Book Review: The Birth of Plenty

Buy this Book More Executive Book Reviews

The birth of Plenty
by William J. Bernstein

McGraw-Hill ©2004
420 pages

How the Modern World’s Prosperity Was Created

In an effort to uncover the cultural and historical factors that converged during the early 1800s and ignited the great economic boom of the modern world, historian and author William Bernstein has written The Birth of Plenty. Bernstein rises to the occasion of explaining how the world and its economy reached its present state while keeping readers absorbed — providing them with a framework that explains why any nation is rich or poor, democratic or totalitarian, weak or powerful, and whether or not citizens are satisfied with their lives.

Bernstein divides The Birth of Plenty into three parts: why, how and whither. First, he defines economic growth’s ultimate sources; then he describes how these factors played out in various nations. He then focuses on the sociological, political and military consequences of the modern world’s explosive economic growth.

Great Questions

By exploring the sources of economic growth, he provides insights into many of the questions that people seek about themselves, including:

• What is happening to the overall well-being and satisfaction of the average person in a world that is becoming not only more wealthy but also more complex, fast-paced and stressful?

• What is the relationship between wealth and democratic development?

• What does economic progress, and the growing inequality of wealth among nations, hold in store for the world’s political future?

• What are the prospects for successfully exporting democracy to countries like Iraq and Afghanistan?

• How has the evolution of modern prosperity affected the current balance of power in the world?

• Is the military ascendency of the United States a historical accident, and can it be expected to continue?

• How effectively can non-Westerners, particularly in the Moslem world, wield political and military power?

While digging into the story of world economic growth, Bernstein ventures into the fields of law, history, philosophy, celestial mechanics, theology, public policy, sociology and economics. By bringing together these disparate fields into a single story that tackles some of the largest questions people can ask, the author paints a vivid picture of the past that gives readers deeper insight into the future to which they are headed. Bernstein synthesizes numerous issues into specific and understandable theories about why world economic growth — and the technological progress that fueled it — suddenly exploded when it did. At the root of his question is why life in the 18th century, described by one author as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” changed so drastically in less than two centuries.

Instantaneous Communication

To describe how technological progress has actually been slowing since 1850, not accelerating, Bernstein writes that the average inhabitant of the Western world alive in 1950 would have no trouble grasping the technology of the year 2000, but “a citizen from 1800 would have been completely disoriented by everyday life 50 years later.” As an example, the author points out that in 1801, nothing moved faster than the speed of a horse. But, he writes, the invention of the telegraph and instantaneous communication in 1837 “abruptly altered the face of economic, military, and political affairs in ways that dwarf the changes wrought in this century by the airplane and the computer.”

According to Bernstein, there are four factors that are essential ingredients for igniting and sustaining economic growth and human progress: property rights, scientific rationalism, capital markets, and improvements in transport and communication. Bernstein first examines the nature, causes and consequences of the transformation in human well-being that began to unfold shortly after 1820, and identifies the points in both time and space where economic growth bloomed after thousands of years of dormancy.

Next, Bernstein describes how and when those four factors came into play, from Holland and England, to the rest of Europe and East Asia. The Birth of Plenty describes the sociological, political, economic and military consequences of the discrepancies in personal and national wealth that have risen from this birth of plenty, and their present and future implications.~

Why We Like ThIs Book

Bernstein’s rich examination of the effects of economic growth are made even more relevant by his additional insight into the role this growth has played in various peoples’ lives. By seeking to learn more about how our world prospered when and where it did, Bernstein provides us with a better idea of where we are all heading. ~

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.