It is hardly news that the West has led the world economically for the past 200 years, or more. This superiority (let’s be honest—that’s what it is) academics commonly call the “Great Divergence,” a term coined by Samuel Huntington in 1996, though the study of Western economic superiority began much earlier. There are many sub-questions one can ask—e.g., what constitutes “the West”? Is it England? England and parts of the Continent? How does America fit in? When exactly did this takeoff begin? Are other countries now catching up, or even passing, the West? But these sub-questions are all small change compared to the most important question—why did the West diverge from the rest of the world at all, when all of world history up to that time exemplified the Malthusian Trap, where productivity increased too slowly to increase per capita output even when aggregate output increased?
Last month, in December 2016, maybe as a Christmas gift to himself, Thomas Sowell announced that he was retiring. Technically, he announced that he was retiring from writing a syndicated column, but at age 86, it seems likely that he does not intend to write any new books, either. This is unfortunate, but his work is done. There can be little doubt that Sowell’s many works, taken together, by themselves would be adequate to educate someone raised by wolves on everything any person needs to know about economics, political economy, and much of history.
Toby Huff’s Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution is in many ways a companion book to his earlier The Rise of Early Modern Science. That book was a comparative study of the approach to science in the major world cultures, discussing in great detail and breadth why it was that modern science only arose in Europe. This 2011 book complements Huff’s earlier book by more narrowly showing the results of different ways of thinking, in China, India and the Muslim world, when exposed in the early 17th Century to a specific new European invention, the telescope. The sweep of this book is less broad than Huff’s earlier book, but this is an easier read, and very informative in its own right.
The East, what in a more direct and confident time we called the Orient, has always held a deep fascination for a certain subset of Westerners. This fascination frequently centers around a whole or partial perceived superiority of the East to the West. For example, not so long ago, there was a vogue for Westerners, from TE Lawrence to Wilfred Thesiger, to wander the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, where they found spiritual fulfillment, or at least something they thought they could not find in the West. Peter Frankopan, a Byzantine expert and the author of “The Silk Roads,” is a modern, stay-at-home version of those men. And while his book is interesting and not without merit, it is marred by his sharing with those earlier Westerners a credulous and unsupported belief in the superiority of the Orient.
Thomas Sowell’s latest book, published in 2015 and now revised a year later, is the usual tour-de-force. It’s not so much that there’s anything startlingly new (although there are some interesting new statistics and several new lines of thought), but that Sowell has a unique ability to clearly and concisely bring together an analysis. In this case, that analysis is of “why are outcomes different for different people?” Sowell writes in opposition to the current vogue for equating differential outcomes with differential justice resulting from “malign actions by others,” with negative nods to Thomas Piketty, John Rawls and a wide range of similar social justice warriors.
“Political Order And Political Decay” is the second volume of Francis Fukuyama’s two-book exploration of the political formation of societies. Or, more precisely, how they ultimately form, or fail to form, Fukuyama’s perfect political society, which is an idealized Denmark. And, how even if they do reach that point, they can then fall backward—not as a whole, but in their political organization, away from Fukuyama’s ideal.
Like Daniel Burnham, Francis Fukuyama makes no small plans. “The Origins of Political Order” aspires to be nothing less than an all-encompassing explanation of how human beings created political order. This book carries Fukuyama’s analysis up to the French Revolution; a second volume carries the story to the modern day. This volume is mostly taken up with creating and discussing a coherent framework that explains political order before the modern era. Much of what Fukuyama discusses here is non-Western societies, which makes it particularly interesting.
“Rivers Of Gold” is not for the faint of heart. If you are looking for a compact treatment of the early Spanish empire in the New World, this isn’t it. If you are looking for a book that bewails the fate of the indigenous inhabitants of the New World at the hands of the evil Spanish monsters, this isn’t it either. But if you are looking for a voluminous and detailed study of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, that treats the Spanish as they were, a combination of varying proportions within each man of hero and ruthless killer, this is the book for you.
This is a magisterial book, pulling together innumerable threads into a coherent, cohesive whole. It is actually a different book than I expected—it spends much more time on the sociology and philosophy of science, in the abstract and as tied to and generated by each society, and much less time on individual scientific inventions and advances. Those do appear, of course, but more by way of illustration than discussion. So if you’re looking for a catalog of inventions, you may be disappointed (though Huff apparently has a later book that is more that), but you’ll probably learn more with this book written the way it is.
“The White Man’s Burden,” despite its inflammatory title, is a measured analysis of the ability of the West to help alleviate poverty in the rest of the world. The title is actually ironic, for the book concludes, in essence, that most of the burden the West has taken on has led to no improvement and much waste. This book is a companion, in many ways, to Easterly’s later book “The Tyranny of Experts.” It also has much in common with other books focusing on both the Great Divergence and the lifting of the poor out of poverty, in particular Angus Deaton’s recent book, “The Great Escape,” and James C. Scott’s seminal “Seeing Like A State.”