A Farewell to Alms:
A Brief Economic History of the World

Author: Gregory Clark

Princeton University Press, 2007

Gregory Clark is chairman of the economics department at the University of California, Davis.

Clark describes economic development from the "original foragers of the African savannah" to the nineteenth century passing through gains in production of food, better tools and more land to cultivate. These gains, he holds, were always offset by rises in population, what he calls the Malthusian Trap.

Among the figures and charts he uses to support his point, he cites 15 pounds of wheat as equivalent to a day's wage in ancient Babylon and from 11 to 13 pounds of wheat in the year 1800 in England. And he describes stature (a function of diet) as somewhat the same across this same span of time.

Clark writes that between 1760 and 1900 an unprecedented event occurred, "made possible by advances in knowledge." This event was a "rapid industrial growth fueled by increasing production efficiency," called the Industrial Revolution. He describes the Industrial Revolution as coming first to England, between 1760 and 1800. It can be argued, writes Clark, that the break from the Malthusian Trap occurred around the year 1600, 1800 or 1860.

More than just describing that this happened, Clark attempts to explain why it happened first in England, and for his last chapter he asks "Why Isn't the Whole World Developed?"

For me his questions bring to mind the American Indians and their part in the world's uneven economic development from many centuries ago. Indians in North America did partake in innovations when circumstances were right. They took to horses when horses became available. Some of them farmed. They did not invent guns because they were without the tools needed to imagine the possibility. They had no machine or metals industry, and, like Europeans before the Middle Ages, no knowledge about gunpowder. Like most Europeans, rather than invent guns they were ready to use them when they became available. To the extent that they were not in want, they saw no reason to invent something new. They were not imbued with the spirit of industrialists, wanting something new for the sake of profit, mass marketing or beating out competition. It is absurd to claim that they were genetically inferior to the British.

The Industrial Revolution was the result of a long social and economic development, and Clark recognizes this. He describes the Industrial Revolution as the result of an irregular fluctuation from as far back as the year 1200. He describes the ancient Romans as not having advanced technologically, as not even having stirrups. They rode horses as did American Indians, by holding on with their knees.

Concerning inventions, in writing about developments during the Industrial Revolution, he mentions in passing that it is easier to copy than it is to invent, and he notes that inventions exist within the context of broad social and economic development.

Clark tries to explain the rise of the Industrial Revolution in England as something other than the English burning up all their wood and being forced to turn to coal, or a rising population of common people in want of employment in order to survive matched by entrepreneurs who needed them in their factories. Clark mentions interest rates, Protestantism, the nearness of coal and other matters. He mentions Adam Smith's observation of pre-industrial institutions offering poor incentives. It is not easy to accuse Clark of having excluded anything that contributed to the coming of the Industrial Revolution to England, but Clark tries to point out what was crucial, or causal, in making the Industrial Revolution happen first in England.

Clark writes that, between the years 1200 and 1800, wealthier people in England had more than twice the number of surviving children than the poor, or common people. Clark describes pre-industrial England as a "world of constant downward mobility, the sons of large landholders becoming small holders, the sons of successful craftsmen of one generation becoming the laborers of the next generation, the sons of merchants becoming petty traders and so on." It was a trend, he points out, that was opposite to what happened after the Industrial Revolution, when wealthy people had fewer children and among the poor were the upwardly mobile. Clark describes the downward mobility before the Industrial Revolution as spreading middle class values downward, values necessary to make the Industrial Revolution happen. He describes these values as thrift, prudence, negation, hard work, literacy and numeracy (math). These, he writes, replaced "spendthrift, impulsive, violence and leisure loving."

In trying to explain why the Industrial Revolution did not appear first in China or Japan, Clark describes a larger population growth in the centuries before 1800 and less reproductive advantage to the wealthy than was happening in England. "Thus we may speculate," he writes, "that England's advantage lay in the rapid cultural, and potentially also genetic, diffusion of the values of the economically successful throughout society in the years 1200-1800." The scholar that he is, Gregory Clark knows when he is speculating and when he is not.

Let us wonder how it is that the Finns, who got a late start in industrialization – after World War II – and have now (2011) surpassed the British economically, not because of superior natural resources, I presume. I have difficulty with any notion of innate superiority as a result of reproduction dynamics.

In answering his question why the whole world isn't developed Clark states that "poor economies since the Industrial Revolution have been characterized mainly by inefficiency in production." The dynamics of the world economy since modern colonialism and the beginning of the industrial revolution have been much discussed. Clark speaks of better managers creating more efficient production. But he avoids a broader narrative succinctly expressed that provides a guide as to what policies could remedy poverty. The title of his book, however, suggests that "alms" from the richer nations is not a remedy, and his discussion of the Malthusian Trap suggests that nations not well developed economically should concern themselves with agricultural development and limiting population growth.

Copyright © 2007-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.