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

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"Readers cannot but be provoked and stimulated by this splendidly iconoclastic and refreshing book."—Andrew Porter, New York Times Book ReviewThe Wealth and Poverty of Nations is David S. Landes's acclaimed, best-selling exploration of one of the most contentious and hotly debated questions of our time: Why do some nations achieve economic success while others remain mired in poverty? The answer, as Landes definitively illustrates, is a complex interplay of cultural mores and historical circumstance. Rich with anecdotal evidence, piercing analysis, and a truly astonishing range of erudition, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations is a "picture of enormous sweep and brilliant insight" (Kenneth Arrow) as well as one of the most audaciously ambitious works of history in decades.
For the paperback edition, Landes has written a new epilogue, in which he takes account of Asian financial crisises and the international tension between overconfidence and reality.

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Editorial Reviews

Eric Hobsbawm - Los Angeles Times
“Powerful and lucid.... There are few historians who would not be proud to be the author of this book.”
Douglass C. North - Wall Street Journal
“Mr. Landes writes with verve and gusto.... This is indeed good history.”
J. Bradford DeLong - Washington Post
“You cannot even begin to think about problems of economic development and convergence without knowing the story that Landes tells. ...I know of no better place to start thinking about the wealth and poverty of nations.”
John Kenneth Galbraith
“Truly wonderful. No question that this will establish David Landes as preeminent in his field and in his time.”
Kenneth Arrow
“A picture of enormous sweep and brilliant insight... embodied in a light and vigorous prose which carries the reader along irresistibly.”
Robert Solow
“A masterly survey... with verve, broad vision, and a whole series of sharp opinions that he is not shy about stating plainly.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393318883
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 5/28/1999
  • Pages: 658
  • Sales rank: 191,798
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

David S. Landes (1924—2013) was professor emeritus at Harvard University and the author of Bankers and Pashas, The Unbound Prometheus, and Revolution in Time.

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Sort by: Showing all of 10 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 8, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Remarkable study of the industrial origins of wealth

    This remarkable book asks why some nations are wealthy and others poor, why some nations developed industry and others didn't.

    Spain and Portugal, for example, gained capital from empire but wasted it on luxury and war. Their belief was that did not have to make things any more because they could buy them. Landes cites a Spaniard: "Madrid is the queen of Parliaments, for all the world serves her and she serves nobody." Landes comments, "Such foolishness is still heard today in the guise of comparative advantage and neoclassical trade theory. I have heard serious scholars say that the United States need not worry about its huge trade deficit with Japan."

    When Britain's governments and economists tried to persuade others to adopt free trade, "most other countries saw this as a device to keep them in their agricultural place." Banker David Ricardo, for example, wrote of the virtues of 'comparative advantage', which leads in practice to specialisation, when countries need instead to diversify their economies to develop. The theory served only Britain's advantage, because it backed her policy of keeping poorer countries down as producers of raw materials.

    Landes observes, "Portugal was Ricardo's chosen example of the gains from trade and pursuit of comparative advantage." In fact Portugal's comparative advantage in producing port and sherry led to its failure to develop its agriculture and industry and made it a colony of Britain.

    Again, "If the Germans had listened to John Bowring . That British economic traveller extraordinary lamented that the foolish Germans wanted to make iron and steel instead of sticking to wheat and rye and buying their manufactures from Britain. Had they heeded him, they would have pleased the economists and replaced Portugal, with its wine, cork, and olive oil, as the very model of a rational economy. They would also have ended up a lot poorer."

    It wasn't just theory: "The nineteenth century saw Britain protect the Ottoman empire from the territorial ambitions of its adversaries, while blithely killing off its manufactures." As it did with Ireland and India. Landes sums up, "history's strongest advocates of free trade - Victorian Britain, post-World War II United States - were strongly protectionist during their own growing stage. Don't do as I did; do as I can afford to do now."

    He writes, "It is no accident that much of the literature on dependency has been the work of Latin American economists and political scientists. They feel, with some justice, that their part of the world, though nominally free, has been put down and looted by stronger partners." He admits that they have a point, "maybe that was the first priority: freedom first, economy later; because freedom is a necessary if not sufficient condition of development."

    He has a brilliant discussion of the Industrial Revolution (1770-1870), asking why it started in Britain. It was partly because we made early starts in fossil fuel, agriculture, transport, textiles, iron and steel. As he notes, "Britain had the makings; but then Britain made itself."

    "Wealth is not so good as work. . what counts is work, thrift, honesty, patience, tenacity." Finally, he observes, "Britain had the early advantage of being a nation . Britain, moreover, was not just any nation. This was a precociously modern, industrial nation."

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 23, 2002


    The best book on the problem of modernization yet written. Landes explains convincingly why the breakthrough to the modern world happened in Europe and nowhere else. A devastating blow to the fashionable slogans of 'multiculturalism'. He is thoroughly familiar with current scholarship on the non-Western world, and is not fooled by the facile anti-Western bias that informs much of it. Landes shows through detailed, objective analysis and conclusive argumentation just why the Chinese and Islamic civilizations, despite their great past achievements in science and technology, were institutionally incapable of continued progress. There really was a 'European miracle.' This is a badly needed corrective to the shallow pseudo-scientific appoach of Jared Diamond's much-overrated'Guns, Germs, and Steel', which tried to show the rise of Europe was a mere geographical accident. This trivializes history and does a great disservice to the developing countries, who are given the false message that they have nothing to learn from the rise of Europe. Landes demonstrates that accidents like that do not happen.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 18, 2001

    Hail the winners and blame the losers: An easy way out

    Though I read the book about a year and ago before discovering this opportunity, still I am sure I can recall my impression of the book with ease. 1. It is a master piece, that has and will influence my life for ever. 2. It is revealing, that I thought to myself, why are the developed countries allowing this man to reveal their secrets. 3. It is challenging, just like the bible, if you van practice what is inside, then you can make it. 4. It is irredemably one sided, that as a Pan Africanist, I laughed my head off towards the end - where Africa was eventually discussed. The impression I got in the middle of the was that the honourable Prof. was trying desperately to avoid a discuss of the continent and it was so amusing to read the kind of excuses he gave in the long preamble to the issue of Africa. At the end of the day, the impression I had could be summed up in these three words: Success is Good...and failure bad. It is good that the Prof, wrote a successful book, it is bad that he knows next to nothing about Africa. As I said, it was some time ago I read the book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 2, 2000

    Useful History.

    David S. Landes: Wealth and Poverty of Nations. This book gives an extraordinary survey of the economic and social development of the world since the time of Christ. It enumerates important factors that have influenced the development of different societies, and explains success and failure in the light of the dynamism of their different cultures. In this way the author opens up a continuous perspective of what culture is and how it works, and which features are conducive and which are detrimental to progress. He shows how access to gold, raw materials and technology alone will bring no progress, if it does not exist in an atmosphere of individual and organisational freedom that allows and encourages curiosity, innovations and enterprise. A wealth of examples enriches his accounts, and makes them both instructive and convincing. The perspectives opened up have direct bearing on our time and our problems. We are - so far - the conclusion of history. It is an unqualified pleasure to read this book. The language is fluent and conversational, with no trace of the scientific jargon that so often dominates economic and social literature. The elegance of many passages are apt to cause the reader to applaud in his solitude. And, most importantly, at the bottom of the last page, the reader feels elevated in knowledge and wisdom, and wants more of the same. Anyone who wishes to feel entitled to an opinion on world affairs should know the points of view of this book. There is another book in the same line, Jared Diamond : Guns, Germs, and Steel. Juxtaposing these two books shows an extraordinary combination of supplement and contrast in the narration of economic and social history.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 3, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Interesting but Controversial

    As time goes by, the rich are getting richer as the poor become poorer. Landes describes this as a geographical division of the "West and the rest" (pg. xx). Landes continues on to claim that there are three types of people in this world: those who spend money to keep their weight down, people who eat to live and then, those who do not know where their next meal is coming from. Landes brings us through history from approximately the 15th century through the Industrial Revolution. How cultural values affected a particular country/nation seems to determine how quickly or slowly a nation advances economically. Landes speaks of disease, technology, and military power as reasons for the economic success or failure of a nation. This is not proven by Landes in terms of firm data. It appears to be more speculation. The book offers the reader a wealth of information regarding geography, infrastructure of nations and cultural diversity. Landes does not seem to expound upon the fact that some people's economic success or failure is based on the abilities of their land to produce for them. He seems to make more generalities than specifics. He tends to admonish the Asian cultures for being family oriented while praising the Western countries for being aggressive in economic development. Although Landes acknowledges that his book does not resolve the issue of why one nation is wealthy and one is poor, he does offer us a controversial book that tends to answer the question with no one solid answer. The theme and question in itself is very controversial from the start. Landes portrays this theme from a Euro-centric point of view often leaving out the development and evolution of other societies outside of Europe. Landes' analysis and formation of his Euro-Centric theme is well documented and precise although his explanation often fails to account for anything that was occurring outside of his stated theory. It is obvious that European exceptionalism was the focus of the author's theme in trying to explain why the world is the way it is today. Landes centers his arguments around the notion that "if we learn anything from economic development, it is that culture makes all the difference." (p.516) Landes describes Europe as "the prime mover of development and modernity" (p.xxi) and supports this notion with the evidence of different nation's success and failure throughout the history of global development, which he compares to that of Western Europe. However, Landes' Eurocentric presentation of these developments is in many aspects contradictory and biased. In the discussion of several global occurrences, Landes does not acknowledge important considerations and facets of history which may shed light on a more truthful representation of global development. Landes still stands by his idea that "European civilization and it's dissemination" were the driving force in progress and global development, furthermore, blames a "Europhobia" for the societal view that European superiority came about by in exploit, accident or luck. He considers this "anti-Eurocentric" thought to be "anti-intellectual" as well contrary to fact, although, Landes account of fact is indeed contrary to begin with.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 1, 2004

    Packed with Knowledge!

    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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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 13, 2002


    Altough the author summarizes the world economic history in a very impressing and entertaining way, he is totaly biased in his conclusions about the reasons of wealth and poverty. His book reveals the authors'lack of understanding and knowledge about the world except Europe and America, especially Islamic world and the East.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 13, 2000

    Okay book; but annoying style.

    Landes' book is okay if you're a history buff, but I found his writing style a bit annoying to read. The text is filled with myriad sentence fragments which make the book difficult to read at times.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 19, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted April 21, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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