An interview with David Landes

EDITOR'S INTRODUCTION | For years, David Landes (below) 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.

I: 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?

David 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.

I: Your arguments really focus on technology and technological issues. Do you think that cultural factors are as important?

Landes: 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 don't.

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.

I: Do you think that the ability to copy or mimic other countries has been a very important factor for the West's success?

Landes: 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.

I: 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?

Landes: I think it would be a mistake to assume that Europeans work harder 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 the world.

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.

I: If you were advising a developing nation, what would you suggest are the key factors for success?

Landes: Well, the first thing I would tell them is that they have to train 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.

I: Do you believe that Samuel Huntington is right about the coming "clash of civilisations" between the West and the rest?

Landes: There is no question that in the world today there's a great deal of 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?"

If 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 those lines.

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 went wrong.

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 effect adversaries.

I: Do you think gender divisions in Muslim cultures influence their ability to perform economically?

Landes: One of the points I made in the book, for instance, was relations 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 East now.

So, 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.

I: Your 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?

Landes: Look, let's be serious. We all need manufacturing. The only question 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.

Now, 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 making things.

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.

I: As well as writing extensively about history and economics, you also have a strong interest in clocks and time. How and why did this interest develop?

Landes: Purely accidentally. I had a colleague, a very well known colleague, 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.

By the way, it's a part of my course work. I must have done this in one day! So, I decided to pay someone to write my paper about World War II. Hope you caught the meaning ;)An interview with David Landes