years, David Landes has analysed the distribution of wealth through
historical studies of world economics.
In his latest book, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, he argues
that the key to today's disparity between the rich and poor nations
of the world stems directly from the industrial revolution, in which
some countries made the leap to industrialization and became fabulously
rich, while other countries failed to adapt and remained poor. In this
video interview he discusses the lessons from history
for economic success today.
In your book
The Wealth and Poverty of Nations you suggest that the world's
most wealthy economies have been European, and more recently they have
been Japanese. Could you tell us why you feel these nations have been
blessed with wealth, while others have been dragged down in poverty?
Landes : I would argue that Europe has been the driver, the motor
of change from earlier traditional modes of production to what we may
call a modern industrial economy. I think to follow this story you have
to go back a long way, longer than some historians have been ready to
recognise. I would argue you have to go back about 1,000 years.
Already in the
eleventh century there are evidences of precocious innovation, technological
innovation and diffusion in Europe. This is in part an accident of what
has survived. Thanks to things like the Domesday census, if you will,
in England in the late eleventh century, we know for example that Europe
was precocious in such things as the use of inanimate power, in this
instance a great deal of evidence about the use of water mills, and
Europe was also precocious in the use of different forms of iron. So
all ferrous metallurgy became an important aspect of industrial activity.
And in general
you have the sense that Europe begins about that time to take a different
path--it's doing things, inventing things, learning and improving what
it's learned in a way that you don't see elsewhere in the world, and
that's very striking to me. Not everyone agrees with that, but I don't
think that argument can be contradicted.
really focus on technology and technological issues. Do you think that
cultural factors are as important?
Oh, you know, these are things that hang together. You don't have a
society that produces new techniques, new devices, that learns quickly,
changes and improves what it has learned, without important underlying
cultural considerations. And from that point of view Europe again was
different, just this whole business of learning.
You know, we
assume that if it's out there anyone can pick it up. That's not true.
Historically, one of the most important things to note is that there
are societies that learn well and quickly, and others that don't, just
as there are people who learn well and quickly and other people who
And the Europeans
were good learners, and they picked up all kinds of things from Asia,
for example, which 1,000 years ago was probably ahead of Europe in many
ways. But the Europeans took what they learned from Asia and often made
those things better, used them more, used them more effectively, sometimes
for good and sometimes for bad.
I mean, a good
example would be gunpowder. Europeans learned about gunpowder somehow
from eastern Asia; it was a Chinese invention and the Europeans learnt
to make better gunpowder than the Chinese, more powerful, more explosive
gunpowder than what the Chinese had. The Chinese never really used gunpowder
to its potential; they used it to a great extent as fireworks, that
kind of thing. The Europeans used it to kill people--that's not so good,
but it did make a difference when Europeans encountered people in other
civilisations, because it gave the Europeans a distinct advantage.
Do you think
that the ability to copy or mimic other countries has been a very important
factor for the West's success?
There's no question, that's obvious, particularly obvious now, when
we would like to help so-called emerging countries get past their level
of technology, learn new ways, so that they can also become rich and
compete in the world. And so this is an absolutely crucial issue: Do
they learn well? Do they have the institutions that are able to teach
and produce people who have learned? and so on. Do they have the opportunities
to use these people effectively? Or do they have to send their bright
young people abroad, and then find they don't want to come home, because
they can live better in Paris or London or the United States than they
can, say, in Africa? So they don't come home. They've learned, but they
don't come home.
Why is Europe
wealthier than many other developing nations? Has it traditionally been
more hardworking and better organised, or do you think it just takes
a more aggressive approach towards exploiting less developed nations?
I think it would be a mistake to assume that Europeans work
than people in other cultures. One could argue that the hardest-working
people are in the poorest areas. They really have to accept terrible
tasks merely in order to have water to drink, that kind of thing, you
know. And it's not an accident that in many of these societies they
assign these tasks to women or to children. Because these are people
who can't say no, so you make them do the hard work.
But there's no
question that Europeans learn to work more productively. What do I mean
by productively? I'm talking output per input, you know, in terms of
the effort that they had to provide, the hours they had to put in. The
Europeans learned to be more productive than people in other parts of
Now, you might
argue that people in other places didn't need to be so productive, because
there was more labour, or labour was cheaper, and so you could just
let the labour work longer, and that's all you needed. But in fact the
focus of European efforts on finding ways to save labour--to substitute
machines for labour, that kind of thing, which goes back very early
to that eleventh century that I was speaking about in the beginning--that
effort has implications that no one could have foreseen, you see. It
was, how shall I say it, a diffuse notion that it was important to save
labour, but that machines would become so productive and enhance the
productivity of the workers so greatly. Well, no one really could foresee
that in the first place, but that's the way it went. And Europe, by
following this path, secured for itself a significant advantage economically
over other societies.
you were advising a developing nation, what would you suggest are the
key factors for success?
Well, the first thing I would tell them is that they have to
their young people early on, teach them those things that one has to
know to survive and compete in a modern economy. So, you know, reading,
writing, arithmetic, what we call the three "R"s in the United States.
You've got to teach them those things, they have to be literate, they
have to be able to calculate, they have to be able to measure, etc.
The second thing
I would teach them is they have to be patient. Because if you really
have to train up a modern workforce from the beginning, from early childhood--I
was just talking about the content of the instruction--but also convey
to these children the attitude that they have to adopt in order to do
well in such a society, you have to figure that it's going to take one
or two generations. Assuming everything works, it's going to take one
or two generations.
The problem with
the world today is everyone is impatient. As a result of modern techniques
of communication, what we call the media, people know what the rest
of the world is like, if they're poor they know it, if the rest of the
world is getting richer they know it. Even if they don't watch it on
television or in the cinema, they see the tourists come. It isn't hard
to recognise the fact that these people are much better off, even the
ones who want to look poor are better off, and they catch on very quickly.
So that patience is a very difficult virtue now and I'm not sure, you
know, whether people are ready to wait.
But in the last
analyses, I believe that successful societies--by successful I mean
materially successful, the ones that teach the young people well and
get results that can be measured in terms of labour productivity--those
societies have to do the bulk of the tasks themselves, you see. I mean,
rich people in the West want to do what they can, want to help, but
to cite an old proverb, "God helps those who help themselves." These
people really have to commit themselves to this task, and there are
plenty of them who want to do it, but then in the meantime they have
so much trouble with bad government.
you believe that Samuel Huntington is right about the coming "clash
of civilisations" between the West and the rest?
is no question that in the world today there's a great
anti-American sentiment: America's too rich, too self-satisfied. America's
in an impossible position. If it participates in some action designed
to restore order and to prevent atrocities, etc., then people say, "Who
do they think they are, trying to run the whole world?"
it doesn't participate--I just saw on today's television, this would
be "Sky News," an interview with an African leader. You know they're
having a great deal of trouble there. The British were sent in, and
the argument, made by both Africans and Europeans, was: Where are the
Americans? Why aren't they here?
So, in a sense,
America is wrong if it does and wrong if it doesn't. Now, when you see
a situation like that, you know that the basis of the feeling is not
necessarily related to these decisions; it's related to something more
fundamental, a feeling about the United States, what it stands for,
what its relative position is. So, yes, there are serious problems along
Now, when my
colleague Mr. Huntington did his book on the "clash of civilisations"
and so on, he was thinking particularly of conflict between the Muslim
world and the Western Christian world, and there's no question that
there's a problem there. I have a chapter in my book which I call "History
Gone Wrong?" because for many Muslims that's what happened: something
They were once
on top, they looked back to the good old days of Saladin. It's no accident
that when Saddam Hussein moved into Kuwait, with possible further moves
depending on how people responded, he compared himself in imagery, in
public relations, to Saladin, because that's when the Muslims were on
top, when they defeated the crusaders and everything. So the problem
there is: they're not going to like us, they can't like us, we're in
you think gender divisions in Muslim cultures influence their ability
to perform economically?
of the points I made in the book, for instance, was
of men and women. These are societies which are, I won't say hostile
to women, but let's say, to use the best euphemism, protective of women.
Because they're protective of women, they often want to keep them out
of public space, they don't want them to engage in the economy the way
they might. That's not true of all Islam. I'm talking about the Middle
they've done very badly by women. Even those who are strongly committed
to Islam know this, recognise that it has a price. If you exclude women
in this way, partially or whatever, you lose something. They all recognise
it, but they would say it's worth it, it's worth it.
But what I argue
is that there is a loss, and the loss in the shortfall, in performance,
by men is enormous. If you raise your men to think that they're princes
from the time they're born, just because they're boys, you see, it is
very hard for such people to grow up with a sense of achievement, productivity
and the like. They don't have to prove themselves. And I'm convinced
that this is a very serious barrier to performance in these societies.
vision of history seems to be based on a manufacturing economy. For
instance, you focus on transportation, cars and clocks. Do you think
we are shifting towards a global service economy, and if so, will a
manufacturing economy still be important?
let's be serious. We all need manufacturing. The only
is who will make them. We all need clothing, we all need shelter, we
all need machines. We need more machines than we ever did. Everyone
wants to have TV sets, computers and all the rest, so manufacturing
hasn't disappeared. The argument is who will do the manufacturing.
for the rich societies we have moved more towards service, and you have
people using silly terms like "post-industrial" and so on, including
good friends of mine. That's very misleading. We haven't given up industry.
We do it differently; that's what we call technological progress, but
we need industry.
Now, the question
is, are we going to have South American countries or African countries
make these things? Well, ideally, that's their way of increasing their
income, making the things that the rich countries no longer want to
make, you see. And I have rarely seen such a monumental misunderstanding
about what it takes to get rich. We need all of this; we're not stopping
But it's true
if you live in the United States, and you want to make a career for
yourself today, you learn to do computer software or you learn to be
some kind of functionary or whatever; you do, as you say, service jobs.
And if you want to go into manufacturing you can learn about it, but
you may then have to accept the contract from some distant place, where
they are still engaged in this output sort of thing. I mean, there's
room for the old as well as the new.
well as writing extensively about history and economics, you also have
a strong interest in clocks and time. How and why did this interest
accidentally. I had a colleague, a very well known
named Cipolla, who's a professor of economic history at Berkeley in
California, and in Italy. He's Italian, a very distinguished scholar.
And we taught a course together, with a couple of other people. And
we all used to repair to my house; the class met on Monday night or
Tuesday night, you know, from seven to nine, then we would repair to
my house, and we'd have wine and whatever and we'd just talk.
And one time
he came, and he pulled his watch out of his pocket--and it is what we
call the "repeater watch," he called it a "striker watch," but the term
is "repeater watch." You press a button or you move a lever and the
watch chimes the time, you see. Gives you, typically, if it's a minute
repeater, gives you the hours and then the quarters, and then the number
of minutes since the last quarter.
Anyway, I was
fascinated by it, and I said I must have one someday. The years passed,
and we found ourselves in Paris, and I said to my wife, "You know, if
I don't get myself that watch, I'll never get it." So, I went around
and was told where to ask and went to a place that had one, and I bought
it. And then I was very nervous about having bought it, so I asked and
then I started going to other places. I found I'd made a pretty good
buy, and I met a man who was a collector, and he came over to the house.
He said to my wife, "You'd better watch this, because this stuff is
addictive. Once you get interested in these things you never lose that
interest," and she said, "Oh, no, he just wants a nice watch." But,
yes, I got interested. And then, you know, accident on accident, some
years later, I was invited to teach in Switzerland, in Zurich, and they
wanted me to teach three classes. Well, at Harvard we only teach two,
so I had to think of a third course offering. I said, well, I know,
it's Switzerland. Why don't I teach something about time measurement,
and clocks and watches? They said fine.
story was developed from an interview with David Landes at The London
School of Economics and Political Science on May 10, 2000. Copyright
The London School of Economics and Political Science.