ABOUT THIS EPISODE

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations was published by David Landes in 1998, and it has occupied a preeminent place on the bookshelves of scholars ever since. Landes boldly argued that historically unique cultural values of curiosity, novelty, and private property empowered European society to lead the modern world; a history that offers invaluable lessons for our own time.

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TRANSCRIPT

00:00:13Welcome to context this is brad harris today we're considering the book the wealth and poverty of nations why some are so rich and some so poor by the economic historian david landes if you value this podcast police help me spread the word this is a brand new show
00:00:32so tell your friends and family subscribe wherever it is you're listening leave reviews and of course please consider supporting me on patri on or through direct donation links for both can be found on my website brad harris dot com i try to keep things simple so the incentive
00:00:49for supporting my work aside for my eternal gratitude is that you can listen to all episodes and free no ads on context yet but i'll be running themselves soon Since this show is how i make my living these days to those of you who have already become patrons
00:01:04of context or donated directly through my website it makes my day when i received notification of a new supporter Thank you i really couldn't do this without you to keep up with me between shows find me on twitter at brad cole harris and now for the wealth and
00:01:22poverty of nations why some are so rich and some so poor my david landes the wealth and poverty of nations was published in nineteen ninety eight and it has occupied a preeminent place on the bookshelf of scholars ever since multiple reviewers from the nobel laureate kenneth arrow to
00:01:46kirkus reviews have described this book as brilliant and the author david landes as one of the most compelling historians of the twentieth century He wrote a handful of other highly influential works as well including unbound prometheus published in nineteen sixty nine which continues to be one of the
00:02:05most important books on the history of the industrial revolution along with revolution in time which is among my favorite books on the history of timekeeping technology and time consciousness david landes died in two thousand thirteen at the age of eighty nine after spending nearly fifty years working as
00:02:25an economic historian at harvard in our last episode we finished our analysis of the book guns germs and steel by jared diamond with a nagging question how did european society the most backward of all major eurasian society's a thousand years ago surpass everyone else to create the modern
00:02:48world Jared diamond helped us understand how you're asians in general became so much more powerful than native americans aboriginal australians pacific islanders and others you're asians won the environmental lottery they had vastly greater natural resource is with which to build vastly more powerful civilisations native americans had lahm
00:03:11owes your asians had horses pigs cows goats sheep et cetera no contest but diamond left us wondering why among your asians it wasn't the chinese or the abbasid caliphate of arabia that led the modern world both of these societies were far richer and far more technologically advanced than
00:03:35europeans a thousand years ago So what was it that enabled the europeans to race past everyone else in wealth power and global influence in the centuries since why am i speaking english instead of mandarin or arabic in the wealth and poverty of nations David landes provide some answers
00:03:59The question that motivates landes book is simple How did the rich countries get so rich This is not just a historical curiosity It's answer has some major implications today Just consider the migrant crisis currently unfolding across europe as landes foresaw twenty years ago It is in our own
00:04:21self interest in rich countries toe understand how poor societies can become healthier and wealthier Quote If we do not they will seek to take what they cannot make and if they cannot earn by exporting commodities they will export people end quote that resonates even more today than it
00:04:44did twenty years ago when this book came out Now there's a lot of political baggage associated with confronting the reality that the west is disproportionately rich and powerful As we've already addressed on this podcast for a really long time many people lazily assumed that european power was the
00:05:05product of some kind of racial superiority And so in more recent generations there's been a welcome corrective to that nonsense as scholars have shown how european dominance derived from things other than european biology or race or whatever other immutable characteristic jared diamond's argument in guns germs and steel
00:05:27was a great example Superior environmental resource is not superior intelligence he argued enabled your asians to conquer the world but landes thinks many others carry this historical corrective too far when they re interpret western wealth and power as merely the products of ruthlessness greed colonialist exploitation or some
00:05:52other terrible thing I totally agree this brand of lazy cynicism overlooks nearly as many historical variables is the crude racism it purports to counter The history of european wealth and power is not merely a history of evil it's far more inspiring than that and thank goodness for why
00:06:14else would we ever strive to help enrich and empower other societies if that were merely an exercise in propagating evil To the contrary what landes impressively demonstrates through his six hundred fifty page book is that europeans in general and northwest europeans in particular achieved unprecedented wealth and power
00:06:37in large part by cultivating a more curious independent and entrepreneurial culture than anyone else quote if we learn anything from the history of economic development it is that culture makes all the difference end quote like any good historian landy spends a lot of time early on in his
00:06:59book acknowledging other factors that may have helped europeans He agrees with diamond that environmental resource is were favorable in europe citing the gulf stream for example as a quote good fortune that gives western europe warm winds gentle rains water and all seasons and low rates of evaporation the
00:07:21makings of good crops big livestock and dense hardwood forests end quote nonetheless he makes it clear that despite whatever lucky circumstance europeans may or may not have enjoyed were still left with the historical conundrum that the probability of thousand years ago of european global domination was near zero
00:07:44while only five hundred years later it was closed toe one hundred percent That shocking change in historical trajectory can't be adequately explained by environmental or other external factors alone leaving something about europeans themselves the structure of their society and institutions the relationship to authority their ethics their values
00:08:10their outlook on life as a more likely explanation for the process of european transcendence Or so landes argues quote To get an idea of the larger character of this process one has to see the middle ages as a bridge between an ancient world set in the mediterranean greece
00:08:31and then rome and a modern europe north of the alps and pyra unease in those middle years a new society was born very different from what had gone before and took a path that said it decisively apart from other civilisations End quote what waas so different about the
00:08:51new european society that grew up in the centuries after rome's collapse Well to begin with landes illuminates europe's unique embrace of the value of private property After the roman empire disintegrated through the four hundred's a d the sources of authority in europe shifted some vestiges of roman legal
00:09:14custom remained But they were counterbalanced by a resurgence of germanic tribal laws and enveloped within a new religious tradition judeo christianity This new combination of social power structures stewarded by the authority of christianity landes argues fostered the institutionalization of private property built into the rules of the new
00:09:40european culture was the christian principle that god above not man on earth was the ultimate authority the ultimate owner as it were of everything this meant as landes put it quote earthly rulers were not free to do as they pleased And even the church god's a surrogate on
00:10:01earth could not flout rights and take it will end quote render unto caesar the things that are caesar's and unto god the things that are god's right at least in principle landes admits that in practice european lords and kings and popes often did flout this christian precept and
00:10:21undermine private property seizing assets and people and doing all sorts of other tyrannical stuff and yet ah second unique historical condition of emerging europe restrained the reach of any particular ruler's tyranny europe's exceptional political fragmentation unlike china and the islamic caliphate european political power was distributed through a
00:10:50patchwork of independent entities This exceptional political fragmentation landes points out gave rise to a kind of political competition between european municipalities that incentivized them to take better care of their subjects than rulers outside of europe were inclined to do treat them badly landes wrote and european merchants mercenaries
00:11:16craftsman philosophers the bright minded makers and doers of society might go elsewhere and here the character of european cities was key quote the contest for power and european societies also gave rise to the specifically european phenomenon of the semi autonomous city organized a known as a commune cities
00:11:41were of course to be found around the world but nothing like that calm you and appeared outside western europe the essence of the commune lay first in its economic function these units were governments off the merchants by the merchants and for the merchants and second it's exceptional civil
00:12:00power 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 which made the city's gateways to freedom end quote The catholic church based in rome may have been ableto lord over some european cities
00:12:22especially those in southern europe but the farther north and west you traveled the more independent european cities tended to become in china No such away seas of freedom existed City and country dwellers alike were thoroughly supervised regulated and repressed by the ruling dynasty And as for the muslim
00:12:44world it was practically impossible to avoid religious censure In stark contrast the unique autonomy of many european cities enabled quote areas of potentially free thought This freedom found expression later on in the protestant reformation but even before europe was spared the thought control that proved a curse in
00:13:07islam end quote relative to cities elsewhere the spirit of economic and intellectual freedom of many european cities kindled the culture of curiosity rebelliousness creativity entrepreneurship in short urban europe gave rise to a culture that valued novelty The historical consequences for european development of science technology art and enterprise
00:13:34were massive Consider technology Although europe initially lagged behind many other eurasian society's its culture of novelty drove europeans not only to become exceptionally inquisitive of any foreign technology they could get their hands on but also incentivized widespread technological tinkering at home which together propelled european technology to surpass
00:14:01even china's by the year fifteen hundred for example china had made use of water wheels longer but europeans took the technology further As early as the year eleven hundred there were nearly six a thousand water wheels generating power in england alone Even more impressive landes rights were the
00:14:22unparalleled advancements europeans achieved in the application of power technology Quote The invention or improvement of accessory devices such as cranks and tooth gears made it possible to use the power at a distance change its direction converted from rotary two reciprocating motion and apply it to an increasing variety
00:14:46of tasks Hence not only grinding grain but pounding cloth hammering metal rolling and drawing sheet metal and wire mashing hops for beer Pulping rags for paper europe as nowhere else became a power based civilisation end quote as important as power technology and particular certainly wass europe's embrace of
00:15:11all kinds of technological novelty turned it into the most innovative society in the world through the middle ages landes documents a litany of transformative technologies that greatly enhanced the potential of european society including eyeglasses a deceptively powerful device invented in the late twelve hundreds that more than doubled
00:15:34the productive careers of craftsman scribes philosophers weavers and metal workers Mechanical clocks also invented in the late twelve hundreds which revolutionized the economy the cooperative capacity of society and the pursuit of scientific and technological precision printing developed in the mid fourteen hundreds which led to an explosion of
00:15:57new knowledge about the world and humanity's place within it and gunpowder imported from china around thirteen hundred which revolutionized europe's military power and even mining industries The contrast with china and the muslim world that landes lays out is striking even during the so called the golden age of
00:16:20islam between the seven hundreds and thirteen hundreds when arabic philosophy and commerce thrived landes argues that the threat of religious denouncement remained universal which stifled innovation and left medieval muslim scientists more hesitant than their european counterparts toe apply their insights however impressive to the development of new technology
00:16:44quote for nearly five hundred years the world's greatest scientists wrote in arabic yet ah flourishing science contributed nothing to the slow advance of technology in islam end quote even under the abbasid caliphate muslims rejected the printing press fearing its potential to mass produce heresy in landes assessment quote
00:17:11nothing did more to cut muslims off from the mainstream of knowledge end quote in china meanwhile technological development proceeded entirely at the whim of the ruling dynasty which could and often did simply shut down various enterprises deemed too destabilizing perhaps the most historically intriguing such episode occurred under
00:17:37the ming dynasty after the fourteen thirties when china's massive maritime expeditions which had carried chinese sailors as far afield as the eastern shores of africa were unilaterally terminated Quote the decision was taken not only to cease from maritime exploration but to erase the very memory of what had
00:18:00gone before lest later generations beat tempted to renew the folly from fourteen thirty six requests for the assignment of new craftsman to the shipyards were refused by fifteen hundred Anyone who built a ship of more than two masts was liable to the death penalty and in fifteen twenty
00:18:21five coastal authorities were enjoying to destroy all ocean going ships and to arrest their owners endquote China may have been far more technologically advanced than europe a thousand years ago but they're whimsical approach to technological development ultimately proved far less productive They lacked any semblance of a free
00:18:47market or institutionalized property rights and the chinese state habitually undermined private enterprise co opting businesses manipulating prices and exacting bribes All of this left little incentive for innovation and little room for private initiative altogether The state simply monopolized everything from commodities and construction to education printing and even
00:19:15music as landes puts it quote it was regime of endless paperwork and endless harassment the ingenuity and inventiveness of the chinese which had given so much to mankind would no doubt have enriched china further and probably brought it to the threshold of modern industry had it not been
00:19:37for this stifling state control end quote that kind of totalitarian ism so vulnerable to the regressive impulses of emperors was impossible in politically fragmented europe So while china was outlawing overseas trade and co opting or prohibiting innovation altogether european urbanites beyond the reach of repressive rulers were growing
00:20:05intoxicated with the prospects of progress and profit after the fourteen hundreds europe positively frost with rebellious intrigue and revelatory excitement Religious heresies abounded and casualties became martyrs inspiring even more widespread descent Banned books became even more popular and all the while the lure of oceanic and scientific discovery
00:20:32was igniting the curiosity of entire generations While chinese rulers enforced isolationism and reverence for collective stability europeans were enshrining novelty as a virtue in and of itself While china assumed that celestial glory was timeless the judeo christian sense of linear time combined with europe's deployment of mechanical clocks
00:20:58focused europe's attention on measurable progress through economies of input and output Even when they had briefly ventured upon the seas the chinese lacked the curiosity that would later dr europeans around the globe As landes writes the chinese had sailed through the indian ocean quote to show themselves not
00:21:20to see and learn to bestow their presence not to stay to receive o b since and tribute not toe by end quote and once they closed the menorah time door for good after fifteen hundred quote isolationism became china round complete apparently serene ineffably harmonious the celestial empire purred
00:21:46along for hundreds of years more impervious and imperturbable but the world was passing it by end quote within europe itself Moreover countries to the north and west began passing by those of the south and east often for similar reasons Portugal for example succeeded in becoming one of the
00:22:09the richest most advanced states in europe through the fourteen hundreds and fifteen hundreds by virtue of its early and aggressive development of maritime trade thrust out into the atlantic on its perch at the edge of the iberian peninsula portugal beheld the prospect of dominating half a world's worth
00:22:28of oceanic commerce on ly to retreat from the disruption of foreign influence merchant's be damned catholic authorities cracked down swiftly on deviant thought and destabilizing enterprise alike The catholic inquisition was fired up after the fifteen forties sending not only international merchants but jews and all manner of skeptical
00:22:52scholars fleeing the country in droves quote they took with them money a commercial knowhow connections knowledge and even more serious those immeasurable qualities of curiosity and descent that are the levin of thought by fifteen thirteen portugal wanted for astronomers by the fifteen twenties scientific leadership was gone end
00:23:17quote as in china the powers that be in portugal valued isolationism over cosmopolitanism stability over opportunity and as in china they were able to enforce their regressive will within their country's borders landes contrasts portugal with the netherlands same population around the year fifteen hundred about a million people
00:23:42but on a very different cultural trajectory half of the dutch lived in cities a greater percentage than anywhere else in europe and their own proximity to the sea fixed the dutch gaze outward rather than inward and fostered a frenzy of port construction and maritime ventures Quote by the
00:24:02fifteen sixties the province of holland alone possessed some one thousand eight hundred seagoing ships six times those floated by venice at the height of its prosperity a century earlier About five hundred of these were attached to amsterdam but in fact the whole seaboard was a pin cushion of
00:24:22masts End quote Ultimately a cultural chasm opened up within europe after the protestant reformation in the early fifteen hundreds tilting europe's commercial scientific and technological centre of gravity away away from catholic strongholds in the south and east and toward protestant territories in the north and west In nineteen
00:24:46o five the german sociologist and economist max veber published a highly influential thesis about the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism arguing that it was the prevalence of protestantism in northern europe that encouraged a historically exceptional work ethic secular engagement and industrial enterprise among the dutch french
00:25:09and especially the english sowing the seeds of the industrial revolution and the rise of modern capitalism itself vabres infamous thesis has fallen out of fashion among most historians who have come to consider it too speculative and simplistic But landes disagrees Quote records show that protestant merchants and manufacturers
00:25:33played a leading role in trade banking and industry in manufacturing centers in france and western germany Protestants were typically the employers catholics the employed in switzerland The protestant cantons were the centers of export and manufacturing for watches machinery and textiles whereas the catholic ones were primarily agricultural In
00:25:56england the most devout protestants the calvinists were disproportionately active and influential in the factories and forges of the nascent industrial revolution The heart of the matter lay indeed in the making of a new kind of man rational ordered diligent productive These virtues while not new were hardly commonplace
00:26:21protestantism generalized them among its adherents who judged one another by conformity to these standards End quote What's more lindy's goes on to demonstrate higher literacy rates among protestants compared with catholics in the centuries leading up to and through the industrial revolution along with much higher rates of mechanical
00:26:44clock ownership among protestants indicative of greater sensitivity toe opportunity cost and measurement of productivity Although landes stresses that protestantism was not the only factor in propelling northwestern europeans ahead of their south eastern counterparts within his overall argument for the cultural causes of european societies rise to power vabres
00:27:09thesis plays an important role After reading hundreds of pages of landes comparative cultural analysis the origin of the industrial revolution late seventeen hundreds britain seems historically logical The autonomy of intellectual inquiry the openness thie appetite even for foreign insight and especially the incentives for private enterprise were greater
00:27:38in britain than anywhere else The brits weren't any smarter than the chinese the muslims the portuguese or the spanish They were just more motivated and more open to good ideas wherever they might come from James watt's steam engine of seventeen seventy five drew on an exceptionally cosmopolitan heritage
00:28:00of scientific inquiry into the nature of vacuums and air pressure that stretched from the work of autobahn garrick in germany and evangelista torricelli and italy to rubber boil in england and denis papin in france and his ability to patent and personally profit from his invention within the legal
00:28:21framework of britain was unparalleled Personal success among the english was prestigious a cause for admiration not scorn As in so many other countries I got a quote landes at length here quote that was why it became so important to show and tell often in elegant salons these ladies
00:28:42and gentlemen were witnesses to achievement And that was why scientists were so keen to found journals and get articles published to replicate experiments verify results correct improve go beyond the britain of the industrial revolution had preserved the structures and institutions of an older time the monarchy the guilds
00:29:05the ceremonies the costumes but it's sidetracked thes and reduced them to vanities they gave us the nostalgic world of jane austen a world of rural gentility and idleness quietly lying in wait to draw the tired and incapable and handsome seekers of social rent into the nirvana of triviality
00:29:29but the action was elsewhere with new men aristocrats turned entrepreneurs immigrants from within and without compare the late industrial development of italy spain and portugal all of these were hurt by religious and intellectual intolerance iberia particularly wanted for enterprise and skills including the ability to read these failings
00:29:55went back centuries he's too religious zealotry and counter reformation cultivation of ignorance around nineteen hundred for example when only three percent of the population of great britain was illiterate the figure for italy was forty eight percent for spain fifty six percent for portugal seventy eight percent the religious
00:30:18persecutions of old old the massacres hunts expulsions forced conversions and self imposed intellectual closure proved to be a kind of original sin their effects would not wear off until the twentieth century and not always even then end quote The lesson for other countries of course was that british
00:30:42educational and legal institutions if not british commerce and cultural values might be replicated in order to replicate britons in richmond The french did this establishing one of the best engineering universities in the world in seventeen ninety for the eagle polytechnique uniting scientific theory with technological practice in lavishly
00:31:06state supported engineering Universities like this enabled france toe leapfrog over britain industrially through the first half of the eighteen hundreds Germany followed suited generation later establishing the world's first industrial research laboratories that attracted the best students of chemistry from a ce far away as america another generation and
00:31:30japan was jockeying into competitive commercial and industrial position after deciding that since they couldn't beat western powers they might as well try joining them The last of the tokugawa show grenade forced japan to break free of its long cultural isolationism and absorb as much intellectual property fromthe west
00:31:51as possible The wealth and poverty of nations offers a vast and bold interpretation of the historical patterns of power David landes a decorated veteran of academic argument whose long and influential career essentially culminated with the publication of this book concludes his narrative by anticipating criticisms of euro centrism
00:32:16quote today The very account of this story is seen by some as an aggression in a world of relativistic values and moral equality the very idea idea of a west to centered global history is denounced as arrogant and depressive end quote what too many academics would prefer instead
00:32:39lindy's asserts is an egalitarian history that says something good about every culture and frames the european contribution to modernity as more of an accident of history than a product of unique values or institutions thus lindy's concludes quote the manifest a symmetry between europe's systematic curiosity about foreign civilizations
00:33:05and cultures and the relative indifference of these others is denied as though history hadn't happened end quote but europe in general and northwest europe in particular was home to a historically unique culture unique in its curiosity about the world and other people's insights unique in its respect for
00:33:27private property and enterprise unique in its pursuit of scientific and technological progress unique in its fascination with novelty and we should want tto learn about that lindy's argues we should remain curious about what made northwest europe so rich and powerful rather than deny the historical fact or dismiss
00:33:52it as little more than the product of industrially powered greed Landes convincingly shows us that there was far more to it than that and far more that we can learn from that history Most societies that have confronted the turbulence of change have turned away in fear closing themselves
00:34:11off from the possibilities of progress for the sake of stability through the wealth and poverty of nations Landes reminds us that northwest europe grew rich at least in part by trying to absorb the bow best ideas and the best people not just the best material wealth that the
00:34:31world had to offer Yes there was brutality there was exploitation there was greed but that's not all they're wass and northwest europe never had a monopoly on evil What they do did monopolize for a time on the other hand was openness respect for personal success and social mobility
00:34:54and the exhilaration of intellectual spiritual and commercial freedom And that is the historical lesson i think there's more gold down the intellectual mine shaft of this historical lesson these days it seems like many intellectuals are more apt to blame britain for developing capitalism than credited with offering the
00:35:18most productive idea in history More specifically britain pulled something off a few centuries ago that continues to make all of our lives better They made the pursuit of knowledge profitable as the historian margaret jacob rights britain quote integrated science with worldly concerns focusing mainly on the entrepreneurs and
00:35:43engineers who possessed scientific insight and who were eager to profit from its advantages End quote If there were ever a cultural value we should respect it is the cultural value of science next time here on context will consider jacobs book on the subject titled scientific culture and the
00:36:07making of the industrial west i'm brad harris so long wait

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