The Magazine


Apr 27, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 32 • By DAVID FRUM
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But sad to report, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations is not at last a successful book. Landes ultimately fails to deliver what he promised: an explanation of why the West is rich and most of the rest is not. Landes is a historian of technology rather than of law or institutions. Nobody knows more about cotton spinning in eighteenth-century England, but he seems uninterested in the legal institutions and social habits that gave eighteenth-century English cotton spinners confidence that the contracts they signed would be honored, the profits they made would not be confiscated, and the money in which they stored their wealth would hold its value. Without altogether meaning to, Landes ends up telling the story of how the West got rich, rather than why.

And even his account of how is not always convincing. Like many historians of industrialism, Landes is unimpressed by free-market economics. He sees the accumulation of surplus capital and its investment in technology as the route to riches, and consistently avoids discussing incentives and prices. This leaves him puzzled, for example, by the demise of the Soviet Union, which certainly cannot be accused of underinvestment: "Although the Russian state was capable of mobilizing resources for specific projects," he concludes, "technique was generally backward and overall performance shoddy." As for why technique was backward and performance shoddy, Landes has nothing to offer.

Because Landes puts so much emphasis on investment and remains so little concerned with price mechanisms and incentives, he naturally looks sourly on free trade. In his telling, Victorian Britain fell behind because it opened its home market to competition and failed to defend its industrial secrets from foreigners, and a similar fate now threatens America.

So hostile is Landes to free trade that he blames it for the failure of Latin America to industrialize in the nineteenth century -- and then never stops to wonder why world-record tariffs did not cause Latin America to boom in the twentieth.

Sowell's Conquests & Cultures has few of the anecdotes and witticisms of Landes's book, and reading it is work -- but work worth doing. With a courage masked by its seeming coolness, Sowell insists that we stop seeing history as a story of oppressors and victims, recognizing instead that for all the violence, cruelty, and injustice of history, the destinies of peoples lie in their own hands.

While The Wealth and Poverty of Nations must ultimately be judged a sprightly collection of essays, some convincing, others not, Conquests & Cultures is as precisely targeted as the air force's latest warhead, and nearly as explosive. As in his two previous books on similar subjects, Race and Culture (1994) and Migrations and Cultures (1996), Sowell attacks head-on

prevailing doctrines about " celebrating" and preserving cultural differences. Cultures are not museum- pieces. They are the working machinery of everyday life. Unlike objects of aesthetic contemplation, working machinery is judged by how well it works, compared to the alternatives. The judgment that matters is not the judgment of observers and theorists, but the judgment implicit in millions of individual decisions to retain or abandon particular cultural practices, decisions made by those who personally benefit or personally pay the price of inefficiency and obsolescence. That price is not always paid in money but may range from inconvenience to death.

Sowell is not blind to the element of chance in human affairs. He agrees that the economic backwardness of Africa -- and thus the enslavement of the Africans -- can be attributed in large part to the misfortunes of geography. While Africa is the second-largest continent, it has a coastline shorter than tiny Europe's, and not a single river navigable into the body of the continent. Africa is isolated from the rest of the world, and its jungles and mountain chains divide it from itself -- which is why Africa failed to develop strong states. And without states to protect its people, Africa fell prey to slavers.

Something similar happened in Eastern Europe: The world's secondmost enslaved population, the Slavs, also lived in a part of the world where geography made formation of states diffcult. The British, on the other hand, owed much of their industrial lead to their island's wateriness: "Britain's iron ore and coal deposits were located near to one another and both were located near the sea -- an enormous advantage over most continental European countries, where even a distance of ten miles between the two minerals was a formidable obstacle."