Thursday, May 27, 2010

Why the West Thrived

Writing in The Wilson Quarterly, David S. Landes on lessons to be drawn from the economic domination of the West. An excerpt:

The older centers of hither and farther Asia—the Islamic world, India, and China—lacked the cultural and institutional foundations on which entrepreneurship rested. Worse: They tended to cling to tradition in a world of disturbing and disagreeable challenge. Both China and the Arabic Middle East offer case studies of this resistance to innovation and the subsequent national revenge against those they blamed for the economic disparities that ensued. Both impoverished themselves by insisting on their cultural, moral, and technical superiority over the barbarians around them, by refusing to learn from people they scorned as inferiors, by simply refusing to learn. Pride is poison, and as the proverb puts it, pride goeth before a fall.

China was once the richest and proudest of civilizations. Faced with pretentious, eager, and greedy barbarians, the Chinese did badly, nursing feelings of superiority that blinded them to opportunity. British economist Angus Maddison has shown that as late as 1400 China’s GDP per capita outpaced that of Western Europe. By 1820, however, the trend had been turned on its head, with China’s GDP per capita less than half of Western Europe’s. In 1989, it was just one-seventh.

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