Insights from The Wealth and Poverty of Nations

I recently finished reading The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are so Rich and Some so Poor by David S. Landes. It was originally published in 1998, so it is a bit dated, and it is still very much worth the read. The themes that run through the book, as I understand them, are still very relevant today. Plus, it is always good to learn more about our economic history. Some of the main themes/points are:

(1) The ability for one society to take over another society through force has often not only meant the decline of the nation being taken over but also the decline of the imperialist nation. Access to steel and the ability to manipulate it, especially into weapons like quick-loading or more automatic guns, and the introduction of foreign germs was often the key to success in battle. (Jared Diamond wrote an entire book on this premise titled Guns, Germs, and Steel, of course. While I found the book to be somewhat redundant, I do think it is worth a read.)

(2) Institutions, including culture and values, are very important factors in determining whether or not a country has or will reach an advanced level of development.

(3) A society’s ability to innovate and its willingness to transfer and accept technologies from other countries also plays a big role in its ability to grow and develop.

(4) Orthodox economics lacks much in trying to explain economic development (see following points).

(5) The market is a powerful force that needs to be harnessed for economic development to occur, but even Adam Smith argued that the market has serious flaws, and there is a role for government to play in the proper functioning of a market economy. He also argues that governments can make as big, or bigger, mistakes than the businesses they are trying to regulate.

(6) There is not one approach to economic development that is appropriate across all countries, and yesterdays “virtues” or “factors” that drove some countries out of poverty may not be relevant (or as relevant) today. “Different strategies in different circumstances” (page 391).

(7) “And what of the poor themselves? History tells us that the most successful cures for poverty come from within. Foreign aid can help, but like windfall wealth, can also hurt. It can discourage effort and plant a crippling sense of incapacity. As the African saying has it, ‘The hand that receives is always under the one that gives.’ No, what counts is work, thrift, honesty, patience, tenacity. To people haunted by misery and hunger, that may add up to selfish indifference. But at bottom, no empowerment is so effective as self-empowerment” (page 523). I would add, and I think Landes would agree given his emphasis on the importance of institutions and culture, that this requires having the institutions that support empowerment, such as access to quality education and healthcare, workforce training programs, small business development support, etc.

(8) He has some very interesting insights on the gains from trade, and in my opinion, this is yet another example of how economic theory (or maybe the misunderstanding or mis-application of economic theory) has misguided the making of economic policy. Furthermore, his understanding of how the pursuit of trade and globalization has played out through history leads to some prescient forecasts of our current economic conditions, as shown in the following quote (keep in mind the book was first published in 1998).

“The present tendency to global industrial diffusion will entail, for the richer countries, a leveling down of wages, increased inequality of incomes, and/or high levels of (transitional?) unemployment. No one has abrogated the law of supply and demand. Many, if not most, economists will disagree. They rely here on the sacred certainty of gains from trade for all. International competition, they tell us, is a positive sum game: everyone benefits.

In the long run. This is not the place to attempt, in a few pages, a survey of the differences of opinion on this issue, which continues to generate a library of material. I would simply argue here, from the historical record, that

  • The gains from trade are unequal. As history has shown, some countries will do much better than others. The primary reason is that comparative advantage is not the same for all, and that some activities are more lucrative and productive and than others. (A dollar is not a dollar is not a dollar.) They require and yield greater gains in knowledge and know-how, within and without.
  • The export and import of jobs is not the same as trade in commodities. The two may be fungible in theory, but the human impact is very different.
  • Comparative advantage is not fixed, and it can move for or against.
  • It always helps to attend and respond to the market. But just because markets give signals does not mean that people will respond timely or well. Some people do this better than others, and culture can make all the difference.
  • Some people find it easier and more agreeable to take than to make. This temptation marks all societies, and only moral training and vigilance can hold it in check” (page 522).

If for no other reason, it is worth reading the book to gain these insights on the notion of free trade and the theory of comparative advantage. International trade brings to the forefront many very complex issues that are ignored or given very little attention if we just grab onto the gains from trade derived from comparative advantage as presented in the mainstream economics textbooks, which typically give very little mention, if any at all, to many of these other issues.

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