Wealth, poverty: Bring on tenacity

March 15, 1998|By Hans Knight | Hans Knight,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor," by David S. Landes. Norton. 512 Pages. $30.

On an earth that is arguably closer to general peace than at any point in its history, there looms the deadly threat of unparalled wealth confronting abysmal poverty.

The yawning and perplexing chasm between the haves and the have-nots - and how it determines the rocky journeys of humankind - demands exploration and amplification.

Among the amplifiers, few should command closer attention than David S. Landes. He is the author of "Revolution in Time" and "The Unbound Prometheus." He is also Coolidge Professor of History Emeritus at Harvard University. "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations" is a hefty book and understandably so.

In his first sentence, the author declares that he aims "to do world history." This is no small chore. By the time he is done, he has traced and analyzed, with near-Sherlock Holmesian acuity, the economic, social and cultural progress (and the lack of it) of five continents over a couple of millennia.

Beneath the cold economic statistics boils the human drama. The strong seek to conquer the weak. Vast armies and fleets prowl perilous lands and oceans in quest of gold, jewels, spices and slaves. The Portuguese, the Dutch, the Spaniards, the British, the French colonize great chunks of the Americas, the East Indies and Africa. The crusaders scourge the lands of Islam in the name of Christianity, and the Muslims fight back with equal ferocity in honor of Allah.

With all its brutality, imperialism over the centuries spawns industrial and scientific advances for the winners. But, as an unintended by-product, the losers also benefit to some extent. In India, the British build railways; in Africa, the French and Belgians set up water projects for native farmers. The best and the brightest, at least a few of them, go off to London and Paris to study the very arts and crafts of politics and diplomacy - as well as modern armaments - that eventually help them speed the exodus of the imperial powers from their soil.

Yet, the gap between the very rich and the abjectly poor, Landes points out, has not narrowed. The difference in per capita income between Switzerland and the world's poorest nation, Mozambique, is 400 to 1 - 250 years ago, the difference between Europe and China and India was only 2 to 1.

What's to be done to avert what Landes calls the biggest threat to the world's peace and prosperity? The best hope, he asserts, thumbing his nose at today's "politically correct" thinkers, rests in Eurocentricity. "As the historic record shows, for the last thousand years, Europe (the West) has been the prime mover of development and modernity," he writes.

For selfish as well as moral reasons, he believes, the rich must HTC help the poor. But "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. ... No, what counts is work, thrift, honesty, patience, tenacity. To people haunted by misery and hunger, that may seem like selfish indifference. But at bottom, no empowerment is so effective as self-empowerment."

This book finds a brilliant and wise historian at the top of his game. There is a bit of intellectual sprawl, here and there, to daunt the general reader. But this is a minor flaw amid a feast of stimulating and nourishing fare.

Hans Knight, a former reporter for the Philadelphia Bulletin and editorial writer for the Harrisburg Patriot News, was a translator at the Nuremberg Trials for the United States War Department. His free-lance writing is widely published in the New York Times and The Sun among others.

Pub Date: 3/15/98

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