THE WEALTH AND POVERTY OF NATIONS: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor by David S. Landes
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THE WEALTH AND POVERTY OF NATIONS: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor

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KIRKUS REVIEW

An enormously erudite and provocative history of how wealth and power became so unevenly distributed between the West and the rest of the world. How did China, years ahead of Europe in technology and exploration, lose its advantage in the 17th century? What led Great Britain to set the pace for the Industrial Revolution? Why have Latin America, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa lagged behind more developed nations? Such questions, while of momentous import, hold potential for both political correctness and Western chauvinism. In truth, Landes (emeritus professor of history at Harvard; Revolution in Time, 1983) verges close to the latter. Yet one cannot help admiring his breadth of scholarship as he glides smoothly through geography, religion, economics, technology, politics, and war. Western Europe (and later America), he contends, led the way in economic progress because of its curiosity, toleration, and loose restraints on commerce, while other areas fell behind because of xenophobia, religious intolerance, bureaucratic corruption, and state edicts that stifled enterprise. He details, for instance, how Moghul misrule enabled Robert Clive to find a Hindu ally who helped him seize India, and how Argentina, despite abundant natural resources, fostered a low rate of savings and fell into a pattern of dependency on Europe and America. Landes's examples are dense in detail, yet he also leavens his arguments with elegant ironies (e.g., on Ottoman encouragement of enterprise by minority communities: ""In despotisms, it is dangerous to be rich without power""). However, while Landes labels as ""groupthink"" some historians' objections to capitalism, imperialism, and the ""Black Legend"" of conquistador misrule, he also ignores questions that call into doubt his contention that toleration spawns innovation (e.g., British hostility to Catholics did not impede progress in the U.K., nor did the kaiser's authoritarianism retard Germany's industrialization before WW I). Sometimes too airily dismissive of legitimate challenges, for all that, never less than scintillating, witty, and brilliant.

Pub Date: March 16th, 1998
Page count: 512pp
Publisher: Norton