Customer Review

257 of 295 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars LOOSE ELASTIC, 20 Mar 2012
This review is from: Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty (Kindle Edition)
I bought this book when I read a favourable review and thought it would be interesting to explore the reasons why some states succeed economically, while others never `take off' and others take flight but stall. I smelt a rat when I started to find that the style of writing is repetitive and circular and when I found some straightforward factual errors.

The authors say that the Spanish Armada was pursued (by the English) `all round the coasts of Britain'. Well no: we stopped pursuing it off the coast of Kent, and it sailed home via the North Sea and the Atlantic because there was no other way back. The Armada was largely destroyed by bad weather, off the West coasts of Scotland and Ireland. Likewise, the authors say - as if there is some significance in this - that at one time England and Hungary were ruled by the same dynasty, the Angevins. Well, it depends what you mean by `Angevin': it was a prolific house; but the Angevin dynasty in Hungary did not come to power until the fourteenth century, by which time we English call our kings `Plantagenets'. They may have been descended from Angevins, but conventionally the Angevins ruled England in the twelfth century; and they were only remotely related to those who ruled in Hungary, Naples, Anjou and Provence.

The detail matters. If you can't get the facts straight, what hope is there for the grand theory?

When you look at the `case studies', the history here is truly crude - almost like Sellars and Yeatman's `1066 and All That', but without the humour. Take English history, which I know something about. The authors place far too much importance on the Black Death of 1381 (feudalism did not come to an end overnight as a result of that event, catastrophic though it was). They accept Geoffrey Elton's account of the `Tudor Revolution in Government', when this was largely discredited by medievalists, almost as soon as it was formulated. They regard Christopher Hill's account of the so-called `English Revolution' of 1640-60 as being the last word, ignoring at least four decades of criticism. They overemphasize the importance of the Glorious Revolution and ignore how English society was between 1688 and 1832 (and beyond), notwithstanding the Industrial Revolution. They constantly confuse `England' with `Britain'.

If the treatment of English history is so brief and sweeping as to be a caricature, it makes me wonder about the history of other countries; and I am very suspicious of the authors' treatment of Japan, Venice and Ancient Rome in particular. With regard to Rome, they take it as read that the Roman Empire declined before it fell; but there is a very respectable view that it simply fell, when invaded by the Barbarians; and the authors detect the seeds of decay as far back as the reign of Augustus. What then of Gibbon's view that mankind's happiest days were passed in the age of the Antonines, in the second century A.D.?

The problem is that the authors purport to be experts on everything and on every age, when in fact they are masters of nothing but a theory; and the theory is so broad and vague as to be almost incapable of proof or disproof. Thus centralisation + inclusive institutions = lasting economic success and prosperity. I think I go along with this to some extent; but the terms are very elastic. What degree of centralisation counts as such? What is meant by `inclusive' or for that matter `extractive'? They may be right about the USSR and China; but I am not sure they have explained why the former failed and why the seemingly inexorable rise of the latter may be an illusion.
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Comments

Tracked by 4 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 13 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 24 Mar 2012 15:16:37 GMT
MoQingbird says:
A very useful review, thanks.

I'm curious... have you read Why the West Rules (for now), by Ian Morris?

It presents a grand unified theory of history based on geography+technology. I'm not a historian like you, so I'd be interested in what you think of his historical 'facts'.

Posted on 2 Apr 2012 11:58:44 BDT
Excellent review, thank you.

Posted on 12 Apr 2012 13:06:03 BDT
MattC says:
Good to see some critical reviews. There tends to be a common stream of prescribed history being floated by a certain cohort or historians recently and its getting well, a little repetitive.

The common theme I keep finding is the overarching simple explanations that seem to always been given. History is complicated and that should not be a reason to fade away from addressing that complexity especially as you say when sloppy facts underpin grand theories.

Posted on 11 May 2012 22:06:51 BDT
Excalibur says:
"The authors place far too much importance on the Black Death of 1381"

Surely you mean 1348? 1381 was the year of the Peasants' Revolt.

Posted on 30 May 2012 13:23:06 BDT
Last edited by the author on 30 May 2012 13:29:19 BDT
Michael says:
"With regard to Rome, they take it as read that the Roman Empire declined before it fell; but there is a very respectable view that it simply fell, when invaded by the Barbarians; and the authors detect the seeds of decay as far back as the reign of Augustus. What then of Gibbon's view that mankind's happiest days were passed in the age of the Antonines, in the second century A.D.?"

The "respectable view" is that it started 'falling' with the Crisis of the Third century that destroyed much of the stability; or even before that, the turmoil that followed the Antonine dynasty (that you mentioned).

More over, the 'barbarian invasions' were more migrations that invasions. Most germanic peoples were accepted into the Empire, resettled in the increasingly deserted areas, and taken into the armies. While the empire's population continually decreased, germanic populations rose and this caused massive migrations. Similar to all the indo-european migrations that settled the euroasian world.

The Roman Empire had structural flaws that ultimately spelled it's collapse. The societal structure, in particular the rural populace, changed a lot during the empire, becoming more impoverish while at the same time the slave labour dried up. The succession issue was another problem never faced entirely. Plus the military rose to unchecked power, the currency suffered continued devaluation since Augustus.
It's no wonder the empire did not expand after Augustus and the few later conquests were illusory.

Posted on 1 Jul 2012 18:09:07 BDT
Petro says:
I agree the book is repetitive, its message could have been put across more succinctly, however criticising details such as how far did the english chase the spanish armada misses the point completely of the powerful message that the book delivers. I do not think that the authors are trying to be experts on everything and for every age, this is not a historical book, instead they are using examples from history (yes oversimplified) to get their message across, highlighting the similarities between different times and places.

Posted on 28 Aug 2012 03:23:57 BDT
Firstly you seemed to have missed the point of the book if you think centralisation is what they are recommending. Have you read it at all? Your last point seems to indicate you havent.

Secondly you are picking vague points that are not actually incorrect. The Spanish Armarda was persued, it went around the English/scottish coasts. I don't see the big deal.

Also, what sort of history books have you been reading that downplay the importance of the Black Death in the reform of England? As someone with a particular interest in this period I find your criticism deeply unfair.

Their position is the most widely held among academic historians. I suggest you go do some research as their points on the death knell of fuedalism and the increase in relative power among the commons are very significant. Look at wage and bargaining power increases, population movement, land consolidation. The emergence of the yeomanry and a developing educated urban non-ecclesiastical middle class.

Tudor revolution in government (also Early Modern scholars should not be incorrectly label as medievalists) similarly is less of an issue as you make out. The point that the role of government and the nature of the state (both in practical and symbolic terms) was drastically altered during the Tudor era is one that is not exactly controversial even if Elton's particular account is contested (but the basics still held to by many).

"but there is a very respectable view that it simply fell" - not widely held though. Other commenter points it out better but it is also worth mentioning many see Rome's long long term problems began with Rome in the terms of this book transitioning away from a state of supportive institutions for the citizenry to one of extractive institutions where the citizenry who had previously been vital became a bit superfluous to demand.

In reply to an earlier post on 24 Sep 2012 23:35:45 BDT
Michael wrote: "The Roman Empire had structural flaws that ultimately spelled it's collapse. The societal structure, in particular the rural populace, changed a lot during the empire, becoming more impoverish while at the same time the slave labour dried up. The succession issue was another problem never faced entirely. Plus the military rose to unchecked power, the currency suffered continued devaluation since Augustus."

I think this an interesting perspective, especially because Rome from the rise of the Republic to the fall of the western half of the empire lasted roughly 1,000 years. Given that the Byzantine Empire persisted another 500 years, you get a total for the Romans of something like 1,500 years. Of course there were massive changes in the civilization and culture of the Romans such that the later Romans would hardly have been recognizable to the earlier ones, but that's par for the course in human history. What isn't par for the course, at least among nations in the West, was such extreme national longevity. So I always find myself wondering about this Fall of Rome business. Most other nations in the West should be so lucky!

In reply to an earlier post on 24 Sep 2012 23:40:25 BDT
Michael says:
Indeed. Rome was actually not a 'nation' in the modern sense of the term. Rome was a complete civilization, arising from a 'globalization' of the mediterranean-classical civilization, which had before been tried by greeks, persians, carthageans.

In that regard, the fall of Rome was not the fall of a city or a nation, but the fall of a whole world.
or more correctly, the transformation and evolution of a world driven by internal and external forces.

As you've said, the society of the later roman republic, the earlier empire, the post-3rd-century-crisis empire, or the eastern/byzantime/greek empire were all very different from each other.

In reply to an earlier post on 6 Dec 2012 20:31:54 GMT
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