Books and articles that matter
By Dean Andy Boynton
This summer we assigned required reading to our 500 incoming freshmen, including, among other book excerpts and articles, the first five chapters of David S. Landes’s Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Are Some So Rich and Others So Poor? (W.W. Norton, 1998). In today’s technologically and economically connected world, all of us who lead and manage can benefit from an understanding of why the world looks like it does. With its rich historical content, Landes’s book provides that—and more.
Landes’s thesis is that the most direct path to national prosperity is the adoption of a market economy, and that cultural differences ultimately explain economic performance. His ability to support his argument with a nuanced understanding of history is the most impressive part of the book to me.
This may be best illustrated when he answers the questions of why the Industrial Revolution occurred in the eighteenth century, and why in Britain. After all, he argues, Sung China spun hemp and made iron, medieval Europe pioneered water and windmill technologies, and early modern Italy built ships and threw silk. In his two-chapter response, Landes cites reasons as varied as the Magna Carta, power machinery, and the country’s lack of religious persecution.
The freshmen who read the book did so for Portico, our mandatory introductory business and ethics course. In preparing them to solve the problems business faces today, we provide them a global and historical perspective. The latter is critical because, as Landes—who held appointments in both history and economics at Harvard—says, “the best way to understand a problem is to ask: How and why did we get to where we are?”