I recently read two more books on the question of progress that had very different approaches to the subject. The two were The Birth of Plenty , and 's A Farewell to Alms. (Marginal Revolution had a long discussion on the latter book. It's worth reading if you have time.)'s
Clark's main argument is reasonably straightforward: Before the industrial revolution, the world's economies were all caught in a malthusian trap: any increase in productivity increased population and drove living standards down. The only (short-term) changes that improved living standards were things that reduced population: war, famine, disease. There was a gradual accretion of technological improvements over time, and something switched over in the 16th or 17th century in Europe (and later elsewhere) leading to a situation in which progress was substantial enough that societies left the malthusian trap, and people gradually became richer. The key according to was that in the malthusian era in England, the wealthy were out-reproducing the poor, causing a general downward mobility, which spread the social mores (and possibly the genes) for more productive behavior more widely there. It's crucial to the argument that in England commerce was the road to wealth, so the values and behavior that were spreading were those that are the foundational for commercial and entrepreneurial success.
He provides a very engaging account of the history of these institutions, and a plausible argument that they are associated with growth, but the evidence that they are both necessary and sufficient is lacking. As history, I found the book to be very well written. argues that economic growth occurs only when four institutions are all present in a society: property rights, the scientific worldview, access to capital, and high-speed communication. The two nations had roughly equal fleets at the beginning of the war, and the early battles caused attrition to each that were due to the vagaries of fate and individual commanders. But four years later, the Japanese had built two new carriers to shore up their losses, and the US had built sixteen. In smaller ships, the US was outproducing the Japanese at a much higher rate. At that point, fate and individual talent stop mattering depicts several episodes in history quite colorfully: the sprint from the invention of telegraphy in the 1830s to stock tickers in 1867 was wonderful. His evidence that the US victory over Japan in the Pacific was dominated by productivity differences is also convincing.'s story isn't as deep; he's interested in intermediate causes rather than root causes.
Both authors are concerned with the now omnipresent question raised by Guns, Germs and Steel: why in some places and not others; why did those particular countries come out on top, and what could the developing countries do to catch up? says that development of the four institutions is all it takes. Of course, prescribing it is easier than implementing it, and the biggest step missing from his argument is evidence that it's possible for a country to decide to take this path and succeed. According to the evidence he marshals, it has only happened in the past when the institutional framework was nearly complete, and the missing ingredients fell into place by happenstance. This makes it sound like an experiment worth trying, if there were a country on the verge of having that set of institutions, and the political ability to make the changes. But it doesn't seem like a prescription that can (or ought to, at this point) be forced on all underdeveloped nations wholesale.in
's answer is more pessimistic (and less culturally neutral.) Some countries' citizens work more efficiently than others. carefully rules out the obvious possible causes: differences in available capital or in training. He's left saying that the difference is in the workers themselves, though it "can be firmly established" that the differences "stem from the local social environment". Although refuses to use the word himself, the conclusion he leads you to is that poor countries have lazy workers. It takes more workers to do the same amount of work, and no amount of training or social pressure seems to change that. Employers have tried a number of tactics, and the only approach that seems to work reliably is to expect it to take two or three people to carry out the tasks that would be done by one worker in a first-world country. is unhappy with the conclusion, and doesn't proffer any explanations of root causes.
My conclusion? Progress was a complex event historically, and there are lots more details to learn. In the contemporary world, there are significant differences between those who continue to advance and those who don't, and we still haven't found a recipe for bridging the gap. We know that it's sometimes possible, but we don't know of any interventions that could even be said to be "likely" to work. There are changes that seem to lead to improvements (improving access to markets, increasing protections for property ownership, better telecommunications and transportation infrastructure) but they don't work reliably, and these aren't simple to achieve. They take time and significant effort, and can be derailed in a variety of unpredictable ways.
The only good news for those below the curve is that progress is usually much faster for those playing catch-up (once they start on the accelerating path).