The Wealth and Poverty of Nations  

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"On a map of the world in terms of product or income per head, the rich countries lie in the temperate zone, particularly in the northern hemisphere; the poor countries, in the tropics and semi-tropics" (p. 5). --The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (1998), David Landes


"Countries of the West, Landes asserts, prospered early through the interplay of a vital, open society focused on work and knowledge , which led to increased productivity, the creation of new technologies, and the pursuit of change. Europe's key advantage lay in invention and know-how, as applied in war, transportation, generation of power, and skill in metalwork. Even such now banal inventions as eyeglasses and the clock were, in their day, powerful levers that tipped the balance of world economic power. Today's new economic winners are following much the same roads to power, while the laggards have somehow failed to duplicate this crucial formula for success." --blurb


"Clearly, the common view of imperialism as a Western invention and monopoly visited on non-European peoples is wrong. Exception is sometimes made for modern Japan; but what of precolonial Africa? The same "progressive" thinkers who denounce European colonialism are quick enough to take pride in the expansion of the Zulu or Ashante. On this manichean view of world history, setting the demonic white man against victimized people of color, see Bruckner's emphatic Tears of the White Man." --The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (1998), David Landes, p. 425


"The conquerors melted into the indigenous population, to the point of effacing their own identity, or swallowed the conquered. (The tests are intermarriage, language, and personal names." Who bears a Frankish name and who a Gallo-Roman one [in the polyptique of Irminon]?"

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are So Rich and Some So Poor (1998) is a book by the late David Landes associated with Harvard University. In it, Landes elucidates the reasons why some countries and regions of the world experienced near miraculous periods of explosive growth while the rest of the world stagnated. He does this by comparing the long-term economic histories of different regions of the world, giving priority to Europe and the United States, as well as Japan, China, the Arab world, and Latin America. In addition to analyzing economic and cliometric figures, he gives substantial credit to such intangible assets as culture and enterprise in the different societies he examines in order to explain economic success or failure.

In doing so, he revives, at least in part, several theories he believes have been incorrectly discarded by academics over the last 40 years:

  • The 'cultural thesis' or Protestant work ethic of Max Weber, whereby the values imposed by the Protestant religion on its adherents would have pushed them to value hard work, timeliness, enterprise, free market and free-thinking to a much greater extent than for their Catholic brethren, which would explain the great success of northern Protestant regions such as the Netherlands, Great Britain, Denmark and parts of Germany as compared to southern Catholic nations such as Spain and France.
  • The 'hydraulic thesis' or 'Oriental Despotism thesis' of Karl A. Wittfogel, in which despots would control the use of water in order to submit the population to its will.
  • The 'climate thesis' that posits that tropical climes are, ceteris paribus, poor candidates for development.
  • Many of the theories of Adam Smith, whose Wealth of Nations is borrowed from for the title. That does not necessarily mean a doctrinaire neoclassicism, as Landes notes that 'comparative advantage' can change over time.

He also spends a good deal of effort to debunk claims that the Asian miracle did not happen, was not significant, or was financed by European colonialism, and he draws a correlation between the economic level of a country and the way it treats its women.

In short, he argues that the vast economic growth of the Industrial Revolution was no accident but instead resulted from several qualities of Europe, including its climate, political competition, economic freedom and attitude towards science and religion, more specifically from certain countries in Western Europe, primarily England.

Criticism and response

Critics have charged Landes with eurocentrism in his analysis, a charge which Landes himself does not deny; in fact, he embraces it explicitly, arguing that an explanation for an economic miracle that happened originally only in Europe (though he deals with the later 'Asian miracle' in Wealth and Poverty) must of necessity be a Eurocentric analysis, thus siding at least at some level with thinkers such as Bernard Lewis. Following Daniel Bell, knowledge is the necessary link between 'The European miracle' and the American post-industrial society.

Landes and Professor Andre Gunder Frank, author of ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age , are noted for having come to very different conclusions about the long-vie significance of economic developments in "the West" during the modern era and publicly debated their findings in 1998 at Northwestern University.

Additionally, an alternate theory relies on literacy and the gap between Protestants and Catholics as an explanation for the difference in economic results.

The economist Paul Krugman remarked in The Trouble with History (article published on his MIT-hosted blog) that the book, while containing an enormous amount of information, offered very few ideas. « What (does) ... Landes actually believe? And the answer, which seems to me to be damning, is that I am not sure. (...) So I am still waiting for a book that helps me understand what really happened in this utterly perplexing century... Whoever writes that book will have to be a person unafraid of offering theories as well as facts, and therefore of saying things that might turn out to be wrong. »

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