europe than they were deployed to multiply power, skills, and mobility and to spark a wave of innovation that in next to no time surpassed anything to be found in Asia.



What, then, did enable Europe to take off as it did? Fundamental to its breakout, in Landes’s view, was its favorable geography: a temperate climate of mild winters and wet summers that permitted hard work and, crucially, farming without the necessity of large-scale irrigation. In stressing this last point, Landes rehabilitates the work of Karl Wittfogel, who, in Oriental Despotism (1957), held that societies like China with a resource base of large rivers and irrigated fields could only survive on the basis of forced labor and the expropriation of power and energy by a ruthless central authority.

As Wittfogel also pointed out, the Soviet Union under Communism resurrected this crippling and tyrannical system of government. But Landes is no geographical determinist. Fair weather and the like are not enough; it takes people and incentives to bring about change. To geography, therefore, one must add politics, culture, and values. The politics, in Europe’s case, were those of a fragmented continent where rulers had to temper power with justice; if they did not, their most productive subjects would find a way to emigrate. This again provides a contrast to the equally skilled but less fortunate Chinese, who, no matter what kind of regime was imposed on them, had nowhere to turn.

As for culture and values, the Europeans were a people who married late, spaced the births of their children, and maintained just enough population pressure to encourage efficient use of resources without swamping fragile economies. Of course, before economic growth took off in the 18th century, these habits and values were not always decisive: famines and plagues culled the European population as they culled others. The point is that Europe’s cultural attributes were already in place, and had been in place from deep within the medieval past.

In arguing for the role of culture, Landes in effect carries out another rehabilitation—in this instance of Max Weber, whose notion that Calvinist Protestantism peculiarly promoted habits of investment and innovation has not been popular with historians in recent years. But why not? Weber, writes Landes, was clearly right, both theoretically and empirically: “The heart of the matter lay indeed in the making of a new kind of man,” at once “rational, ordered, diligent, productive,” and aware of time. Concerning this last capacity, Landes, building here on his previous book, Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World (1983), shows just how significant to economic development have been the desire and the ability to measure time independently of sun, weather, and stars.



Landes’s wide-ranging excursion makes it clear, then, that Europe achieved its position of predominance by an ever-shifting mix of geopolitics, culture, values, and opportunities seized. Unfortunately, when it comes to declaring which among these elements was decisive, or even preeminent, he draws back and turns frustratingly coy. Thrusting before us a whole variety of determinants, and rightfully scorning single-cause theories, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations ends up explaining too much and, therefore, too little.

Still, there are hints, and the hints point to the absolutely indispensable role of cultural attitudes. In the final analysis, what seems to count most in Landes’s view are “work, thrift, honesty, patience, tenacity.” And therein lies a moral. As The Wealth and Poverty of Nations indisputably demonstrates, there are no free lunches in the continuing global competition, and front-line societies, like those of the West, can fall behind. For this sobering and necessary reminder, too, we are in David Landes’s debt.


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