A UCLA economist, Lal takes his readers on a breathtaking gallop through the history of the world's major civilizations to discover the determinants of economic progress and explain how eighteenth-century Western Europe came to dominate the world economy. Like others before him, Lal finds the origins of European economic innovation in the distinctive Western concepts of individualism and guilt. In one example, he uses Pope Gregory I's decision in the seventh century to control marriage options to show how the Church unwittingly launched the West's unique individualism, even though its implicit aim was to enrich itself through widows' bequests.
In different ways, he argues, guilt and shame provide the cement for civilized society; by extension, the rise of cultural relativism in the West today may risk its prosperity. Lal concludes that because imitation is easier than innovation, some non-Western cultures can indeed modernize without adopting Western notions of individualism and guilt. Lal also offers an especially pro vocative analysis of the origins and viability of the modern welfare state, finding it a politically understandable but unsatisfactory substitute for the more effective private charity found in most organized societies.