Journal of Economic Perspectives

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Journal of Economic Perspectives—Volume 20, Number 2—Spring 2006 —Pages 3–22

Why Europe and the West? Why Not China?
David S. Landes

T

he world history of technology is the story of a long, protracted inversion. As late as the end of the first millennium of our era, the civilizations of Asia were well ahead of Europe in wealth and knowledge. The Europe of what we call the Middle Ages (say, tenth century) had regressed from the power and pomp of Greece and Rome, had lost much of the science it had once possessed, had seen its economy retreat into generalized autarky. It traded little with other societies, for it had little surplus to sell, and insofar as it wanted goods from outside, it paid for them largely with human beings. Nothing testifies better to deep poverty than the export of slaves or the persistent exodus of job-hungry migrants. Five hundred years later, the tables had turned. I like to summarize the change in one tell-tale event: the Portuguese penetration into the Indian Ocean led by Vasco da Gama in 1498. This was an extraordinary achievement. Some scholars will tell you that it was some kind of accident; that it could just as easily have been Muslim sailors, or Indian, or Chinese to make the connection from the other direction. Did not the Chinese send a series of large fleets sailing west as far as the east African coast in the early fifteenth century— bigger, better and earlier than anything the Portuguese had to show? Don’t you believe it. These affirmations of Asian priority are especially prominent and urgent nowadays because a new inversion is bringing Asia to the fore. A “multicultural” world history finds it hard to live with a eurocentric story of achievement and transformation. So a new would-be (politically correct) orthodoxy would have us believe that a sequence of contingent events (gains by Portugal and then others in the Indian Ocean, followed by conquests by Spain and then others in the New World) gave Europe what began as a small edge and was then worked up into centuries of dominion and exploitation. A gloss on this myth contends that

y David S. Landes is Emeritus Professor of Economics, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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Journal of Economic Perspectives

a number of non-European societies were themselves on the edge of a technological and scientific breakthrough; that in effect, European tyranny (to paraphrase Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”), “froze the genial current of the [Asian] soul.” A variant on this history-as-accident (or luck) is the pendulum approach associated with Jack Goody’s (1996) book, East in the West. Everything starts on an even keel thanks to the allegedly common heritage of the Bronze Age; but then different parts move ahead, only to be caught up and passed by others, which then lose ground to their predecessors. So Europe was just especially lucky, taking the lead at the crucial turn to the Industrial Revolution. But Asia’s turn will now come; indeed is already coming. As Goody (pp. 231–232) writes: “[I ]t is a pendular movement that continues today, with the East now beginning to dominate the West in matters of the economy.” As for efforts to understand this European success— especially explanations based on allegedly deep characteristics that were present in Europe but wanting in China—such efforts are irrelevant, writes Goody (p. 238): . . . since all these features must have been present [in China] at the earlier period. Those discussions can be seen for what they are, as representing the understandable but distorting tendency of Europeans to inflate their overall contribution to world society and even to ‘Western civilisation’, a tendency reinforced by their undoubted achievements over the past few centuries. Such inflation of oneself inevitably involves the deflation of others; self-congratulation is a zero-sum game. But of course, Westerners were not alone in noticing some European deep characteristics. Thus Abu...
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