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

For thousands of years living standards remained much the same, but in the early 1800s all that changed for Western nations. Why?

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

by William J Bernstein (McGraw Hill, 2010) $40

For thousands of years living standards stayed much the same, but in the early 1800s all that changed for Western nations. Far from Thomas Malthus’ dark predictions of overpopulation, prosperity took a sharp upward turn from about 1820 onwards. Why? That’s the question that William Bernstein tackles in The Birth of Plenty.

He identifies four roots to modern Western prosperity: robust property rights (my stuff won’t be stolen or confiscated), scientific thinking (I’m free to be wrong, to explore an idea), access to capital (I can borrow without crippling interest or the threat of debtors’ prison) and the development of transport and technology (my products and ideas can travel rapidly).

As an economic history book, The Birth of Plenty is fascinating and wellresearched. As a guide to the present and future, it’s lacking. Bernstein mentions the environment in passing, where it could surely use its own chapter. He does, however, include a chapter questioning whether GDP actually affects happiness (it does, but with diminishing returns as GDP gets higher— in other words, money ain’t everything).

Also puzzling is the lack of coverage of two emerging superpowers, China and India. Instead, the book covers in detail why sustainable economic prosperity hasn’t taken off in the Middle East and Latin America.

While the book fails to address some issues in enough detail, the book certainly gives four solid (and extremely wellresearched) principles for the enduring wealth of a nation.

Simon Young is a director of #sy social media consultancy

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