The Magazine

AS THE WORLD TURNS

Apr 27, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 32 • By DAVID FRUM
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David S. Landes

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations

Why Some Are So Rich

and others Are So Poor

Norton, 635 pp., $ 30

 

Thomas Sowell

Conquests & Cultures

Military Expansion and the Making of Civilization

Basic, 475 pp., $ 35


Make a list of the world's twenty richest countries, eliminate the oil sheikdoms, and you'll see a stark fact: Despite twenty years of rapid economic growth on the Pacific Rim, only Japan is not predominantly European in its ethnic composition and at least nominally Christian in its religion. What, if anything, are we to make of this?


Forty years ago, we would have called it " the triumph of the West," and historians like William O'Neill wrote big books about it. Today, historians are still writing big books -- but they no longer call it a triumph. The colossal economic success of the white Christian West is to the history-writing profession a deeply shaming fact. The triumph has come to be seen as at best a fluke and at worst a crime -- that is, when it is not denied altogether by stories of ancient Egyptians flying gliders about the pyramids.


Three years ago, Oxford University's Felipe Fernandez-Armesto won great acclaim in England for his huge history Millennium, which contemptuously dismissed the rise of Europe and America as a four-hundred- year hiccup in the long run of Chinese world dominance.


Just last week, the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction was awarded to Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, which argues that Europe's success is due merely to the good luck of geography. It's easier for plant and animal species to move east and west, within a climate zone, than north and south, across climate zones. That's why the peoples of Europe and Asia, the widest landmass on earth, enjoyed a greater selection of foods and acquired immunity to a greater variety of diseases than did the peoples of the long American and African continents -- which explains how the Europeans were able to conquer the indigenous Africans, Americans, and Australians.


So when David Landes and Thomas Sowell sat down to write their own versions of the rise of the West -- versions that put human beings and human choices back at the center of the story -- they were not just readying themselves to tell a story, but gathering pebbles to shoot at a towering intellectual Goliath.


Sowell, a practicing conservative, probably had a pretty good idea of what he was letting himself in for with his new Conquests & Cultures. But with The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, Landes -- a Harvard professor and the author of what is generally regarded as the best history of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, The Unbound Prometheus -- may well be in for a shock when the history profession lets loose on his book.


The Wealth and Poverty of Nations is a profoundly impressive book. It's crammed with learning, wonderful vignettes, lively writing, and valuable insights. Landes's hostility to religion, and especially to Catholicism, is pronounced, but he can still pay tribute to the Church's contribution to technological innovation in medieval Europe: "The desire to free clerics from time- consuming earthly tasks led to the introduction and diffusion of power machinery and, beginning with the Cistercians, to the hiring of lay brothers . . . to do the dirty work. Employment fostered in turn attention to time and productivity."


This is a book that effortlessly jumps from the monasteries of France to China's loss of technological world leadership. In the first two decades of the fifteenth century, the Chinese outfitted vast fleets and sent them on expeditions to the East Indies and Indian Ocean. Then suddenly the voyages were canceled, exploration abandoned, and China turned inward. Technological advance stopped. By 1500, the military advantage had passed decisively and permanently to Europe. Landes offers a succinct and powerful explanation:


To begin with, the Chinese lacked range, focus, and above all, curiosity. They went to show themselves, not to see and learn; to bestow their presence, not to stay; to receive obeisance and tribute, not to buy. They were what they were and did not have to change. They had what they had and did not have to take or make. . . . At the same time, desire to overawe meant that costs far exceeded returns. . . . The vulnerability of the program -- here today, gone tomorrow -- was reinforced by its official character. In Europe, that opportunity of private initiative that characterized even such royal projects as the search for a sea route to the Indies was a source of participatory funding and an assurance of rationality. Nothing like this in China, where the Confucian state abhorred mercantile success.