The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David S. Landes

If you only ever read one book on history, this should be it. The title is a play on Adam Smith's landmark piece on economics, The Wealth of Nations. The book tackles the hugely difficult and politically charged topic of current economic prosperty by taking a historical perspective. What was the path of history of each nation and its peoples that led to where it is today?

Some themes emerge, though Landes, like any good historian, is careful to avoid too much analysis. We find that, by and large, the most prosperous nations are those that foster economic freedom (free trade and transparent markets) and freedom in general. Holland (primarily Amsterdam), Britain, and then the United States each dominate in their respective heydeys largely though the freedom they offer their peoples. Of course this is not the only variable at play by far: Spain, for example, experiences several hundred years of prosperity and world domination through what is essentially good luck, the discovery of mass amounts of gold and silver in a land where the current occupants were incapable of effective defence.

He also tackles the difficult question of China: with technological and social innovations, a strong central government, a massive population and vast natural resources all attained thousands of years before any other place in the world, why did not they, instead of the Europeans, come to dominate the world? He gives an answer that may rose the ire of multiculturalists: Chinese culture. Confuscian philosophy values order above all else. With a strong cultural attitude against anything resembling ambition or individualism, Chinese society has not be subjected to the choatic upheavels which every other society, stagnation naturally results. (Compare this to European culture, which is shaken to the core on a regular basis throughout history by episodes such as the coming of Jesus, the philosophy of Luther, or the age of Enlightenment, just to name a very few.)

Rating: 5 of 5
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