For Richer or Poorer

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor, David S. Landes, New York: W.W. Norton, 1998, 544 pp., $30.00

Reviewed by Steve Sailer

Published in National Review, 4/6/98 (this is my final draft, so it differs slightly from the version published in NR)

Steve Sailer is a businessman and writer.

Human uniformity is the bedrock assumption of polite discourse today. Yet, when it comes to making money, humanity may now be further from equality of results than ever before. According to David S. Landes, professor emeritus of both economics and history at Harvard, just 250 years ago the average standard of living in the wealthiest nation on Earth, Great Britain, was only about five times higher than in the poorest nation. Today, the ratio between, say, Switzerland and Mozambique is something like 400 to one. What happened?

The end of the millennium seems to be conjuring up ultra-ambitious History of Everything tomes. Of these, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations may turn out to be the most sensible and enjoyable. It is not, however, a page-turner. Landes describes not just the economic history, but the technological, political, military, religious, cultural, and geographic status, of dozens of countries across almost 1,000 years. Combined with his frequent halts to pummel other authors' bad ideas, he can't generate much narrative momentum. Instead, it's a wonderful page-flipper. Landes' gruff, Walter Matthauish persona, love of argument, and inexhaustible supply of colorful examples makes the book perfect for dipping into at random.

Landes draws upon contemporary scholarship's vast accumulation of detail, while contemptuously dismissing the "Europhobia" and other blinders that keep so many academics from recognizing the main patterns in their data. (As George Orwell noted, "To see what is in front of one's nose requires a constant struggle.") Landes denounces mainstream academia's dogma of absolute cultural relativism as "an attack on knowledge," because "distinctions are the stuff of understanding." Instead, he finds that the 18th Century Scottish Enlightenment, exemplified by Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, outlined a more accurate checklist for predicting what makes winners: "markets, markets, markets;" the security of private property; patriotism in defense of the homeland; careers open to talents; trust extending beyond the family; rationalism, skepticism, and argument; curiosity about other cultures; and an intense work ethic, to name a few.

Like Thomas Sowell, Landes is unusual among modern economists in preferring words to equations. Therefore, he doesn't underestimate the hard-to-quantify but cumulatively huge impact of cultural differences. For example, he notes that everybody "comments on the quality of the [East Asian] workforce, but equally takes it somehow for granted." Digging deeper, Landes attributes the supremacy of the Japanese and other East Asians in micro-assembly in part to the "exceptional manual dexterity that comes with eating with chopsticks." Also like Sowell, he tries to avoid biological explanations for cultural disparities by emphasizing "nature's inequalities" in geography and weather: e.g., cold climates encourage hard work, warm climates leisure. (Granted, this isn't exactly news to Club Med's management, but for a Harvard professor, these are brave words, indeed.)

Still, Landes' fear of understanding biological distinctions causes his most glaring mistake: his insistence that "gender equality" is crucial to economic development. he insists "gender equality" is a necessity for growth (rather than a pleasant side effect). Males can't "think themselves superior by biology, without dulling [their] ambition." Sounds plausible, but it wasn't true in Manchester in 1770, in Pittsburgh in 1870, or in Nagoya in 1970. And it's definitely not true in the Silicon Valley in 1998, where female executives are so rare that they have formed a support group named "Babes in Boyland." Greater sex equality is far less often a necessity for economic growth than a pleasant side effect of it. Ironically, Landes here forgets the famous lesson on p. 1 of Adam Smith's book: the division of labor is the prime creator of wealth. And the oldest division of labor is by sex, as in "hunter-gatherer tribe." Today, sexual specialization keeps spontaneously re-emerging in new industries like software and drug dealing, revealing its genetic roots.

But biological differences extend beyond sex to race. For example, Landes doesn't bother to ask: why were East Asians able and inclined to adopt chopsticks in the first place? Could it be because they already tended to have small, nimble fingers? He claims that stressing the impact of geographical differences is the anti-racist alternative to admitting the importance of human biodiversity, but that's a shallow dichotomy. The more powerful the environmental diversity, the more natural selection would adapt people to local conditions.

Interestingly, many of the most striking racial differences can be thought of as resembling faint sex differences. For example, contrast the triumph of Japanese manufacturing with Japan's near-total failure in the brutally competitive global market for celebrities. (A recent survey revealed that Americans believe the most famous living Japanese person is Bruce Lee, a dead Chinese guy.) It's the mirror image of African-Americans' undistinguished technological achievements versus their outstanding performance in producing media personalities.

Why? Japanese talents extend far beyond chopstick-handling to a set of extremely masculine intellectual skills. Tests show they tend to excel at objective abilities like mathematics and mentally manipulating 3-d objects through "single-tasking" (focusing deeply upon a one impersonal logical problem). Blacks, on the other hand, are often better at typically feminine, more subjective cerebral skills like verbalization, emotional intuition and expression, sense of rhythm, sense of style, improvisation, situational awareness, and mental multi-tasking. Michael Jordan's brain, for instance, enables him to anticipate his opponent's every move while simultaneously demoralizing his foe with nonstop trash-talking. (Try it sometime. It's not easy.)

Next, think about physical and emotional/personality traits. Here the races are arrayed in the opposite order. Blacks tend to display more of typically male qualities like muscularity, aggressiveness, self-esteem, need for dominance, and impulsiveness. In contrast, the Japanese economy benefits from a male workforce endowed with more typically feminine virtues like small fingers and fine motor skills, cooperativeness, humility and anxiety, loyalty, long-term orientation, diligence, and carefulness. Combined with their first-rate masculine mental skills, these make Japanese companies powerhouses at exporting superbly engineered machinery.

Compared to Japanese organizations, black communities tend to be physically and psychologically masculine, sometimes to the point of disorderliness. Yet a relatively high percentage of individual black men achieve fame by possessing charismatically masculine looks and personalities, without the nerdishness that Dilbert-style male intellectual skills often induce.

Like astronomer Tycho Brahe's attempt at a compromise between the theories of Ptolemy and Copernicus, Landes's notion that geography influences culture but not genes may someday be seen as a waystation between the 20th Century social scientist's flat-earthish insistence that nothing affects culture except culture, and the 21st Century's exploration of the fascinating interactions among environment, genes, and culture.

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