A Dutch interview with Harvard Professor David Landes
Source Jurriaan Bendien
Date 02/04/24/02:11

This interview with Harvard Professor David Landes appeared in the Dutch magazine Internationale Samenwerking [International Cooperation] (April 2002, pp. 30-33), a free publication of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The interviewer was Bart Top.

Q: You explain poverty by geographic location. Slavery would be related to a hot climate. How is that the case ?

DL: If work is something unpleasant, the powerful get others to do it. It is therefore no accident that we find slavery especially in tropical and semi-tropical areas.

Q: Your explanation will not please the descendants of slaves very much !

DL: I don't feel such a need to discuss with them.

Q: No ?

DL: They accuse the Western world of coming to them, but they had their own slaves. Who is fooling whom here ? The West did not invent slavery, you find it all over the world. Of course the blacks from Africa remember slavery, and there is even a political campaign to persuade the United States to make payments in compensation. This however makes no impression whatsoever on us, Americans who arrived after the Civil War.

Q: The Dutch government made an apology during the anti-racism conference in Durban last year. Is there a point in that, according to you ?

DL: No, because in Africa or the West-Indies there was already slavery before the West went there.

Q: The West could nevertheless be held to account for its own role, couldn't it ?

DL: Okay, then we say: we treated you better than your own masters did. How should a descendant of an American slave respond, when the descendant of an American slaveholder says: you were worse off before you came to America ?I think there is no end to this discussion. I am by the way not personally involved in that debate. My ancestors came to America when slavery did not exist anymore. They came from Rumania, and the smartest thing they ever did was to leave there.

Q: You consider this history as a thing of the past ?

DL: Yes, the essence of success is that you decide to live on the basis of your own strength, without harking back to the memory of old suffering. That memory is poisonous.

Q: Isn't it easy to have such a helicopter view, if you aren't black and don't live in a poor country ?

DL: Allright then, so it's easy - but what does that prove ? Your approach implies the notion that people should have to complain, even about matters that don't affect them anymore. They should have to make excuses, pay compensation. That is the basis of a lot of development aid.

Q: You don't like that ?

DL: I think it's fine, provided it doesn't turn into charity. But I don't see the necessity for it. The best development aid I can think of is investment, creating jobs. In other words: globalisation. That is nothing new. That is how backward economies have always been developed.

Q: In your book The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, you cite countries which used the combination of free trade and protectionism to their own advantage. Isn't this exactly what the West does at the moment ?

DL: If that was true, then you wouldn't see all the export of jobs and employment opportunities. And then you also ought to ask me at this point how come there are so many people angry, and why there are such violent reactions.

Q: You mean, by the anti-globalists ?

DL: Yes, many people are first of all against the growth and progress of capitalist firms because of ideological reasons. They are angry because globalisation works. Secondly people don't want to see the rich get richer.

Q: You could also explain that anger by injustices in the system.

DL: Why is it unjust to shift jobs to other regions ?

Q: Perhaps because not everybody profits from that, or because people lose their livelihoods, such as many traditional farmers ?

DL:Well, they just go and grow something else, or they go to the cities.

Q: Millions of people already do that, to their great misery.

DL: Oh, people have been moving to the cities for hundreds of years. I don't believe that anyone benefits if things stay as they are. That is also not realistic: the world keeps changing. In fact every society has to have the will to know what's happening and learn new ways, to create new jobs. Globalisation arouses strong emotions, but it will continue and it is the best thing we have.

Q: You consider globalisation not only the best but also the only game in town ?

DL: No, the other way is to learn it completely on your own, like the Japanese did, but of course things go faster if you open yourself up to the world. Capitalism is not only the best system if it is a question of creating jobs, but also an encouragement for democratic arrangements. As opposed to socialism and communism, which produced totalitarian regimes. Or do you have counter-examples ?

Q: It seems to me that countries which offer a counterweight to pure capitalism are more pleasant to live in; they combine the rational effect of the market with a social approach.

DL: I don't call that socialism: that is active government participation in the bigger social process. There are certain things which business has no attention for, and there government can do useful things.

Q: Without a strong government, the market somtimes does more harm than good.

DL: Yes, the market can be really ruthless. I believe in realism. Businesspeople are not only greedy, they do it for the money and they are more ready to take, than to produce. So they resort to the use of influence, power or corruption. And that is indeed a problem.

Q: And what about the point that the local market is disturbed by the global market ?

DL: Quiet spots which are not integrated in the world market often have a lower living standard. Because a lot of the things we need you can only get from the big market. Everybody nowadays wants to buy gadgets and electronic equipment, right ?

Q: Okay, let's go back to your thesis that culture is the explanation for failure or success.

DL: If I look at societies, I am struck by how much they are influenced by what they want to be, with whom they want to live and work. That I call culture. Let us take a basic subject. What is work ? Is work a punishment for the sins committed by you or your family, or is work a privilege, an opportunity and a virtue ? That is a cultural issue and societies take quite different views on it. Religion plays an important role. If you look at how, in the history of Europe, the economic centre moved from the Iberian peninsula and the Mediterranean to the Low Countries, the British Isles and Scandinavia, then you see that the attitude with regard to work is part of the explanation. For Roman Catholics work is a punishment for a previously committed sin. For the followers of Calvin work is an opportunity.

Q: Is economic success the most important criterion to evaluate societies ?

DL: I only measure their performance in economic terms, I don't go and say that one has more virtues than the other. I am Jewish, that is the legacy of my ancestors, but I am a Calvinist by conviction. Because I think life revolves around work. If I look at the Islamic world and ask myself why countries like Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia did so much better than the others, that is in part because the version of islam they follow is looser than that in the Arabic centre. But above all the Chinese immigrants, who are hard workers, played a big role. I don't say the Chinese are better or that Malaysians are worse. I just ask myself why some people are more successful than others.

Q: The Muslims don't rate so high ?

DL: Islam was once a leading civilisation in the world, but it declined and lost. The muslims are the first to acknowledge that from an economic point of view the islamic world is a disaster area. They are in a poorer position than they ever were, and because poor people have nothing else to do than produce children, they have a high birth rate and the income per capita keeps declining.

Q: From your book I don't get the impression that you believe in a clash of civilisations, like the historian Samuel Huntingdon does.

DL: I didn't say it, but it could be the case. After 11 September I need to rewrite some things. I say that Islam is not necessarily at war with the West, but a great part of islam is. If you look at the background of 11 September, you notice that it wasn't a sudden expression of hate or hostility. It was prepared and planned over a long time. This is a deeply felt resentment. You have to realise that some strive for an apocalyptic change, through which everyone becomes a muslim. That is what they aspire to. Others try to live with modernity. Huntington has a point, insofar as culture is important and that religion is a prominent part of that. Religious differences contain the possibility for conflict. If you, as with Islam, get a strong rejection "we don't want to be materialists, but preserve higher values", then you run into problems. Then you get a growing gap between rich and poor and that is a recipe for aggression, violence, terrorism and war.

Q: Don't analyses which strongly emphasise general contradictions provoke conflict themselves ?

DL: That could be, but our first duty is to face the truth. I don't believe in political correctness.

Q: Back to culture. In The Wealth and Poverty of Nations you write that the Chinese invented gunpowder but used it just for fireworks. Do you see that as inferior relative to its application in cannons ?

DL: Inferior is the wrong word. From a moral standpoint the Chinese version is superior. But for the Western countries the issue was: can you kill people with it, and that is what it is really about. They continued to work at making better guns. When the Portuguese went to the Indies, they came back with the message: our guns reach further. So with the next journey they got the advice: don't create troubles, but if you see a suspicious ship, then be the first to blow it out of the water. In the crunch that is what counts: who has superior weapons. It would be interesting to see if the muslims think differently about that than before, after the rapid American victories in Afghanistan.

Q: What counts for you: power or also the feelings of people who turn against that power ?

DL: If a society engages in a conflict to settle differences, then it has to know what the balance of forces is, otherwise you get a lesson. Just look at the revolt of the American colonies against Great Britain. The British appeared to have an overwhelming advantage, but a realist would have been able to tell them that the Americans had rifles and they had only muskets. Rifles are more powerful, so they lost all the battles even though they were richer and more numerous. That is what I mean by realism.

Q: Is the frustration which is the result of defeat by superior weapons, also a reality ? If I understand you correctly, you don't draw any other consequence from all those grievances.

DL: Of course you have to respond to that. I am just saying that if you live in a position of weakness or inferiority than it is easier to harbour a grievance than to learn to live in harmony. It is difficult to overcome the shortcomings of your situation. My friend Huntington is absolutely right: the world is full of grievances, often related to religious differences. And they promote resentment.

Q: For you history is however not about resentment but about competition ?

DL: One of the most important themes of history is the response of a given nation, culture or civilisation to competition and challenges. I established that China and Islam once were at the top of the ladder and I was interested in their reaction to the growth of European power. The Chinese were not prepared to learn and it cost them four hundred years. Around 1900 they noticed they were poorer and weaker than the European and since then they have tried to catch up. The Islamic case is totally different, because the muslims found solace in religion. They really have a problem.

Q: Does the West ride on the high road of history ?

DL: Yes, the last thousand years the high road was the rise and forward march of the West. That is all. Everybody says you shouldn't talk about it, but it happens to be true. The West invented modernity, defined it and advanced it. And that is what's so beautiful: the progress of progress. If one country gives up its top position, another makes an invention from which the first learns something. And so there is a continual learning process. And there's still a future in that.

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