Book Summary: “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations” by David Landes


Title: The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor
Author: David Landes
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

If you enjoy this summary, please support the author by buying the book.

Topic of Book

Landes explores why some nations are rich and others are poor.

Key Take-aways

Industrial Revolution was not an accident. It was the outcome of many causes:

  • Climate
  • Political Competition
  • Cultural attitudes toward innovation, science and religion

Important Quotes from Book

 “My aim in writing this book is to do world history. Not, however, in the multicultural, anthropological sense of intrinsic parity: all peoples are equal and the historian tries to attend to them all. Rather, I thought to trace and understand the main stream of economic advance and modernization: how have we come to where and what we are, in the sense of making, getting, and spending. ”

“Geography has fallen on hard times.”

“My own sense is that geography is discredited, if not discreditable, by its nature. It tells an unpleasant truth, namely, that nature like life is unfair, unequal in its favors; further, that nature’s unfairness is not easily remedied. ”

“In the case of African trypanosomiasis, the vector is the tsetse fly, a nasty little insect that would dry up and die without frequent sucks of mammal blood. Even today, with powerful drugs available, the density of these insects makes large areas of tropical Africa uninhabitable by cattle and hostile to humans. In the past, before the advent of scientific tropical medicine and pharmacology, the entire economy was distorted by this scourge: animal husbandry and transport were impossible; only goods of high value and low volume could be moved, and then only by human porters. Needless to say, volunteers for this wherever people work in water—in wet rice cultivation, for example.

“The unevenness of nature shows in the contrast between this unhappy picture and the far more favorable conditions in temperate zones; and within these, in Europe above all; and within Europe, in western Europe first and foremost.

Take climate. Europe does have winters, cold enough to keep down pathogens and pests… Even in winter, West European temperatures are kind. If one traces lines of equal temperature around the globe (isotherms), nowhere do they bend so far north as along Europe’s Atlantic coast… As a result, Europeans were able to grow crops year round.

They were assisted here by a relatively even rainfall pattern, distributed around the year and rarely torrential… This is a pattern found only exceptionally around the globe.

“This dependable and equable supply of water made for a different pattern of social and political organization from that prevailing in riverine civilizations. Along rivers, control of food fell inevitably to those who held the stream and the canals it fed. Centralized government appeared early, because the master of food was master of people… Nothing like this was possible in Europe.

This privileged European climate was the gift of the large warm current that we know as the Gulf Stream”

“If so, why was Europe so slow to develop, thousands of years after Egypt and Sumer? The answer, again, is geography: those hardwood forests… “Not until people had iron cutting tools, in the first millennium before our era (B.C.E.), could they clear those otherwise fertile plains north of the Alps.”

“This favorable environment enabled Europeans to leave more of the land for forest and fallow and so raise livestock without seeking far for pasture. Their animals were bigger and stronger than those of other lands.”

“In the long run, however, the Europeans won. Larger animals meant an advantage in heavy work and transport. Draft horses could plow the clayey soils of the great northern plain (the horse is more powerful than the ox, that is, it moves faster and does more work in less time), while moving fresh crops to urban markets. Later on they would haul field guns to war and into combat.”

“This is not to say that European crop yields per area or population densities were higher than those in warm irrigation societies. The gains from animal fertilizer, plowing (which brings nutrients up from below), and fallow could not match the fertile silt of the Nile, the Euphrates, or the Indus; even less, the alluvial deposits of the Yellow and Yangtze rivers, and the multiple cropping made possible by year-round warmth”

“The riverine civilizations maximized population; the Europeans focused on small households and strategies of undivided inheritance and interfamilial alliance”

“Viewed over time, the treadmill process shows a number of stages:

  1. The Chinese, or Han people, as they came to call themselves, started in the north, in the forests edging the barren inner Asian steppe. “They then moved, not into the open dry lands to the west, which could not support an already dense population, but south, on to the loess soils along the upper Yellow River.
  2. “Loess agriculture was a school for water control and irrigation technology. It prepared the way for the next move, into the wetter, more fertile, but also more precarious river basin environment of the lower Yellow River and its branches. There the Han came to know rice, a crop that yielded many more calories per area, although the traditional cereals—millet, sorghum, barley—remained important. Wheat came later.
  3. “Between the eighth and thirteenth centuries of our era came a second agricultural revolution. The Han people kept moving south, into the Yangtze basin and beyond, pushing slash-and-burn, itinerant aboriginals aside or before… “In economic terms, they substituted labor for land, using sixty and eighty persons per hectare where an American wheat farmer would use one, and obtaining yields double and triple the already good results achieved in dry farming—as much as 2,700 liters per hectare. At the maximum, a thousand people could live on the food produced by a square kilometer.”

“The contest for power in European societies (note the plural) also gave rise to the specifically European phenomenon of the semi-autonomous city, organized and known as commune… “But nothing like the commune appeared outside western Europe”

“The essence of the commune lay, first, in its economic function: these units were governments of the merchants, by the merchants, and for the merchants and second, in its exceptional civil power: its ability to confer social status and political rights on its residents—rights crucial to the conduct of business and to freedom from outside interference of business and to freedom from outside interference”

“Serf emancipation in western Europe was directly linked to the rash of franchised villages and urban communes, and to the density and proximity of these gateways. Where cities and towns were few and unfree, as in eastern Europe, serfdom persisted and worsened”

““Why did rulers grant such rights to rustics and townsmen, in effect abandoning (transferring) some of their own powers? Two reasons above all. First, new land, new crops, trade, and markets brought revenue, and revenue brought power. (Also pleasure.) Second, paradoxically, rulers wanted to enhance their power within their own kingdom: free farmers (note that I do not say “peasants”) and townsmen (bourgeois) were the natural enemies of the landed aristocracy and would support the crown and other great lords in their struggles with local seigneurs.

Note further that European rulers and enterprising lords who sought to grow revenues in this manner had to attract participants by the grant of franchises, freedoms, and privileges—in short, by making deals. They had to persuade them to come”

“the initiative came from below, and this too was an essentially European pattern. Implicit in it was a sense of rights and contract—the right to negotiate as well as petition—with gains to the freedom and security of economic activity”

“The mystery lies in China’s failure to realize its potential. One generally assumes that knowledge and know-how are cumulative; surely a superior technique, once known, will replace older methods. But Chinese industrial history offers examples of technological oblivion and regression… The crucial point is that nobody tried. In most fields, agriculture being the chief exception, Chinese technology stopped progressing well before the point at which a lack of scientific knowledge had become a serious obstacle”

“if one understands by totalitarianism the complete hold of the State and its executive organs and functionaries over all the activities of social life, without exception, Chinese society was highly totalitarian…. No private initiative, no expression of public life that can escape official control. There is to begin with a whole array of state monopolies, which comprise the great consumption staples: salt, iron, tea, alcohol, foreign trade. There is a monopoly of education, jealously guarded. There is practically a monopoly of letters”

“The ingenuity and inventiveness of the Chinese, which have given so much to mankind—silk, tea, porcelain, paper, printing, and more—would no doubt have enriched China further and probably brought it to the threshold of modern industry, had it not been for this stifling state control. It is the State that kills technological progress in China.”

“the Confucian state abhorred mercantile success”

 “I would put forward a law of social and political relationships, namely, that three factors cannot coexist: (1) a marked disparity of power; (2) private access to the instruments of power; and (3) equality of groups or nations. Where one group is strong enough to push another around and stands to gain by it, it will do so. Even if the state would abstain from aggression, companies and individuals will not wait for permission. Rather, they will act in their own interest, dragging others along, including the state.

That is why imperialism (the domination by one group of another) has always been with us.”

“it is fair to say that most historians today would look upon the Weber thesis as implausible and unacceptable: it had its moment and it is gone “manufacturing industry (watches, machinery, textiles); the Catholic ones were primarily agricultural. In England, which by the end of the sixteenth century was overwhelmingly Protestant, the Dissenters (read Calvinists) were disproportionately active and influential in the factories and forges of the nascent Industrial Revolution”

“But if I had to single out the critical, distinctively European sources of success, I would emphasize three considerations:

(1) the growing autonomy of intellectual inquiry;

(2) the development of unity in disunity in the form of a common, implicitly adversarial method, that is, the creation of a language of proof recognized, used, and understood across national and cultural boundaries; and

(3) the invention of invention, that is, the routinization of research and its diffusion.”

India: “But then why not a system of independent nation-states as in Europe… “Because, I think, these aristocratic tyrannies, large and small, could not create the popular identities needed to bond a people and make it feel different from, even superior to, its neighbors. Religion might have done—Muslims vs. Hindus—but that would not serve as a national definer (discriminant) until the twentieth century. Had the Europeans not come in the seventeenth century, India would simply have reverted to the internecine divisions and troubles that had been its lot for millennia”

“If we learn anything from the history of economic development, it is that culture makes all the difference. (Here Max Weber was right on.) Witness the enterprise of expatriate minorities—the Chinese in East and Southeast Asia, Indians in East Africa, Lebanese in West Africa, Jews and Calvinists throughout much of Europe, and on and on. Yet culture, in the sense of the inner values and attitudes that guide a population, frightens scholars. It has a sulfuric odor of race and inheritance, an air of immutability”

If you would like to learn more about the causes of the wealth and poverty of nations, read my book From Poverty to Progress.

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