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The Birth of Plenty

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The Birth of Plenty

How the Prosperity of the Modern World was Created


15 min read
10 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

Why is one country richer than another? History says property rights, science, law, capital and liberty breed wealth.

Editorial Rating



  • Innovative


Gertrude Stein called Ezra Pound, "a village explainer," and said that was fine if one happened to be a village. Author and historian William J. Bernstein is an explainer, so put on your village thinking cap. This sprawling book skips over a broad surface of economic history, theology, sociology, engineering, politics and mechanics, like a flat pebble over a smooth pond. Readers with scant grounding in these disciplines can still have a good time as they gaze slightly slack-jawed at this colorful, fast-moving assemblage of facts, theories and prejudices, all mixed, mingled and as surprising as a carnival parade. Readers who know these subjects, on the other hand, will relish the sweep of Bernstein’s saga even if they balk at the inevitable simplifications, exaggerations, contradictions and foggy facts that result from compressing world economic history into 400 pages. Bernstein arranges his history around the four pillars that, he says, support continual economic growth: property rights, the scientific method, capital markets and communications. Given that framework, his presentation is logical and lively. liked this entertaining read, which is imbued with a history buff’s excitement.


The Hypothesis

Clearly, some parts of the world have more wealth than others. The United States is quite rich, for example. Mali is quite poor. England is extravagantly well off in comparison to Turkey or Yemen. Luxembourg is richer than Laos. France is better off than Bolivia. Why? When you look at that list, remember that for many hundreds of years, Europe was a barbaric backwater by comparison to the great Islamic civilization that stretched through from Turkey, through Arabia and all the way to India. The Chinese already had attained a sophisticated civilization when Europe was still feudal and illiterate.

Moreover, within Europe, many countries that were quite wealthy in bygone years are now economic also-rans. Looking at Spain today, you wouldn't know it used to be a superpower unless someone told you. France was a mighty nation when the Germans were merely a batch of boorish baronies. The English used to envy the wealth of the Dutch. The Dutch!

The Industrial Revolution

What is responsible for the disparities in distribution of the world's wealth? In fact, something occurred in the nineteenth century that changed the way the economic world works...

About the Author

William J. Bernstein, Ph.D., M.D., is founder of the popular Website He is also author of The Four Pillars of Investing and The Intelligent Asset Allocator.

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