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The Birth of Plenty : How the Prosperity of the Modern World was Created

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"A tour de force...prepare to be amazed."
--John C. Bogle, Founder and Former CEO, The Vanguard Group Why didn't the Florentines invent the steam engines and flying machines that Da Vinci sketched? What kept the master metallurgists of ancient Rome from discovering electricity? The Birth of Plenty takes a fascinating new look at the key conditions that had to be in place before world economic growth--and the technological progress underlying it--could occur, why those pathways are still absent in many parts of today's world, and what must be done before true, universal prosperity can become a reality. The Birth of Plenty doesn't mean to suggest that nothing of note existed before 1820. What The Birth of Plenty suggests that, from the dawn of recorded history through 1820, the "mass of man" experienced essentially zero growth, either in economic standing or living standards. It was only in the third decade of the nineteenth century that the much of the world's standard of living began to inexorably and irreversibly improve, and the modern world was born. But what changed, and why then? Noted financial expert and neurologist William Bernstein isolates the four conditions which, when occurring simultaneously, constitute an all-inclusive formula for human

350 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2004

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About the author

William J. Bernstein

27 books384 followers
William J. Bernstein is an American financial theorist and neurologist. His research is in the field of modern portfolio theory and he has published books for individual investors who wish to manage their own equity portfolios. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 69 reviews
Profile Image for Max Nova.
420 reviews172 followers
May 17, 2015
This book will blow your mind. The only other book of comparable scope and depth of analysis is "The Discoverers" by Daniel J. Boorstin. In "The Birth of Plenty," Bernstein claims that "...the four factors—property rights, scientific rationalism, capital markets, and improvements in transport and communication— [are] the essential ingredients for igniting and sustaining economic growth and human progress." Three of the factors seemed quite obvious to me, but I had never before explicitly considered scientific rationalism as a pillar of prosperity - although now of course it seems entirely obvious. Bernstein spends the rest of the book backing up that assertion from the Greeks onward to the Dutch, the Florentines, the Spanish, the British, and the Americans - but also in the Latin American, Arab, Chinese, and African spheres.

His thesis provides a useful lens with which to analyze the current situation in places like the Middle East and Africa - "In all but the most exceptional cases, national prosperity is not about physical objects or natural resources. Rather, it is about institutions—the framework within which human beings think, interact, and carry on business." and "The only natural endowment that matters is a topography that is favorable to internal transport. Great mineral wealth corrodes the very institutions that promote long-term prosperity." He makes several observations which should make Americans a little nervous: "The American military presence freed Japan from the clutches of the demon that most reliably derails great nations—excessive military expenditure" and "A nation’s long-term success depends on the extension of economic opportunity to a majority, or at least a substantial minority, of its citizens."

Bernstein makes some very sweeping comments about the difference between the Western world and everyone else (which are interesting, but I don't know enough about the rest of the world to know if they're true or not), "What separates Western societies from traditional non-Western societies is not merely the love and appreciation of Greek and Renaissance culture that is touted by modern academic scolds like Allan Bloom, but rather the amount of knowledge subjected to challenge. True, in most advanced Western societies, many religious beliefs are still held to be untouchable, even among some scientists. But for the most part, the modern West can analyze and change its mind about almost anything; premodern societies can do this about almost nothing."

Some of his comments played a bit into my automation thesis - "It is a humbling truth that at any given moment, the lion’s share of Western society’s prosperity originates in the minds of a few geniuses, people who truly are one in a million. Translating their ideas into economic reality requires the staggering amounts of capital that can be supplied only by a robust financial system that is trusted by investors." (although I believe that the "staggering amounts of capital" he talks about are becoming less and less necessary). He also points out the dangers of pervasive high unemployment: "Unemployment causes unhappiness, even when income from other sources is adequate. That is to say, the deleterious effects of unemployment upon well-being are independent of income; stripping a worker of his job will, on average, make him much less happy, even if his employment income is completely replaced."

I can't nearly do this book justice with a smattering of quotes. Read this book - it will change the way you think about the world.
Profile Image for Robert.
Author 14 books102 followers
February 15, 2009

The current economic crisis afflicting the world (not just the United States) makes this an excellent moment to read and reflect on William Bernstein's superbly argued thesis about the nature of prosperity.

Using historical, economic and sociological analyses and case studies, Bernstein develops a persuasive case for four primary factors contributing to economic growth:

1) Respect for property rights and the rule of law;
2) Efficient capital markets;
3) Respect for scientific rationalism; and
4) Effective networks of transport and communication.

Bernstein argues that natural resources, per se, are not the secret to a nation's economic success and that prosperity does more to engender democracy than democracy does to engender prosperity.

In synthesis, his argument places the burden of economic growth on institutional factors in a given national economy, not on ideals and not on mother lodes of minerals, even gold, silver and oil.

In the 17th century, for example, Spain destroyed its imperial stature by relying far too heavily on Latin American gold and silver while allowing other nations, notably Holland and Great Britain, to become the world's leading banking nations (and thereby capturing much of Spain's booty from the New World.) Further, Spain came late to the rule of law in the sense of placing the law in the hands of an independent judiciary, which in turn would protect the patent and copy rights of innovative scientific thinkers. The mentality of the Spanish, and their former colonies, is sometimes described as "rentier," meaning that the economic game is one of exploitation of resources more than the development of economic systems--principally market systems that are open, fairly regulated, and efficient.

That the rentier mentality is a dead end can be illustrated fairly easily. Switzerland, with no natural resources to speak of, is a wealthy nation. Nigeria, with fabulous oil reserves, is not. The same applies to Mexico, Venezuela, Iraq and Iran.

Western Europe, Japan, and the United States, Canada, Australia and a handful of lesser nations and regions possess Bernstein's critical four factors in abundance and sufficient natural resources to make them astonishingly wealthy in historical terms. Curiously, wealth at the European/US level is generated at a fairly constant rate of 2% growth per year, including peaks and valleys. That's not an overwhelming figure. Higher growth rates do manifest themselves at certain points in a given nation's evolution, but the tendency is to settle around the 2% rate.

Judging by Bernstein's criteria, where have the U.S. and other advanced economies gone wrong in the last two or three years? It would seem that we've stumbled in two areas:

First, our regulatory regimes vis-a-vis financial systems has been negligent to the point of making "rule of law" fairly meaningless. The results we face today make it clear that it should not be "legal" to lend money to home buyers or credit card users who manifestly cannot pay the loans back and then, having bundled the loans, resell them to third parties, who end up holding the [empty:] bag.

Second, we have permitted our regulatory negligence to generate not just bad loans but bad capital markets, undermining confidence in these vital economic systems.
As Bernstein points out again and again, it is impossible to succeed economically without all four institutional factors functioning well. Remove one leg from the chair and it wobbles badly. Remove two legs and it collapses entirely.
Bernstein's concluding chapters are fascinating examinations of a fundamental question: does prosperity guarantee, or generate, happiness? His answer is somewhat mixed. On the whole, the developed nations and the world at large are better housed, medicated, and fed than they were 500 years ago. But a true sense of well-being requires more than material inputs. It's important to survive; it's also important to have the opportunity to express oneself in a condition of relative freedom, and freedom, in turn, is essential for scientific rationalism to flourish and technological advances to occur.

In comparing US and European prosperity, Bernstein finds that the US cycles about 30% of its Gross Domestic Product through government agencies. In Europe the figure approaches 50%. Some Europeans do seem more content as a result of this, but there is a trade-off in economic growth, where Europe lags the US slightly. So Americans have more opportunity to grow and keep their economy for themselves while Europeans probably have a greater sense of security that their fundamental health, housing, and employment needs will be met by governments that take a large share of the economic pie.

One of the benefits of a crisis is that we are forced to reexamine our premises and behavior and try to understand complex realities that we have hitherto not come to terms with. Bernstein does everyone a great service by placing today's problems in a sweeping historical and theoretical context. This is the book of a polymath and, unbelievably enough, an M.D. polymath at that.

Profile Image for Shad.
121 reviews6 followers
December 29, 2008
In Alma 44, Moroni recognizes God as why the Nephites prevailed over the Lamanites(verse 3); Zerahemnah disagrees and attributes the victory to the Nephites' superior armor (verse 9). Zerahemnah's error was in identifying the how, not the why behind the Nephites' victory.

In this book, Bernstein falls into the same error as Zerahemnah - while he gives a very interesting and possibly fairly accurate account of how prosperity has come about, he completely misses the why (given Chapter 10, he is likely very opposed to recognizing the why). Overall, I thought the book was pretty good and probably pretty close to as good as man can do on his own. I found it well-written and interesting. Much of what he says is convincing, but it misses the foundation (which Bernstein may have recognized, given the title of his final chapter - "When, Where, and Whither" - noticeably absent is "Why"). I did appreciate his recognition that wealth is not happiness and found the insights into relative wealth's effects on happiness accurate and interesting. His recognition that wealth is not happiness and does not create it limits the relevance of the book and was probably delayed till the 10th chapter for that reason, but I think the book is still useful for those with politico/economic interests.

For those of you interested in the why behind the symptoms Bernstein identifies, see President Hinckley's talk, Living in the Fulness of Times in the November 2001 Ensign.

BTW - I had not heard of the experiment involving the monks and electricity discussed on pages 181-82, and that is hilarious.
Profile Image for Seb.
21 reviews1 follower
October 30, 2018
Absolutely terrible book. I'm usually pretty insistent on going on even if I dislike a book, but here I couldn't make it past page 31. (Maybe it gets better later on, from my very rapid browsing probably not).

Bernstein's arguments are shallow and unoriginal and his historical research is just terrible, it seems he has never met a historical cliché he didn't like (The inquisition killing people with iron maidens? Really?!) Overall it reads like a very long high-school paper by some smart from the local libertarian party.

Good books on the rise of prosperity are out there ("How Asia Works" by, I think, Studwell is bloody great), this isn't one of them. Usually, I give away books I don't like, but this one is going straight in the trash, for fear of wasting someone's time.
Profile Image for Pedro Esperanca.
37 reviews5 followers
February 19, 2020
This is THE best history book I've ever read. The author deliciously identifies very relevant factors for economic growth which he explains rationally and historically in a very easy to absorb way.
Profile Image for Daniel.
634 reviews83 followers
March 22, 2016
By the end of the book, you will be expert in the 4 pillars of prosperity: 1. Protection of Property Rights, 2. Scientific Way of Thinking, 3. Capital Markets and 4. Transport of goods and ideas. Bernstein had explained why countries in the West had prospered by having all these four pillars, and countries who miss any of these would not prosper as much. A well written book, best to be read with his other A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World!
Profile Image for Matt Ely.
704 reviews43 followers
February 4, 2016
The book opens with one of the most excellent introductions possible, the root of the argument summed up in the author's statement, "First, the story-- how the world arrived at its present state-- is one of the most intrinsically absorbing that any author can tackle. If the author cannot command the reader's interest with it, he or she has no one but himself or herself to blame." In one swift move, the author has excused himself from writing a dry, meandering book.

And unfortunately, that's kind of what this was. I didn't want to come to that conclusion because, as the author is well aware, the subject matter is interesting. The question of why some nations rose to prominence over others is an interesting economic question. The argument he presents is pretty convincing at its core, but he has a tendency to diverge. Divergences themselves aren't a negative thing, but if those divergences aren't clearly and consistently incorporated into the theme, it can feel pointless.

Personally, I didn't think the pace picked up until about 2/3 the way through when he began economic histories of the major winners and losers of the Industrial Revolution. The whole thing, however, came across as unfocused. Good information, but not so compelling a presentation.
Profile Image for Library of.
93 reviews6 followers
May 21, 2021
I think this book does a good job on explaining what it intends to do, i.e. "how the prosperity of the modern world was created". Will insert my notes below:


For millennia, the road to wealth was to win wars and plunder. Until 1820, world growth per capita was approximately zero. During the century after the fall of the Roman Empire, prosperity in Europe had actually declined and most critical technologies had disappeared – the most important being cement, which would not be rediscovered until much later. But not long after 1820, prosperity began to increase, and for each generation, life became noticeably more comfortable. During the 172 years after 1820, the world’s GDP increased eightfold. During the same 172-year period, GDP in the United Kingdom rose 10x and in the United States 20x. Economic growth is synonymous with increased productivity, which is almost exclusively the result of technological progress.

HUNTER-GATHERER AND FARMING. The hunter-gatherer stage represents more than 99% of human history. During this era, there was no increase in productivity. Ideas spread slowly because sparsely populated areas were a necessity to not compete for food. Man’s next breakthrough was when we entered an agricultural society 12,000 years ago. There was an improvement in efficiency and an opportunity to live closer to each other – up to 500 inhabitants per 1.6 km. But there was no major improvement in prosperity. The harvest was often poor, which led to people starving to death. Man’s degree of improvement on a global basis has been low and uneven during 99.5% of our time on earth.

BLOATED RESERVOIR. At the beginning of the 19th century, the Western European economy began to become more and more like a swollen reservoir where potential was gathered. Between 1500 and 1820, GDP per capita in the region increased by an average of about 0.15% per year. What was missing was the raw physical force needed to run factories and transport goods as well as the communication speed required to coordinate the entire process. The invention of the electric motor and the telegraph broke the dam and created an economic growth that had not been seen. The development was irreversible.

INDUSTRIALIZATION. Improvements in agricultural technology in combination with property rights, capital markets and transport technology meant that many people left the farm in the 16th century to work in manufacturing. In Europe, this usually meant textiles. During the 19th century, in Europe and the USA, great advances was made in technology, which improved productivity and thus prosperity. This meant that even more capital was invested in new technological processes. In 1820, the U.S. employed 70% of the workforce in the agricultural sector. In 1998, the same figure was 2%.

THE FOUR PILLARS OF INDUSTRIALIZATION. The reason why the development of technical tools could accelerate was that (1) the emergence of property rights allowed innovators and businessmen to reap the benefits of their jobs without the state or criminals taking over, (2) scientific rationalism, i.e. the truth is more important than sticking to previous beliefs becomes a relatively new phenomenon, (3) capital markets enable investment and (4) efficient communication and more efficient means of transport was invented. Sea transport did not become safe and cheap until the end of the 19th century. Development of the steam engine and land transport did not follow until 50 years later. Without these, the railway, the telegraph, or the electricity would not have been created.

THE DEVELOPMENT OF IDEAS. Modern civilization is defined by a thirst for scientific process. But before the 17th century, observation, experiments, and theoretical studies of the world were not welcome. Man dealt with insecurity through various “belief systems”, often organized into religions. In most developed western countries, religion is still “untouchable” even among scientists, with most things being allowed to be analyzed and we can change almost anything.

THE SPREAD OF RATIONALISM. From 1730, the world has seen an incomparable technological innovation. But before 1850, few scientists worked in industry; most innovations were created by talented workers and inventors such as Thomas Edison and John Smeaton (reinvented cement after the Romans). The 19th century steel industry was the first with full-time scientists in the laboratory who developed quality, preferably at low cost. Steel Baron Andrew Carnegie said: “Years after we had taken chemistry to guide us (competitors) said they could not afford to employ a chemist. Had they known the truth then, they would have known that they could not afford to be without one”.

2%-ROOF. There is almost a natural law that our civilization can achieve an aggregate productivity growth of 2% per year – no more and no less. However, the introduction of the most basic modern technologies in pre-industrial societies created miracles. At all times, capital has flowed from mature economies to countries that need it for development. When England was transformed from a political laggard to a world leader in the 17th century, money flowed from Amsterdam to London. In the 19th century, the technologically advanced England helped the developing United States with capital. During the 20th century, the United States has been a major source of capital for developing countries.
Profile Image for Kathryn.
127 reviews23 followers
June 26, 2017
Five stars! Why do some civilizations thrive while others fail? The author applies four principles of prosperity to three levels of countries: the most successful, the second most successful, and failing countries. An intellectually challenging but approachable book. Highly recommend.
22 reviews
July 13, 2016
The Birth of Plenty is potentially the most ambitious economic book that I have ever read. It attempts to explain the tremendous birth of prosperity that began roughly around 1820 and has continued unabated (in some areas of the world) into the present day. Bernstein begins with a factual observation: “True, beginning about A.D. 1000, there had been improvement in human well-being, but it was so slow and unreliable that it was not noticeable during the average person’s twenty-five-year life span. Then, not long after 1820, prosperity began flowing in an ever-increasing torrent; with each successive generation, the life of the son became observably more comfortable, informed, and predictable than that of the father.”

Bernstein then poses a question that I previously never deeply considered: why then? Why now? Why wasn’t the airplane invented in 1320? Why did the human race witness such staggeringly low economic growth and prosperity for the vas

t majority of our history, despite similar intellectual and physical capability?

Berstein’s answer, in short, is that economic growth occurs with the co-existence of several important factors (primarily institutions): secure property rights (protected by the rule of law); an intellectual societal framework based on scientific rationalism; efficient and robust capital markets; and technology that allows rapid transportation and communication. According to Bernstein, whenever these four factors coincide in a nation, the inevitable result is a massive increase in economic prosperity for a nation’s citizens.

Bernstein traces the development of each of these factors throughout the span of modern history. This was probably my least favorite part of the book; too often, he seemed to be meandering through historical anecdotes and fitting the stories to his conclusions rather than the other way around. That said, it was a nice brush-up on some pretty important

history! Next, Bernstein applies this framework to an analysis of the economic histories of specific nation-states: Holland, England, Spain, and Japan. And In fact, according to Bernstein, these factors are all that matters to human prosperity. Military greatness, democracy, peace, military success: everything else stems from the existence of these four crucial factors. And when these factors are in place, almost nothing can stop the torrent of human progress; not taxes, not government intervention, not even devastating wars (look at the rapid ascent of Japan and Germany following World War II): “Once a nation has reached that stage, it has broken the chains of poverty. Economic growth, if you will, becomes encoded into its very culture. Even when such nations suffer massive destruction of the outward physical manifestations of their economies, as occurred to the Axis Powers during World War II, they rapidly regain and surpass their former prosperity.”

I though

t that one of Bernstein’s most interesting assertions was his explanation that democracy flows from these institutions, not the other way around. In fact, Bernstein asserts that property rights underlie just about every other right that democracies hold dear: “Although the traditional view asserts that property rights flow from civil rights, the opposite view stands just as well. No less a socialist luminary than Leon Trotsky, arguing otherwise, observed that civil liberty flowed from property rights. The right to property is the right that guarantees all other rights. Individuals without property are susceptible to starvation, and it is much easier to bend the fearful and hungry to the will of the state.” Instituions are central to the economic and political histories of nations. He even attributes the economic failure of Latin America to the engrained legacy of twisted Spanish institutional heritage (i.e. the Catholic Church and economic plundering / rent-seeking). <

Bernstein completely dismisses the value of entrenched cultural habits if they stand in the way of economic progress and liberty: the “history of economic failures is about the resistance of traditional cultures to change.” Thus, he attributes the failure of many Middle Eastern and African states not to a lack of natural resources but to engrained cultures which deny both property rights, prevent effective capital markets, and, most importantly, stifle scientific rationalism. He is careful to emphasize that there is nothing inherent to Islam which creates this dynamic. In fact, Bernstein is most critical of the old practices of the Catholic Church and points out that ancient Islamic empires were some of the most intellectually and technologically advanced in the world. The decline of the Islamic world, Bernstein asserts, dates to the fifteen century, when Islamic scholars ended interpretation of the Koran, “crippling Islam as a dynamic social and economic forc

e.” And Berstein claims that sociological and cultural factors are more important than religion at explaining economic stagnation. Nonetheless, some of Bernstein’s passages may certainly prove controversial.

In one of my favorite chapters, Bernstein directly addresses a topic that has long troubled me: what is the point of economic progress if we seem to be on some sort of hedonic treadmill where increases in economic wealth no longer correspond with increases in happiness. Of course, for the majority of the world’s citizens, economic progress still unequivocally increases happiness: the shift from a starved population to a well-fed one will always increase happiness. But in the western world, inequality seems to be a larger determinant of our collective well-being. As usual, Bernstein addresses the question by examining the data rather than extrapolating his own ideology. And he finds that “money, then, does buy happiness, but only in a relative sense. Ab

solute wealth matters less than wealth relative to your neighbors.” As H.L. Mencken puts it, “a wealthy man is one who earns more than his wife’s brother-in-law.” And this is true on a macro-level:
“in an increasingly globalized society, the wealth of those at a distance acquires real significance. Closer to home, the modern media makes inner-city slum dwellers or even the comfortable members of the middle class more aware of their poverty relative to the lifestyles of the rich and famous that they will never meet. Abroad, the denizen of the Arab street must face up daily to the material shortcomings of his lifestyle as compared with that in the West. It is not too much of a stretch to say that the wealthy among us are the cause of our unhappiness. The wealthier they are and the closer their proximity, either real or electronic, the more miserable they make us feel. If this is true, then societies with the smallest inequalities of wealth should be the happiest

. Is this actually the case? Yes. The nations at the top of the WVS combined subjective well-being scale—Iceland, Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, Finland, Sweden, Ireland, and Norway—all have avowedly redistributionist tax policies and narrow income distributions.”

According to Bernstein, only redistribution programs on the scale seen in Communist Russia would actually dampen growth. Now, I’m not sure I completely agree with him. While inequality is certainly corrosive to society (Bernstein warns that huge inequality can disrupt growth by tearing at the fabric of society and encouraging revolutions – see Occupy Wall Street (not)), excessive tax burdens eventually undermine the explosive creativity and innovation that is fundamental to a society’s success. While France still enjoys high income-per-capita, its economy might be headed for a nasty period of economic stagnation in the future. Most importantly, Bernstein ignores philosophical questions of

distribution throughout his book – we should remember that happiness and economic prosperity are not the sole goals of civilization (at least in my opinion).

And I still don’t buy all of Bernstein’s points. By taking on a project of such scale, he sometimes reaches quick and unfounded conclusions on important points. For example, he casually concludes that the “happiness” costs of inflation are lower than those of unemployment, and claims that this should inform the policy of the Federal Reserve. He completely ignores Milton Friedman’s groundbreaking prediction that inflation only yields temporary employment benefits. And I’m guessing some would balk at his proposal that the only positive foreign development policy is institution-based. But overall, I think that we need more intellectuals who seek to provide fundamental, broad explanations rather than attack extremely specific issues, and Bernstein has certainly done that. He even makes predictions abo

ut the future of the geo-political landscape:
“This connection between free-market economics, democracy, and military efficiency suggests a conclusion that goes beyond Brooks-Wohlforth: Regardless of the duration of American hegemony, it seems likely that for the foreseeable future prolonged great-power status will become the exclusive domain of populous, innovative liberal democracies, the only nations that will be able to expand their economies, develop their weaponry, and adequately fund their militaries. Further, the politically empowered electorates of these nations will hold military expenditure to a tolerable level—say less than 10% of GDP—and thus resist imperial overstretch.”
This review was a bit long and sloppy, but Bernstein covered a lot of ground (and could sometimes be sloppy). I would strongly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in economic history. More importantly, I would even more strongly recommend this to anyone who thinks th

at economics (and economic history) are unimportant.

One of my favorite quotes:
“Once again, prior to 1820, there was little improvement in the material welfare of the average person. This picture is contrary to that commonly taught in the nation’s humanities departments. From the perspective of the Romance language expert or the art historian, the Renaissance appears to be the pivotal point of the second millennium. The great writers and artists of that period, however, did little to improve nutrition, to augment transport, or to prevent plague. In an age when the average person never ventured more than a few miles from the place of his birth, the Sistine Chapel frescoes could do little to uplift the collective human spirit.”
987 reviews
August 20, 2017
I used to wonder what was the value of studying history. It shows how things got the way they are, but does it really provide lessons (other than that we don't learn from history) that can apply in the future? This book puts any of my remaining doubts to rest. History provides the context for the study of economic history, and economic history shows what is necessary for high standards of living.

This book makes the case that the requirements for prosperity are four: Property rights, a rationalist intellectual tradition, easy access to capital, and an infrastructure which provides ready transportation, communication, and power. The economic theory in support of this thesis is given briefly but is obvious enough that more pages are unnecessary. Most of the book delves into world economic history, showing how some societies got all the elements into place and others fell short, and what the consequences were. Special attention is given to Holland, England, France, Spain, Japan, the Ottoman Empire, and Latin America. The writing is engaging and generally clear, although having a good background knowledge of world history will help a reader understand the larger picture; Bernstein seems to assume that his readers have such a background. Overall, a good book on an extremely valuable topic.
39 reviews1 follower
November 14, 2021
The book is about 4 requisites for creating prosperity.
1. Protection of Property Rights
2. Unconstrained Thinking
3. Access to credit and exchanges
4. Cost-effective transport
The book is engaging and well written. Read it almost effortlessly
Book's thesis is very persuasive, there is nothing one can't really debate on the matter. Except, if those were the true reasons for the newly unlocked prosperity or just the factors that happened to appear before the modern prosperity boom.
It would be great to tap into the reasons for the prosperity of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia to see if similar factors played the role. It seems that only those periods might have experienced similar levels of human well-being advances. When our species transitioned from the hunter-gatherer into a well organised modern society with cities, laws, commerce and governments. However, due to the lack of written sources from the periods, it might remain a mystery forever.
227 reviews2 followers
January 19, 2023
This is well researched book by the author on growth of prosperity across various regions. The author ascribed four major reasons for the growth of nations / regions:
• Modern Property Rights
• Scientific Rationalism
• Mature Capital Markets
• Power, Transport & Communication
All these have been covered in detail for the successful and (major) unsuccessful regions. To some these may not be an exhaustive list but can surely be a starting point for more reading/ understanding.
This book requires time and patience to grasp the ideas. You may even have to reference other resources at times while reading to better understand the same. This is a satisfying read.
Profile Image for Dick.
150 reviews4 followers
October 8, 2018
I would put this book as the same caliber as “ why nation fail”. That says a lot. Similar to all the top notch book on economic history, this book provides a framework on why where and how a nation would prosper. It has very little to do with geography, natural resource or even wars. The four pillars of success: property right, intellectual rationalism, capital, transportation/communication, form a great framework to understand the past, and predict the future of a nation. This is one great read on human history.
Profile Image for Sanjay Banerjee.
413 reviews7 followers
June 15, 2020
The author presents his theory of why prosperity has been the engine of civilization starting from around 1820. According to him, simultaneous occurring of 4 elements are the building blocks of economic progress - property rights, scientific rationalism, capital markets and transportation/communication.

The author presents his thesis in a cogent manner. Personally for me, some of the historical insights (especially about the Western world) that he presented was also new information for me. Great book to read!
September 11, 2021
Excellent assessment of historical data to understand the current state of economic affairs. In his conclusion I found he tends to take ought from is: wealth disparity makes less wealthy people unhappy so we should try to decrease it. But his solution is to tax the rich more and give it to the less wealthy, which seems to kick back directly against the idea of personality property. I also take issue with solving the issue of envy and covetousness by giving those who are envious and covetous what the desire.
Profile Image for Pauline.
803 reviews2 followers
April 9, 2022
It took a while to get through (in large part because I only read it during lunch at work), but it was surprisingly enjoyable reading, considering it's all about history and economics, which often make for dull, dry reading. I don't know how accurate Bernstein's analysis is, but it makes sense as he explains it. I liked that he included chapters exploring the problems that go with prosperity, and put it in the context of trade-offs (unlike those who make capitalism out to be either the problem or the solution).
19 reviews
March 21, 2023
A great brief read on the authors four pillars of what makes economic progress possible. Property rights, the scientific method, an efficient financial system, and transportation. It is not long enough to thoroughly convince me that this is the magic formula but it certainly does enough to help you see the value in each of these components. It’s only a 5 hour audio book so give it a try if you are looking for a short economic history.
214 reviews41 followers
September 8, 2017
Bernstein argues that a country must have four attributes: property rights, the scientific rationalism, capital markets and an effective means of transportation to thrive and then looks at a number of countries economic performance through this lens. This book helped me understand how critical property rights (and the rule of law is) for an economy to function effectively.
Profile Image for Matthew.
120 reviews
August 6, 2019
I’ve exhausted my interest in the topic of creation and maintenance of continuous growth and improvement but couldn’t knock this book for that. Very thorough, but streamlined compared to its peers, this book provides a framework for how the west created prosperity and this how it must be protected to continue.
Profile Image for Phil K.
87 reviews
August 6, 2017
I found it a little slow to start, but once I got in I was both entertained and informed reading about the 4 ingredients that cause growth and make a country rich. Good history. Practical for policy-making. Relevant to today.
Profile Image for Warren Rainer.
Author 3 books4 followers
September 16, 2018
A comprehensive look at how the world's wealth has been created and the core elements required. I think it provides the reader with a broader vision of both history and the future as well as a new template with which to gauge current events. A great read!
Profile Image for Harsh Thaker.
203 reviews10 followers
February 20, 2018
Look at the seeds for prosperity and factors against it.. why most countries struggle for economic miracles and why few succeed
Profile Image for Stevia.
9 reviews1 follower
January 10, 2019
Great book! One of the best history/economy books around!
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58 reviews1 follower
September 7, 2019
What's at the core of what makes rich countries rich and poor countries poor? This book gives an amazing account of the root causes of prosperity and lack of it.
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23 reviews1 follower
October 24, 2019
الكتاب فيه كمية معلومات مهولة ويتكلم عن فترة طويلة جداً
الجدير بالذكر ان المؤلف ليس مؤرخ
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25 reviews1 follower
March 15, 2020
Interesting follow-on to Guns, Germs, Steel in line with Fukuyama's perspective. Perhaps biased, but well argued and defended.
42 reviews1 follower
September 16, 2021
This is a very good book about how wealth emerges. We should keep it in mind every time somebody proposes profound organisational changes.
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