Greg Clark’s “A Farewell to Alms”

Greg Clark’s “A Farewell to Alms”, a review by Nicolas Wade.

For thousands of years, most people on earth lived in abject poverty, first as hunters and gatherers, then as peasants or laborers. But with the Industrial Revolution, some societies traded this ancient poverty for amazing affluence.

Historians and economists have long struggled to understand how this transition occurred and why it took place only in some countries. A scholar who has spent the last 20 years scanning medieval English archives has now emerged with startling answers for both questions.

Gregory Clark, an economic historian at the University of California, Davis, believes that the Industrial Revolution — the surge in economic growth that occurred first in England around 1800 — occurred because of a change in the nature of the human population. The change was one in which people gradually developed the strange new behaviors required to make a modern economy work. The middle-class values of nonviolence, literacy, long working hours and a willingness to save emerged only recently in human history, Dr. Clark argues.

Because they grew more common in the centuries before 1800, whether by cultural transmission or evolutionary adaptation, the English population at last became productive enough to escape from poverty, followed quickly by other countries with the same long agrarian past. …

Until 1800, the Malthusian trap meant improving technology didn’t improve people’s living standards significantly (at least, as measured in terms of calories consumed or time spent obtaining those calories), because there were just more mouths to feed:

He shows, far more clearly than has been possible before, that the economy was locked in a Malthusian trap — each time new technology increased the efficiency of production a little, the population grew, the extra mouths ate up the surplus, and average income fell back to its former level.

This income was pitifully low in terms of the amount of wheat it could buy. By 1790, the average person’s consumption in England was still just 2,322 calories a day, with the poor eating a mere 1,508. Living hunter-gatherer societies enjoy diets of 2,300 calories or more. …

How we escaped (and note how these trends have been thrust into reverse recently):

Generation after generation, the rich had more surviving children than the poor, his research showed. That meant there must have been constant downward social mobility as the poor failed to reproduce themselves and the progeny of the rich took over their occupations. “The modern population of the English is largely descended from the economic upper classes of the Middle Ages,” he concluded. …

Another significant change in behavior, Dr. Clark argues, was an increase in people’s preference for saving over instant consumption, which he sees reflected in the steady decline in interest rates from 1200 to 1800.

“Thrift, prudence, negotiation and hard work were becoming values for communities that previously had been spendthrift, impulsive, violent and leisure loving,” Dr. Clark writes.

Around 1790, a steady upward trend in production efficiency first emerges in the English economy. It was this significant acceleration in the rate of productivity growth that at last made possible England’s escape from the Malthusian trap and the emergence of the Industrial Revolution. …

It is puzzling that the Industrial Revolution did not occur first in the much larger populations of China or Japan. Dr. Clark has found data showing that their richer classes, the Samurai in Japan and the Qing dynasty in China, were surprisingly unfertile and so would have failed to generate the downward social mobility that spread production-oriented values in England. …

After the Industrial Revolution, the gap in living standards between the richest and the poorest countries started to accelerate, from a wealth disparity of about 4 to 1 in 1800 to more than 50 to 1 today. …

Ideology prevents the left from seeing how it happened. Like much of reality, it’s too politically incorrect:

Many commentators point to a failure of political and social institutions as the reason that poor countries remain poor. But the proposed medicine of institutional reform “has failed repeatedly to cure the patient,” Dr. Clark writes. He likens the “cult centers” of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to prescientific physicians who prescribed bloodletting for ailments they did not understand. …

Historians used to accept changes in people’s behavior as an explanation for economic events, like Max Weber’s thesis linking the rise of capitalism with Protestantism. But most have now swung to the economists’ view that all people are alike and will respond in the same way to the same incentives. Hence they seek to explain events like the Industrial Revolution in terms of changes in institutions, not people.

Clark’s explanation for the greatest event in human history bends over backwards to the left by not even mentioning IQ. The left pretends IQ does not exist, or if it does then it’s the same everywhere and for all times in humans — because breeding and evolution only affects animals.

Some might say it was a particular invention around 1800 that let humanity escape the Malthusian trap. The steam engine, perhaps? The new harvesters? The cotton mill? Nope. Clark goes through that. For example, steam engines transported to say India in 1800 did not result in the same rise of living standard there.

It was no particular invention, but a slew of inventions and their efficient deployment all at once that overwhelmed the trap. And what made that possible was that people were different.

Btw, the printing press just happened at the wrong time, too early.

Due to the exploding food supply:

pictures from Charles