In the 1970s Harvard undergraduates used to be offered what was called the Sherwin-Williams course. In lieu of a single coherent economic history, a galaxy of faculty stars would "paint the globe." One after another they would describe to their audience, seated in the university's vast Memorial Hall, different facets of world economic history-first the experience of Europe, then America, then Asia, and finally, time permitting, other parts of the world. What the course offered in variety, it lacked in coherence. But no one felt capable, or at least inclined, to describe a whole that was more than the sum of these parts.
Few scholars, in other words, have the courage to pose the questions addressed by David Landes in his new book. Consciously echoing the title of Adam Smith's classic, the author sets out to explain nothing less than the wealth of nations-why some are rich while others are poor. Even fewer scholars aspiring to answer such questions would be taken seriously in an age when economists specialize in technical treatments of narrow topics and historians indulge in postmodern analyses of gender and identity. But Landes has exceptional credentials. Having moved across departments at Harvard, from history to economics, disciplinary boundaries do not deter him. His 1969 book, The Unbound Prometheus, may be the single most widely read history of Western technology. The present book, a lineal descendant of that predecessor, shows every sign of having been carefully crafted over many years. In it Landes enlarges his canvas to cover not just technology but other aspects of economic growth, and not just Western Europe but the world.
To be sure, there have been previous attempts to pull this off, starting with Smith himself, who saw economic growth as a single coherent process driven by the expansion of the market. But Smith focused on the growth of trade and did not appreciate the industrial and technological revolutions going on around him. Landes is a powerful advocate of capitalism, but the writer in
Loading, please wait...