Calvinist provocation

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations
July 24, 1998

The life cycle of the modern, professional historian is clearly mapped from completion of the doctoral thesis to retirement. First, convert the thesis into a book to obtain a permanent post, and to convince the rest of the profession that the archives have been scoured and hypotheses tested. A flow of meticulous and recondite papers and monographs, with extensive footnotes, should then be maintained to please promotion committees and satisfy research assessors. But at some point, intellectual muscles must be flexed - a major theme or event must be addressed, in a revisionist manner that will provoke as much controversy as possible without falling into the danger of perversity. Now that academic credentials are established, it becomes possible to write a wide-ranging synthesis without the danger of being accused of a major sin of the profession: producing a textbook. But what next? Here is the crucial phase: to go back and do more of the same, on different topics with the danger of competing with the "bright young things" of the next generation, who have had more time in the archives and have their eye on the most recent intellectual developments? Perhaps it is safer to become one of the great and the good, abandoning active scholarship for the headship of an Oxbridge college, commitments to professional bodies, or the challenges of a vice-chancellorship.

David Landes's career to date has been a model of the modern professional historian. His previous books have been outstanding examples of each genre, and they have survived far beyond the normal shelf-life. They should be read by any historian of modern Europe, for both pleasure and profit.

One advantage of administration and cutting a dash in the wider academic world is that it solves the problem of what to write next. Instead, Landes decided to write another book, in a fourth genre to which a surprising number of good historians have succumbed: world history. The best advice to be given to anyone contemplating such a book should be short and succinct: do not. On the whole, there is more to be gained from joining the great and the good - or writing another research monograph.

All the same, life would be dull if some people did not tackle the impossible. Hubris has its attractions - at least to the spectator. And only someone with the outstanding achievements of Landes would have the nerve to write such an annoying, provoking, opinionated book. These comments are not libellous, for it is precisely what he intended, with forethought and deliberation. He knows what it is politically correct to say - and informs us that he is not going to say it. The book should carry a health warning.

His starting point is a key question - one of the most important to be asked by a historian. It arises from the comment of Thomas Malthus to David Ricardo in 1817, that the causes of the wealth and poverty of nations were "the grand object of all enquiries in political economy". Just why have some nations become so rich, while others have remained so poor - with the gap widening in the course of industrialisation? The answer favoured by some economists, that the development of capitalist nations led to the under-development and dependency of the periphery, is breezily dismissed. Even if dependency theories were correct, it would be best not to think about them. "By fostering a morbid propensity to find fault with everyone but oneself, they promote economic impotence. Even if they were true, it would be better to stow them." It is much better to get on with life, to show enterprise and determination, than to blame others.

The book is as much a sermon as a work of scholarship, which Landes engagingly remarks could "sound like a collection of cliches - the sort of lessons one used to learn at home and in school when parents and teachers thought they had a mission to rear and elevate their children". It is no good to blame others, it is no good looking for aid from abroad, which encourages incapacity, for "no empowerment is so effective as self-empowerment". The message of the book is that "what counts is work, thrift, honesty, patience, tenacity". What is needed is to live for work, an experience of a "small and fortunate elite" that can be joined by anyone willing to "accentuate the positive" even when they are wrong, in order to learn from mistakes and improve in the future. There is an eerie sense of reading a history of the world written by the author of a "feel-good" manual with an unrivalled knowledge of economic history.

Other leading social scientists have pondered the same problem of wealth and poverty, and come to different conclusions. Keynes spent much time reading in the history of money when he was writing his Treatise on Money, and believed he had found the key: some areas of the world hoarded precious metals, but others used them for spending and credit. Dependency theory has stressed that the industrial nations required raw materials from the periphery, and reduced them to poverty and "under-development". But the greatest social scientist to reflect on the question was Max Weber, and he is the guiding spirit for Landes's analysis. The explanation stressed by Landes is Weber's Protestant work ethic, which could be followed by honorary Calvinists as well as by the residents of Geneva or Holland.

Landes makes no excuse for adopting a Eurocentric view: to him, western technological precedence is simply beyond dispute, with a massive spurt of inventions (including clocks) between 1000 and 1500. Meanwhile, Islam and China fell behind Europe, and development was stopped in its tracks. The explanation for the failure of these areas in comparison with the West is found in religion, which prevented the emergence of intellectual autonomy and curiosity; in the absence of a market and secure property rights; and in the subordination of women. Both Islam and China - as much in the present as in the past - are severely castigated for their failings. But if the West had a lead in all of these respects, some dead white European males were better than others. Catholics were also opposed to science, and were closed and ignorant, unlike the inquiring, rational Protestants. The Portuguese and Spanish empires did not have the virtues of hard work and enterprise found in the empires of the Dutch and British. Not for Landes any talk of core and periphery, development and under-development, mistreatment by outsiders or the availability of resources. "It was what lay inside - culture, values, initiative" that allowed some areas to prosper and others to falter. The lesson is: take responsibility, eliminate the negative and accentuate the positive. Latin America, Africa and Islam are reprimanded for their failure to learn the lesson; the overseas Chinese and the Japanese have done everything that could be expected of the most demanding teacher, and had the work ethic in abundance, even in the absence of Calvinism. Moreover, the Japanese empire was beneficial to those who were subjugated; indeed, it was even better than the British empire in inculcating economic rationality and modernisation. Presumably the lesson is that the Koreans did not moan about their treatment by the Japanese; they got on with life with enthusiasm and optimism.

By now, most readers will have come to the end of their patience: it is difficult to think of any historian who could reach the end of the book without being irritated almost beyond endurance. Only someone at the end of their career, with the confidence born of three major books, would have the chutzpah (or its Calvinist equivalent) to write such a book. Unfortunately, Landes seems to have spent more time in provoking than producing a dispassionate analysis. He comes nowhere close to explaining the wealth and poverty of nations by their culture, for the argument of the book is no more than a tautology. Japan was economically successful in the 20th century. How is this success to be explained? By its culture. How do we know that culture was important? Because Japan was economically successful. There is no attempt to explain how culture is defined, how its main elements helped or hindered economic growth, how property rights were created, why the Chinese state or the Spanish empire took one form rather than another. But provocation has its virtues, in stimulating controversy and reaction.

Martin Daunton is professor of economic history, University of Cambridge.

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

Author - David Landes
ISBN - 0 316 90867 3
Publisher - Little, Brown & Co
Price - £20.00
Pages - 650

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