The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David S. Landes

There are a number of measurements of wealth among nations. One standard is ‘Gross Domestic Product’ (GDP) ( Currently the UK lies 6th in a list of 191 nations (with the United States at the top and Tuvalu at the foot) ( Scanning tables such as this convinces one what enormous disparities in material wealth exist across the planet. In so many ways you’ve already won a lottery by living in this country.

Why, then, do some nations achieve economic success while others remain mired in poverty? The answer, according to David S. Landes (, is a complex interplay of cultural mores and historical circumstance. Rich with anecdotal evidence, profound analysis, and an impressive range of erudition, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations is an economic history of enormous sweep and brilliance.

Landes’s answers to his own question boil down to attitudes and culture. ‘If we learn anything from the history of economic development it is that culture makes all the difference . . . what counts is work, thrift, honesty, patience, tenacity’ (pp. 516, 523). Culture includes attitudes such as the willingness to challenge the natural environment, appropriate that which previously was the realm of the gods, rebel against ancient traditions of how to make things, emulate the customs and techniques of otherwise despised foreigners, and adopt a rational and mechanistic attitude toward the manipulation of natural forces we call ‘production’.

These features determine technological creativity, and surely they are part of ‘culture’, no matter how defined. He notes that the European scientific revolution may not have had much of a direct effect on the first Industrial Revolution but surely helped create the pragmatic minds that made it possible. Three elements are singled out: the growing autonomy of science, the emergence of scientific method, and the routinization of research.

This is a bold hypothesis and has been much discussed. Something has to explain those glaring disparities in material wealth across the globe. See if you agree with the account of David Landes.

Check if this sweeping economic history is in stock at your local library by consulting the online catalogue at

650 pages in W.W. Norton & Co.

First published 1998

ISBN  978-0393040173

Professor David S. Landes

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