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The Enterprise of Nations

May 20, 2010

David S. Landes in The Wilson Quarterly:

Western entrepreneurship and technological progress go back centuries and have changed the world for the better. That, at least, is one assessment of the historical record—one with which not everyone would agree. There are some scholars who, disapproving of Western triumphalism or solicitous of Asian (mostly Chinese) pride and prowess, would date the Industrial Revolution as a late phenomenon in the history of entrepreneurship and treat it as lucky accident (or unlucky, depend ing on one’s sense of values). It could have happened anywhere, they say; it just fell to Europe or Britain, in large part owing to political fortune, reinforced by overseas dominion. And globalization, in the sense of worldwide diffusion of trade, industry, and technology, came even later, after World War II.

Yet newer research and reflection on comparative world history make it clear that global trade goes back more than a millennium, back to Asian and then European economic development in the later Middle Ages, back to the opening of the world with the turning of Africa, and the penetration of European vessels into Asian wa ters and the contemporaneous European invasion of the Americas. The centuries that followed saw the West grow richer than other regions of the world, pull away from the onetime leaders, establish empire in distant lands—all on the basis of superior scientific knowledge, industrial technique, and business enterprise. [More]

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