How the West Grew Rich

How the West Grew Rich : The Economic Transformation of the Industrial World

By (author) Nathan Rosenberg , By (author) Jr. L. E. Birdzell

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How did the West--Europe, Canada, and the United States--escape from immemorial poverty into sustained economic growth and material well-being when other societies remained trapped in an endless cycle of birth, hunger, hardship, and death? In this elegant synthesis of economic history, two scholars argue that it is the political pluralism and the flexibility of the West's institutions--not corporate organization and mass production technology--that explain its unparalleled wealth.

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  • Paperback | 368 pages
  • 152.4 x 226.06 x 20.32mm | 521.63g
  • 01 Jun 1987
  • The Perseus Books Group
  • BASIC BOOKS
  • New York
  • English
  • Reprint
  • black & white illustrations
  • 0465031099
  • 9780465031092
  • 428,523

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Author Information

Nathan Rosenberg, a leading expert on the history of technology, is an economist at Stanford University. L.E. Birdzell, Jr. is an attorney and legal scholar, based in Newport, Rhode Island.

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Review text

A persuasively argued brief for the proposition that the West's economic development and comparatively high living standards are attributable mainly to the autonomy ceded the industrial/commercial sector by ecclesiastic as well as political authorities. Rosenberg (a Stanford professor) and Birdzell (an attorney) take the High Middle Ages as their point of departure. In Western Europe, they note, feudalism began yielding to a new order around 1600, about the time the continent's population regained the levels of 1347 - a plague year. Of particular importance in this process (made possible by the chartering of towns where trade could flourish unhindered) was the relaxation of controls on wages and prices, traditionally set by law or custom under a religious standard of justice. By the mid-18th century, an active merchant class was creating a plural society encompassing not only market networks but also the institutions (depository banking, insurance, a legal system) required to exploit the opportunities afforded by the industrial revolution. Among factors responsible for the subsequent expansion, the authors cite the business community's receptivity to technological advances, a shift from an agrarian to an urban culture, widespread acceptance of supply/demand forces, and a flexible approach to organization and operations. Rosenberg and Birdzell explore the important role that applied science has played in the New World's prosperity, noting that Western enterprise, which is largely free to set its own risk/reward agenda, produces consistenly better results than, for example, the centrally planned and managed economies of Socialist Bloc nations. They also trace the rise of "conspicuously large" publicly held corporations. These leviathans, they comment, arrived on the scene too late to account for Western affluence. In fact, they argue, smaller firms dominate industrialized economies by virtue of their collectively larger employment rolls and capacity for innovation. The authors close on an optimistic note, declaring there's little reason to believe the West has exhausted its potential for economic growth. They caution, however, that government policies designed "to create a society better in ways other than being richer" could reduce the capacity of future generations to reach still greater heights of material well-being. On balance, then, a provocative evaluation that does not shrink from the implications of its challenging conclusions. (Kirkus Reviews)

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Back cover copy

In this elegant synthesis of economic history, two scholars argue that it is the political pluralism and the flexibility of the West's institutions, not corporate organization and mass production technology-that explain its unparalleled wealth.

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