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Journal of World History 11.1 (2000) 105-111

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Book Review

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Others So Poor

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Others So Poor. By David S. Landes. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998. Pp. xxi + 650. $30 (cloth); $15.95 (paper).

Stunning. Startling. Mystifying. Reactions to David Landes's latest tour de force will no doubt run the gamut. Filled with pithy sketches of nations (why weren't the French troubled by air pollution?--"a society that could smoke gauloises could breathe anything" [p. 469]), witty summaries of history (on Germany's invasion of Russia in World War II: the Soviets "had slept with the devil and now felt his fangs" [p. 467]), and cynical asides (on media presentations of Africa: all those "prostrate fly-specked children" [p. 506]), The Wealth and Poverty of Nations is filled with unforgettable images and supremely confident pronouncements on world history.

Amid the endearing details, Landes has an argument to make. At one level, the argument is one that I find persuasive and have long agreed with: in the "history of economic development, it is...culture [that] makes all the difference" (p. 516). The nations of Europe, particularly northwest Europe, the United States, Canada, and Japan, worked harder and tried harder to innovate and improve economically because it was important to them. Other societies worked to live, but these societies lived to work--nay, they lived to find ever better ways to work. Drawing on the accumulated knowledge of centuries, borrowing what they needed and inventing what they could not borrow, they engaged in a relentless drive for improvement. Better in weapons, in transport, in manufacturing, and in mobilizing human effort than any other societies in the world by the nineteenth century, they took over that world. Colonialism and imperialism were regrettable in their excesses, of course, but they reflected the inevitable triumph of superior European technical achievements. To deny this, however unpalatable or unfashionable it may be today to accept it, Landes says, is to deny history.

Yet at another level, the argument is one that I cannot begin to accept, and believe is manifestly falsified by the historical record. Landes does not merely claim that by the nineteenth century Europeans had achieved an undeniable level of technical superiority over other societies; he argues that this achievement was the inevitable outcome of a longstanding superiority in Europe. From the dawn of this millennium, Landes argues, the West had been the best: first in clocks, first in sailing around the globe, and in consequence thereof, first in achieving true global superiority. But in pressing this deeper argument about Western superiority, Landes goes overboard, lustily attacking all who disagree with him, and throwing out his arguments in blatant disregard [End Page 105] for logic and consistency. He becomes like the lawyer who, in order to defend his client from allegations about the theft of a vase from his neighbor, argues that (1) the vase never existed; (2) the vase is still in possession of the plaintiff; and (3) the vase belonged to his client in the first place.

Here is Landes on slavery and climate: "It is no accident that slave labor has historically been associated with tropical and semitropical climes" (p. 7). This is to buttress his argument that in the tropics, it is too hot to work, so people do not labor if they can help it; thus they rely on slaves. And where people depend on slaves, there can be no initiative, no labor-saving devices, no great civilizations. How absurd! Slavery has abounded in all societies where the strong could prey on the weak--the word itself comes from the Slavic peoples of the Black Sea region (Caucasians from the lands around the Caucasus Mountains), who were sold by Norsemen to peoples throughout the Mediterranean. Classical Greece--that land of enterprising colonists and traders, nonpareil innovators and speculators, sculptors, poets, and playwrights of genius...