The Birth of Plenty is another book by William Bernstein that takes a fascinating subject but results in a book that is interesting but very flawed. The book is about why from about 1820 the economies of the Europe, the US and the developed world began to take off. Why was economic growth up until around then about 0.5% per year, and then once a country got going it shot to an average of about 2% per year.
Bernstein decides that there are 4 things required: property rights, the scientific method, capital markets and good transport and communication. How fundamental each one of these are is dubious. Surely good transport and communications lead are the result of the previous three. The most highly rated review on Amazon of the book makes this point and also points out that the book makes historical errors.
The book also ignores the fact that by 1800 Europe dominated the world. This is no minor fact. There has to be some link between European global power and the subsequent European explosion of wealth. It also makes you wonder if the economic data from 1500 to 1800 is reliable. Surely there was substantial improvement for many people between those dates. Bernstein’s book on trade indicates that many commodoties became far more accessible for Europeans during that time. Bernstein also omits any country that doesn’t fall neatly into what he is describing, in particular leaving out Germany, Italy, Northern and Eastern Europe. Little discussion of these places is included.
The book changes from describing the arrival of wealth to a deliberation on what wealth is good for in the final chapters and whether it will continue. This isn’t uninteresting but is not directly related to the rest of the book. Bernstein believes that the US is pretty much untouchable militarily. The book was written before it had become clear that Iraq was not a successful war. The book also hails the triumph of American style capitalism, it would be a different book now in light of the financial crisis. There are graphs on personal happines and wealth against personal freedoms and various other comparisons.
The book raises an interesting question but is consumed by Bernstein attempting to show how strong his hypothesis is. It would be a much better book if more had been more focussed on the events in the whole of Europe betwen say, about 1650 and 1900 and suggested various reasons rather than attempting to put them forth as a profound thesis.