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on 9 August 2009
David Landes' thesis is simple: culture is the key determinant of societal-level wealth. Landes does a Weberian analysis of the disparity in wealth between (mostly) The West and the Rest--a loaded topic, on which much ink has been spilled and which has engendered much chauvinism, brilliant economic insight, and the odd dash of racism. He argues that Calvinist Europe cultivated the cultural virtues that make a society wealthy: hard work, honesty, curiosity, thrift, industry and the respect for private property. According to Landes, it is no surprise that the Industrial Revolution, with its resulting increases in productivity, took place in Western Europe. Even though Islamic, Chinese and Western civilisations were at similar levels of development in the 1100s, Western Europe had pulled away from the rest by the late 1500s.

Landes further contrasts Northwestern (Protestant) Europe with Southern (Catholic) Europe. According to Landes, the discovery of the New World treasure--coupled with the Post-Tridentine Catholic Church's emphasis on simple peasant spirituality (none of all that schooling business) contrived to retard economic progress in Southern Europe and its offshoot civilisations in South America. While Spain and Portugal were busy looting the New World and praying for their souls, the Dutch and British were working hard to generate the wealth that kick-started and reinforced the Industrial Revolution. Landes also examined the rise of Japan (the best chapter of the book, in my opinion). He argues that Japan's openness to Western education, its ability to learn quickly and to mobilise popular feeling in the service of the national cause, put Japan on the road to industrialisation after the Meiji Restoration. So far so good. Landes' thesis that the winners in the capitalist system have cultural values that promote the generation of wealth seemed plausible up to this point.

Landes' corollary argument that the absence of "industrial" values--thrift, entrepreneurship, hard work and respect for private property--in poor countries is the key reason for poverty falls flat on its face. He sums up this position succintly in the last chapter of the book: "If we learn anything from the history of economic development, it is that culture matters...One could have foreseen the post-war economic success of Japan and Germany by taking into account culture...the same with Indonesia vs Nigeria." In essence, he says that, in 1960, based on culture alone, one could have predicted Indonesia's relative economic success and Nigeria's dismal economic performance. Really? His argument rests on two assumptions: (1) That culture is static; and (2) culture is the cause of economic development. Both assumptions are shaky.

Consider the following descriptions of 'German culture' as observed by some well-educated Britons in the nineteenth century:

1. "The Germans never hurry"... "They work as and when they please." Mary Shelley (1843), quoted in Rambles in Germany and Italy, vol. 1 (Edward Monkton, London), p. 276.
2. "The [German] tradesman and the shopkeeper take advantage of you wherever they can, and to the smallest imaginable amount rather than not take advantage of you at all.." Sir Arthur Brooke Faulkner (1833), Visit to Germany and the Low Countries.

The Germans never hurry? The Germans take advantage of you wherever they can? These statements do not resonate with us today because we consider Germans to be the epitome of industry and thrift. We have no reason to believe that these observations are infact true. Might Mary Shelley have suffered from confirmation bias? If these observations were true in the nineteenth century, the fact that Germans are considered industrious today suggests that culture does change.

Is national culture the cause of economic growth? Did today's rich countries 'start off' with superior cultures 200 years ago? The direction of causality is more complex than Landes supposes. No wealthy country got its culture correct right off the bat; instead, the process of industrialisation influenced national culture and vice versa.

Landes argues that developing countries are poor because their populations have anti-entrepreneurial cultures. This argument conflates the people with the government, but there is an important distinction between them. Obviously, Professor Landes has never been to the bustling markets of Lagos to witness first-hand the entrepreneurial drive of Nigerian market women. To argue that a developing country like Nigeria is poor simply because the culture of the people is inimical to entrepreneurship is to insult the thousands of hard-working, small-scale entrepreneurs who make a living far from the halls of a corrupt, predatory government. As one who has seen the drive and resilience of many small-scale Nigerian entrepreneurs (especially women), I take exception to Landes' glib analysis. Landes completely missed it: he conflates the state with the people - and they are not the same.

Many post-colonial countries are poor not because the people are anti-entrepreneurial, but because the post-colonial governments are. Hernando de Soto demonstrates this conclusively in 'The Other Path' and 'The Mystery of Capital'. Post-colonial states, originally contrived as agents of extraction, systematically thwart the entrepreneurial energies of their people because they are run for the benefit of a small urban elite to the exclusion of everyone else.

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations received much praise for its political-incorrectness. Landes goes go out of his way to ruffle politically-correct sensibilities. He rages against left-wing liberals of every breed and often drops in the odd politically-incorrect gems of wisdom. For example, he states, "The British colonists were capable of cold murder, but hot torment and torture?..if I were an Indian [Native American] I would have rather died in British than in Spanish hands". What an asinine comment. It is like saying to a Holocaust survivor, "Wouldn't you rather have died quickly and efficiently in an industrial-scale extermination camp like Auschwitz than in one of Stalin's horridly inefficient concentration camps". Such statements are not only politically-incorrect, they are also tactless and obtuse. One wonders if Landes had an editor.

Tactless remarks notwithstanding, the proof of the cultural argument is real-life validation. Test case: India and China. Disappointingly, the book barely discusses post-colonial India and China. Could one have predicted in 1990 that China and India would achieve remarkable growth rates in the 2000s only from an analysis of their respective national cultures? Furthermore, as (Catholic) Spain and Brazil--two countries that Landes ruthlessly grills--achieved higher growth rates than many Protestant countries, could one have attributed these growth spurts to "Catholic" culture?

As one who has experienced the debilitating effects of cultural baggage like clannism in Nigeria, my first reaction to Landes' thesis was to assent in the main: culture really matters. However, after careful reflection, it seemed to me that Landes only got it partly right: Western Europe and Japan got ahead because they were the first to establish the rule of law, transparent(ish) government, institutions that support private enterprise and the promotion of national interests. While Western Europe's economic head-start may have been due in part to its cultural inheritance (hard work, thrift, curiosity, Enlightenment rationality etc), it seems that other factors such as common ethnicity, common language, and geography played important roles. Afterall, Westerners are not the only ones who worked hard or were thrifty. Moreover, economic success further may have re-inforced supporting institutions. Therefore, to argue that Western countries are rich today because Western culture always glorified hard work, thrift and rationality is to be overly simplistic.

Landes' thesis suffers from the same flaw that afflicts mono-causal explanations of complex phenomena. Landes explains best: "Economic analysis cherishes the notion that one good explanation should be good enough, but the determinants of complex processes are invariably plural and interrelated." By arguing that culture is the determinant of the wealth and poverty of nations, Landes spectacularly failed to heed his own advice. Is Nigeria poor because Nigerians 'hate' entrepreneurship? Could it be that the causes of developing-country poverty are multi-factorial: the detritus of colonial institutions, the challenge of building viable multi-ethnic post-colonial states, failure to establish the rule of law, the presence of a rent-seeking, predatory elite? By arguing that Western Europe's success is due mainly to its cultural inheritance, Landes overstates the case for culture. For all his wit and insight especially into Japan's economic miracle, Landes' case that culture is everything is not convincing; it deserves three stars.
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on 16 May 2007
This book gives a very fine overview of why certain countries have accumulated more wealth than others.

Another review stated wealth is not the (only) measure for success and dismisses the book for it. Landes agrees with wealth not being the sole purpose of a society, but tries in his book to make understandable just why there are differences in wealth; without judging wealth or the way it is gathered as either good or bad. That is a proper and scientific standpoint.

The book starts in prehistoric times and follows a chronological path of wealth building in various regions: Europe, US (limited), Japan, China, Middle East and Africa. Up to around 1700 his story is entertaining as well as easy to follow: the prescriptions and conditions for wealth are clear, easy to understand and still applicable today (to a certain extent).

From the industrial revolution onward, as societies grow more complex, also the book becomes more complex and the reasoning of Landes becomes harder to follow. The final chapters were for me very difficult to read through. I personally believe the complexity and intertwinedness of societies in the last century makes it increasingly hard to pinpoint what makes the difference between growth and stability.

Since the origins of wealth and of poverty should be described until recent times, also the last chapters are essential. Omitting them would be like stopping before the climax of a movie...Overall I rate this book highly, and would recommend everybody to read it, and take notes per chapter to see where and how the factors for growing wealth still apply.
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on 2 June 1998
The topic of economic disparity attracts more heat than light, with authors often doing less to offer insight than to saddle up hobby-horses reflecting the politics of the day. Landes steers clear of all this, possibly stepping on a few toes in his no-nonsense assertion that material wellbeing is the definitive indicator of social success; and that democratic capitalism on the American model is the benchmark of success by these standards. His mandarin style combines with a robust cast of mind to rebut explicitly (and to my mind tellingly) such tempting notions as global exploitation (our country is poor because yours is rich), or cultural equivalence (our ways are just as good as yours in our own way, could you but recognise it). This is all to the good, as is the general thrust of Landes' book, that we should look to culture for an explanation of the defining feature of the modern world: the technical and economic triumph in the modern era of Western Europe over such apparently promising rivals as China. Such an account points to an explanation (if not necessarily to policy prescriptions) for such troublesome matters as the greater success of East Asian than South Asian catch-up, or the disappointments of the Middle East, post-colonial Latin America and Africa.
Less satisfactory are a few side-swipes early on in the book at "geographical" explanations, where Landes rather lets himself down in his attempt to undermine them with the news that Harvard disbanded its geography school fifty years ago. This is no doubt true but irrelevant to the merit of the arguments. In the event, Landes need not be so sniffy, in that his arguments address the last 5-700 years, whereas the geographers (if I have properly understood the matter) look to the last 40,000. In effect, there is no contradiction, indeed a synthesis seems compelling. See "Guns, Germs and Steel", Jared Diamond, W W Norton, 1997.
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on 12 October 2013
Why are some nations so rich and some so poor? One usually hears a... wealth of common sense reasons which however are rather ...poor explanations! Some rich nations are big, some small, and many poor countries are also big or small. So size, in this case, does not matter. Same for natural resources: some rich nations are well endowed but many poor nations are too. Geographic location also seems pretty much irrelevant: some rich countries are in hot regions, some in cold ones. Same for poor countries.

What makes the difference, according to landes, is mostly cultural and ethical factors. A provocative and most informative book. Travelers will find many ideas in this book to understand the economy of countries around the world.
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on 27 June 2015
Economic history of the world that explains why the industrial revolution started where it did and why countries are rich or poor. Shows that three factors determine the wealth or poverty of a nation and they are geography, stupid politics and religions. Nothing you did not already know perhaps but a thoroughly reasoned explanation through the eye of a historical economist. This is essential reading for everyone interested in the effects of culture upon economic development.
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on 10 February 1999
A marvellous book, fun to read, full of scholarship and succinct opinions. It provokes you into further reading, back to the originals, sideways to opposing views, and onwards to the economic development literature.
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on 24 August 2001
The role of apparently insignificant inventions and discoveries in bringing about momentous developments in technology and civilisation is brilliantly depicted in Landes' book. The invention of eyeglasses is a case in point. This is a brilliant piece of writing, but Landes' constant references to the importance of the free market in the development of the wealthy countries is a bit too strident for my taste. I smell ideology here, and American triumphalist ideology at that. Nevertheless, with the employment of a good bulls*** filter, one can gain some very rewarding insights from the book.
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on 3 May 2002
My opinion of this book is that anyone who wants to know "the causes of the wealth and poverty of nations" would do better to read Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel" which is more thoroughly researched, more original, more thought through and more readable.
Having said that, Landes' book, while covering exactly the same subject, is as different from Diamond's as it is possible to be, and I would certainly recommend anyone who found GG&S interesting to read this too.
I liked this book for its ideas, its ambition and broad range and the many fascinating facts, stories and anecdotes. On the other hand on those subjects I have some knowledge of I found it rather shallow and sometimes inaccurate or out-of-date.
Landes has a take-no-prisoners style. At first I found this refreshing and enjoyable (since I mostly agree with what he has to say), but eventually I just got sick of his constant whinging about foreigners, political correctness and academic rivals... Despite what the other reviewers may say I would recommend not to read this book all in one go - unless you are a Daily Telegraph reader, in which case I guess you can cope!
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on 7 October 2014
This is a kind of economic world history, and the effort as such is remarkable. Therefore, I give it three stars. However, I give this book no more than three stars, because very little of what Landes says is actually new. From a Harvard professor I would really have expected deeper insights and more detail.
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on 1 March 2004
David S. Landes has written an extraordinary economic history that will open your eyes about countries’ economic flops and good fortune. He also covers what makes a country achieve — and keep — great economic success. The book will appeal not only to economic history buffs, but also to the average person who needs to know how to keep a company or a country from economic trouble. Not to mention, he offers lots of great cocktail party anecdotes to impress your friends. Landes builds on solid economic data, but his unusual factual nuggets and vivid commentary are what make the book such a pleasure to read. In an age where politicians seek to make sure America stays economically relevant amid huge trade friction, We believe this book is a must-read for not just the chief executive officer, but for the rank-and-file workers who want to make sure they will be winners, not losers, in international trade. Landes has cooked up a great feast of economic history. Come, draw up a chair to the table and partake of this rich bounty.
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