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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Gregory Clark's "A Farewell to Alms"

In the Preface to his book on the cause of the Industrial Revolution, A Farewell to Alms, Gregory Clark says:

This book takes a bold approach to history. ... It is an unabashed attempt at big history, in the tradition of The Wealth of Nations, Das Kapital, The Rise of the Western World, and most recently Guns, Germs, and Steel. All these books, like this one, ask: How did we get here? Why did it take so long? Why are some rich and some poor? Where are we headed? ...

Doubtless some of the arguments developed here will prove oversimplified, or merely false. They are certainly controversial, even among my colleagues in economic history. But far better such error than the usual dreary academic sins, which now seem to define so much writing in the humanities, of willful obfuscation and jargon-laden vacuity. As Darwin himself noted, "false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, for every one takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness: and when this is done, one path towards error is closed and the road to truth is often at the same time opened."' Thus my hope is that, even if the book is wrong in parts, it will be clearly and productively wrong, leading us toward the light. ...

Here's part of a longer write-up on the book:

In Dusty Archives, a Theory of Affluence, by Nicholas Wade, NY Times: For thousands of years, most people on earth lived in abject poverty... 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. ...

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. ...

The basis of Dr. Clark’s work is his recovery of data from which he can reconstruct many features of the English economy from 1200 to 1800. From this data, 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. ...

The ... Malthusian trap, Dr. Clark’s data show, governed the English economy from 1200 until the Industrial Revolution and has in his view probably constrained humankind throughout its existence. The only respite was during disasters like the Black Death, when population plummeted, and for several generations the survivors had more to eat.

Malthus’s book is well known because it gave Darwin the idea of natural selection. ...

Given that the English economy operated under Malthusian constraints, might it not have responded in some way to the forces of natural selection that Darwin had divined would flourish in such conditions? Dr. Clark started to wonder whether natural selection had indeed changed the nature of the population in some way and, if so, whether this might be the missing explanation for the Industrial Revolution. ...

Many explanations have been offered for this spurt in efficiency, ... but none is fully satisfactory, historians say. Dr. Clark’s first thought was that the population might have evolved greater resistance to disease. ...

In support of the disease-resistance idea, cities like London were so filthy and disease ridden that a third of their populations died off every generation, and the losses were restored by immigrants from the countryside. That suggested to Dr. Clark that the surviving population of England might be the descendants of peasants.

A way to test the idea, he realized, was through analysis of ancient wills, which might reveal a connection between wealth and the number of progeny. The wills did that, but in quite the opposite direction to what he had expected.

Generation after generation, the rich had more surviving children than the poor... 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.

As the progeny of the rich pervaded all levels of society, Dr. Clark considered, the behaviors that made for wealth could have spread with them. He has documented that several aspects of what might now be called middle-class values changed significantly from the days of hunter gatherer societies to 1800. Work hours increased, literacy and numeracy rose, and the level of interpersonal violence dropped.

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. ...

[T]here is no agreed explanation for the Industrial Revolution... Many commentators point to a failure of political and social institutions... 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. ...

Dr. Clark says the middle-class values needed for productivity could have been transmitted either culturally or genetically. But in some passages, he seems to lean toward evolution as the explanation. ...

What was being inherited, in his view, was not greater intelligence — being a hunter in a foraging society requires considerably greater skill than the repetitive actions of an agricultural laborer. Rather, it was “a repertoire of skills and dispositions that were very different from those of the pre-agrarian world.”

Reaction to Dr. Clark’s thesis from other economic historians seems largely favorable, although few agree with all of it, and many are skeptical of the most novel part, his suggestion that evolutionary change is a factor to be considered in history.

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.

Dr. Clark’s view is that institutions and incentives have been much the same all along and explain very little... In saying the answer lies in people’s behavior, he is asking his fellow economic historians to revert to a type of explanation they had mostly abandoned and in addition is evoking an idea that historians seldom consider as an explanatory variable, that of evolution. ...

“The actual data underlying this stuff is hard to dispute,” Dr. Clark said. “When people see the logic, they say ‘I don’t necessarily believe it, but it’s hard to dismiss.’ ”

    Posted by on Tuesday, August 7, 2007 at 02:07 AM in Economics, Technology | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (56)

          

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