Posted by: Home Strange Home | August 6, 2009

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations

If you liked Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, you will find a thorough continuation of his analysis in David Landes’ 500-page tome, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (the title, of course, being reminiscent of Adam Smith’s seminal work).  This book is not specifically about Africa – rather, it recounts the economic history of the entire globe – but it is highly educational in that it takes an historical perspective on modern developmental issues.    

David Landes is a Harvard economic historian who seeks to answer the weighty question, why are some nations rich and others poor?  He explores the underlying reasons behind such inequality, tracing the distribution of wealth back to its historical sources.  Landes explores in depth how today’s advanced western nations (particularly the US and the UK) became rich through an examination of the industrial revolution, technological innovation and invention, geographic exploration, empire and colonialism, politics, war, culture, and religion.  

He explores the economic history of Europe, the US, China, and Japan in great detail, sometimes to the point of boring even the most dedicated of readers.  In his analysis, Landes emphasizes the role of culture and religion in development, sometimes at the risk of sounding biased and racist (particularly when he makes seemingly blanket judgments against Islam and Middle Eastern culture).  He also highlights the limitations of China, pointing out the fact that China discovered many technologies before the West (e.g. the clock and expert sea navigation) but failed to realize their potential and turn them into a benefit for the masses. 

Landes recognizes the limitations of classic trade theory and the frequently underlines the irony of today’s advanced nations advocating free trade when they previously used protectionism to develop.  He points out that comparative advantage is not fixed and “Today’s comparative advantage may not be tomorrow’s.”  Wise words. 

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