A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World
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Why are some parts of the world so rich and others so poor? Why did the Industrial Revolution and the unprecedented economic growth that came with it occur in eighteenth-century England, and not at some other time, or in some other place? Why didn't industrialization make the whole world rich and why did it make large parts of the world even poorer? In A Farewell to Alms, Gregory Clark tackles these profound questions and suggests a new and provocative way in which culture not exploitation, geography, or resources explains the wealth, and the poverty, of nations.

Countering the prevailing theory that the Industrial Revolution was sparked by the sudden development of stable political, legal, and economic institutions in seventeenth-century Europe, Clark shows that such institutions existed long before industrialization. He argues instead that these institutions gradually led to deep cultural changes by encouraging people to abandon hunter-gatherer instincts-violence, impatience, and economy of effort-and adopt economic habits-hard work, rationality, and education.

The problem, Clark says, is that only societies that have long histories of settlement and security seem to develop the cultural characteristics and effective workforces that enable economic growth. For the many societies that have not enjoyed long periods of stability, industrialization has not been a blessing. Clark also dissects the notion, championed by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel, that natural endowments such as geography account for differences in the wealth of nations.

A brilliant and sobering challenge to the idea that poor societies can be economically developed through outside intervention, A Farewell to Alms may change the way global economic history is understood.

Customer Reviews:

  • Argument good, but takes it too far
    This is an interesting discussion of one of the factors of the industrial revolution and well worth a read. Like many books of this genre, it fails when it tries to make the case for being the only or pre-eminent factor. His attempts to dismiss other factors such as social and political developments are weak. What underlies the attempt to find a single factor seems to be the attempt to find a single solution to the problems of the bottom billion (yes, also the name of a book well worth a read). Unless China's one-child policy proves the only reason behind China's success, development is far more complicated and, unfortunately, not easily reproduced....more info
  • Gene Pools Fluctuate
    This is a wonderful book that explores what is perhaps the most important question in the history of man-what caused the industrial revolution to occur when it did and where it did?. Was it the availability of coal and navigable waterways? Or the availability of enforceable patents? Calvinism or colonialism? Exploitation of the masses by the few? And then, is it to be celebrated or regretted?

    The industrial revolution was a step change in human history; it surely rivals the transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture. There is a real mystery here. It is a mystery with lots of suspects, tons of clues, and chaos over all.

    Clark's explanation is that there was an actual evolution of the people of Great Britain toward the habits of hard, consistent work, intelligence, rationality, and the various virtues of civilized men. This evolution is traced in Clark's book in some detail, and he makes a pretty good case for it. It certainly blows poor Diamond's book, Guns, Germs, and Steel to pieces

    The book is replete with graphs and tables and even the occasional equation, marking it as a real standout from the more traditional (and less informative) narrative recitation. This is the sort of book that will encourage historians of this period to rethink their views and perhaps more importantly, to gather new data to either support or refute Clarks unconventional hypothesis. Clark almost makes me believe that historians may someday be able to explain and predict, rather than merely entertain. ...more info
  • Fabulous
    If you are really interested in the Industrial Revolution, here is a book that will put to rest most of your questions, and leave holes for new research. A beautifully constructed argument. Clark calls the "take-off" the "great divergence." He puts the divergence down, in the end...to differences in the quality of labor. HOWEVER, he doesn't know exactly what these differences are. Evidence for his thesis: an analysis of the weaving trade, India and Britain. There is much more , though, before he gets to this point. A super enjoyable book, extremely readable,Clark does not let equations interfere with the threads of logic he unwinds--they are all put in an appendix. Read it.

    A.Wilder...more info
  • Alms and the Man
    A Farewell to Alms by Clark is more of an academic treatise than a book on economics for the general reader. It is a "dry" text, but an instructive one. Too many charts and graphs illustrating subtle points, and not enough practical insights as to how the first world might assist the third world in moving up to become the second world. Can all of the problems of the poorest countries be assigned to "cultural" differences that reduce the efficincy of local workers? ...more info
  • Unless you're an economist, wait for the movie version
    This book may or may not be important or correct but prospective purchasers should be aware of what it surely is: a snappy title attached to a dry economic treatise. The book consists of charts and diagrams and equations and of text discussing the charts and diagrams and equations. Those who read economics and mathematics textbooks for fun will eat this up; those looking for the political/policy discussion suggested by the title will be frustrated and disappointed.

    Why "a farewell to alms?" In a nutshell: poor countries are poor because their people do not work hard enough, for which there is no explanation (or at least no politically-correct explanation); reforming their institutions and giving them money does not help. But that message - which, whether it is true or not, could make an intriguing book - waits for the last couple of chapters and is largely presented by statistics. What goes before could be the source of at least two more interesting books, one about living standards in the past and the other about the causes of the Industrial Revolution. This is not any of those books, though perhaps someday someone else will use it to write them.
    ...more info
  • Data for Tough Love, not handouts
    Clark says he spent 20 years writing this. I believe it. Despite frequent
    amusing anecdotes, this is not a fun read. Clark is an academic who has hammered together what may be decades of project notes, charts, tables and yes, you know it is an academic writing when there are 24 pages of references and a bonus technical appendix.

    His five main conclusions are: 1)mankind in 1800 was no better off than the caveman 100,000 years earlier, 2)since 1800, the unskilled worker has been the major beneficiary of the potentially stunning fruits of the industrial/technology revolution, 3) modern production techniques demand workers who exhibit discipline, hard work, meticulous attention to task completion, patience,literacy, thrift, prudence, 4)handouts of money to developing diverging countries where workers have poor attitudes are wasted(i.e. wasted "Alms"), 5)happiness does not depend upon absolute well being.

    I like all the data he has, especially the trove from England 1200-1870,
    and can use some of it in my Megatrend research, but will the average reader wade through the numbers and charts? I strongly disagree with his comment on page 289 that demography is unimportant in the U.S. and UK because of reductions in fertility. My research suggests that the reduction in fertility in the U.S. and most industrialized nations is leading to negative economic consequences that will rival an asteroid hit. Maybe the birthrate at UC-Davis is still OK?

    Why Clark gets into the "happiness" issue is not clear? After he has demonstrated that good work ethic people are well rewarded with enormous per capita income, he bursts our balloon with the notion that it won't make you happy, unless you have more than your next door neighbor. For a more useful definition of happiness, Gregory should check out the research papers from the University of Chicago's Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, or see his book "Flow" published in 1990.

    ...more info
  • Both great and naif
    Since the sixteenth century the scholarly community in the West has accepted the existence of scientific laws. Over the past four centuries modern science has been preoccupied with the discovery and practical application of these laws. This has revolutionized both the natural sciences and human civilization. While the humanities have also made progress during this time, their results have been less remarkable. They have been unable to account for the forces underlying the changing fortunes of human society. The book by Gregory Clark is another heroic attempt to discover the laws underlying the course of human history.

    In 1930 Corrado Gini published his Harris Foundation lecture: "The Cyclical Rise and Fall of Population". Gini understood much of the wheel of history, but made - because of the lack of empirical data - the wrong assumption, that the well-to-do have always fewer children than the poor. Indeed, such is the situation since the last quarter of the nineteenth century until up to today. For theoretical reasons Oded Galor and Moav Omer in their seminal paper "Natural Selection and the Origin of Economic Growth" (2002) came to the conclusion that before 1850 the upper and medium stratum of society must have been more surviving children than the poor. Clark could confirm this assumption with empirical data of his own, and he makes this finding to the cornerstone of his theoretical derivations.

    It is a pity that neither Galor and Moav nor Clark are aware of a large body of historical data, supporting their fundamental assumptions and claims. For example, in 1990 a preliminary summary on the "Social and Demographic Originis of the European Proletariat" was published in which we can read: "The data show that rural and urban proletarians are formed from the socially downward mobile sons and daughters and grandchildren of peasants." Despite Clark's staying of one sabbatical year at the Wissenschaftskolleg (Institute for Advanced Study) in Berlin, he does not cite any German source. In the Inventory of the German Central Office for Genealogy. Part IV (second edition, 1998, ISBN 3-7686-2099-9), he could find not only a complete bibliography of historical demography of Central Europe, based on local family reconstitutions, but also an exhaustive review (p. 74-176) of studies of differential fertility supporting his core argument. Clark could strengthen his point immediately, if he were able to read original papers and books in French, Dutch, German and Swedish, because the development in West, Central and Northern Europe was in principle the same as in England. - By the way, Ernst Engel undertook not studies of Prussian but of Saxonian working-class budgets.

    Nevertheless, Clark wrote a couragous book of high originality, enriched with a large number of very interesting figures and tables, touching with their overall message the borderline of political incorrectness. But he should have better nothing written about the last decades. The last two chapters of his book are extraordinarily weak.

    Despite his awareness (Table 14.4) of a general negative relationship between the number of surviving children and the social status of their parents in the modern world - the so-called demographic-economic paradox - in sharp contrast to the preindustrial world, where more children of the rich survive, Clark does not dare to draw any conclusion from this. For example, as Francis Galton became aware of this paradox, he founded the eugenic movement. Clark, too, understands the centuries where larger numbers of children in the households of the rich survived also as a process of a genetic enrichment of the cognitive basis of society. Could be the turning point (in England already about 1850, in Germany three or four decades later) in differential fertility also be the turning point of the cycle of industrialized society? Could it be, that the rich because of their rising social density would be the first to regulate their numbers in a cyclic fashion? What does or could this mean for the Aristotelian cycle of political constitutions, for the future of democracy? What are the differences and the similarities of the industrialized society with the rise and fall of the Roman empire and the repeated cycles within China?

    "Why Isn't the Whole Word Developed?" is the caption of last chapter of this book. In agreement with his overall message and insight Clark could maybe find a contribution to the answer in the books by Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen IQ and the Wealth of Nations and IQ and Global Inequality as well as in the most recent papers by Heiner Rindermann, Erich Weede and Garett Jones. Seen from this point of view Clark has written the first part of a new world history. To imagine and to write the second part should not be an impossibility. However, it will also be a dangerous look into our future.
    Most important in this respect is the article "The Population Cycle Drives Human History ... ", published in The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies (Number Fall 2007).

    Physical scientists are able to observe the natural world more objectively, because the observer is not identical to the observed. Science is not a potential battlefield for the survival of the individual scientist, as history is for the historian. This is the root cause for the failure of the human sciences to generate any laws governing history. I am sure, anyone who discovers such a general law or even the dynamics of the cycle of population and constitutions of the global industrialized society will be doomed to drain the hemlock cup to the dregs as Socrates.
    ...more info
  • Survival of the Richest
    The perennial question asked by economic historians is why some countries grow excedingly rich and others remain miserably poor. It is a question that writers of "big history" have asked: notably Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations (Bantam Classics), David S Landes in The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor, and Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. These works rely heavily on theory beyond the mere retelling of certain facts and events. It is in this tradition that Gregory Clark, economic historian at the University of California at Davis, presents the economic history of the the world. The underlying theory that informs his version is that social and possibly biological evolution explains economic growth. The specter of social darwinism haunts his imagination.

    For Clark the critical stage of social evolution is when a society is able to emerge from the Malthusian trap of poverty. It is at this point where they diverge from the pack and actually experience social progress and economic growth.

    Regarding the Malthusian trap, Clark argues that the well-being of the average person around 1800 was no better than the average hunter-gatherer 10,000 years earlier. According to Malthus' "Essay on the Principle of Population," with every technological advance that increases the efficiency of production, there is a corresponding increase in population, thus neutralizing any gains made in production. In short, there are just more mouths to feed. The principle being that the population only grows as fast as the food supply.

    That was the case until the Industrial Revolution. After 1800, something happened in England that caused production to outpace population growth. It was the first time in history that a society actually escaped from the Malthusian trap. For the first time incomes and consumption per capita began to rise. To find out why this occurred, Clark undertook a study of wills in England going back hundreds of years. He discovered that the rich had twice as many offspring as the poor, thus they outpopulated the poor. The rich brought with them certain skills and behaviors such as literacy, numeracy, work discipline, deferral of gratification, etc., that eventually permeated the rest of society in a downwardly mobile fashion. This is truely an original hypothesis. It was this evolutinary shift, according to Clark, that triggered the Industrial Revolution and set England apart from other countries

    Why did England take off and others did not? Why the Great Divergence? The phrase is taken from Kenneth Pomeranz's book The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. which deals with the same subject. Clark asks why the gap between rich and poor countries went from 4:1 in 1800 to 50:1 today. His answer is that in countries such as China and Japan the rich did not produce enough offspring to spread their productive behaviors downward through the rest of the population. East Asian and other economies were not able to push their agarian economies out of the Malthusian trap.

    The title of this book is a pun on the title of a Hemingway novel, suggesting that alms or aid to the poor will do them no good. Clark is in the camp of those who believe that a change in behavior or, in this case, an advancement in the evolutionary process will allow poor countries to emerge from poverty. The implications of this are very controversial, to say the least, and still very inconclusive. Nevertheless, it is an interesting explanation of economic history that will be debated for years to come. ...more info
  • Author's apology accepted
    The book begins and ends with an expression of bemused confusion. Despite added sophistication,Economics fails to explain the increase in wealth since 1800 or the distribution of wealth during the same period. The word "oil" is not in the index. "Coal" gets cursory treatment. The parallel between population wealth and fossil fuels is hardly recognized.Thus the single critical factor, energy input and is almost totally neglected....more info
  • Thought Provoking
    Despite the punning title, this is a serious and thoughtful attempt to present large scale overview of economic history. Clark deals with 3 major topics - the Malthusian nature of the pre-industrial economy, the industrial revolution, and the great divergence of economic performance between the industrialized core and the non-industrialized periphery. Of these sections, the first, dealing with the Malthusian nature of the pre-industrial world, is the best. This is perhaps because Clark has done extensive research on pre-industrial England. Clark has a very nice series of discussions of pre-industrial economics and demography. This is essentially a description of the basic structure of economies stuck in the "Malthusian trap" in which living standards are reciprocally coupled to population. While Clark shows this to be probably true for all pre-industrial economies, he is not trying to fit all pre-industrial societies into one tight mold. The interaction between population and production tends towards a different equilibrium point for each given society. Clark argues that Europe, for example, was distinguished by relatively high mortality and relatively high living standards while China had lower adult mortality and probably equilibrated at a lower standard of living. A further point is that while Clark emphasizes the Malthusian trap as an equilibrium state, most human history actually takes place away from the equilibrium point. Clark is careful to point out that the pre-industrial world was not static. While change was slow, he points to 4 long-term important trends - declining real interest rates, increasing literacy and numeracy, rising work hours, and falling inter-personal violence. Clark argues these trends were crucial to the emergence of industrial economies. His model is interesting. He argues for the existence of a Darwinian process in which upper class individuals reproduced at a higher rate with downward mobility resulting in a diffusion of middle class values and/or genotypes throughout society. This is a melding of economic history and the French Annales school emphasis on long views of history and "mentalities" as important drivers of history. Clark's point is very interesting and argued well though a detailed examination of the argument reveals problems and his suggestion that this process involves genetic change is easily arguable. For example, it was European cities that emerged as the cockpits of the Industrial Revolution but given the incredibly high mortality rates within European towns and the constant replenishment of town populations from the countryside, Clark's downward mobility model doesn't seem to fit the facts. Some of the long term changes described by Clark, such as falling interest rates and declining interpersonal violence could have more to do with the emergence of more powerful states than the model Clark presents. As for genetic change, Clark is assuming uniform, constant, and intense selection pressure, which is unlikely.

    In the second section, Clark discusses the Industrial Revolution. This section includes a short description of the Industrial Revolution and then Clark's analysis of why the Industrial Revolution occurred. Clark mentions briefly the important counterpart of the Industrial Revolution, the Demographic Transition, the drop in fertility that probably prevented the Industrial Revolution from becoming merely another Malthusian equilibrium shift. Clark has a nice, concise discussion of prior theories of the origins of the Industrial Revolution. Like a number of other recent economic historians, he is quite critical of the institutionalist explanation, which sees the Industrial Revolution as the result of the development of Smithian economic/political institutions. Clark's explanation of the Industrial Revolution is an extension of his view of the long term changes in the Malthusian world. Clark is arguing that Smithian people as opposed to Smithian institutions were the crucial factor in the emergence of the Industrial Revolution. In Clark's model, China and Japan were proceeding along the same path as Europe and given time, an Industrial Revolution would have occurred in one of those nations eventually. This is arguable in several ways. Any monocausal theory is likely to be wrong. Even if we concede the reality of Clark's model of longterm change, its insufficient to account for the Industrial Revolution. As Clark points out, the Industrial economy required consistent technological innovation at a fairly high level. This probably requires both a high rate of literacy/numeracy and a fairly widely diffused scientific world view. The relatively high rate of literacy in pre-modern Western Europe probably has less to do with Clark's Smithian process than the need of European governments and the Church for literate personnel, followed by the great boost to literacy provoked by the Reformation. Similarly, there is no evidence that China or Japan were on their way to something like the emergence of modern science. Clark's model suggests that an Industrial Revolution was inevitable somewhere. The alternative is to see the Industrial Revolution as the result of a series of fortunate coincidences. For a particularly good and concise presentation of this attractive alternative see the relevant chapter of the recent Power and Plenty.

    The third section, on the Great Divergence, is the shortest and least satisfactory. Clark points out that the Great Divergence is not only the result of the increasing productivity of the industrialized core but also of impoverishment of the non-industrialized periphery. Clark argues that poor labor productivity is the key feature explaining the Great Divergence. I think Clark's discussion is to brief to be really useful. For example, he omits the relative deindustrialization of non-industrialized countries that followed the Industrial Revolution in Europe, a phenomenon pointed out first by W. Arthur Lewis some years ago.

    Clark makes some additional good points. He points out that the institutionalist explanation for the Industrial Revolution is one of the principal supports for the neo-liberal model of development. But if the institutionalist model is wrong, then the neo-liberal model is likely to be wrong, a point with substantial practical significance. Clark also makes some very amusing comments about economics in general. His opinion is that economic theory is very good at explaining the equilibrium conditions of pre-industrial economies but not very good at explaining the innovative structure of modern economies. ...more info
  • Clarks two big, but different, questions
    An ambitious and provocative new book by University of California at Davis economic historian Gregory Clark, A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World attempts to explain two huge questions:

    1. Why did one part of the human race finally break out of the "Malthusian trap"--in which growth in per capita income is washed away by subsequent population growth--namely England, at the end of the 18th Century, through rapid and sustained technological advance?

    2. And why did the prosperity made possible by the Industrial Revolution successfully spread to some countries but not to others?

    In the process, Clark offers a stunning rebuke to economists:

    "God clearly created the laws of the economic world in order to have a little fun at economists' expense. In other areas of inquiry, such as the physical sciences, there has been a steady accumulation of knowledge over the past four hundred years. ... In economics, however, we see instead that our ability to describe and predict the economic world reached a peak around 1800. In the years since the Industrial Revolution there has been a progressive and continuing disengagement of economic models from any ability to predict differences of income and wealth across time and across countries and regions."

    In other words, economists were closer to understanding the wealth of nations in 1776 than they are today.

    The pioneering economic works of Smith and Thomas Malthus (1798) accurately described the world before the Industrial Revolution that was just getting underway then with the employment of the steam engine in cotton mills. By 1817, when David Ricardo was pessimistically propounding what later came to be known as "the Iron Law of Wages," England was moving in a new, liberating direction unexpected by economists: a shortage of cheap labor turned out to be a blessing . The future belonged to countries with high wage, high quality work forces.

    Clark's book idiosyncratically combines the strengths and weaknesses of both economists and historians.

    The strong point of economists is that they believe in "theory" in the same sense that hard scientists do--as a tool for simplifying our understanding of reality and for making more accurate predictions.

    Yet, because economists have mastered some theory, they tend to view reality not as what needs to be explained but as a vague inspiration for the occasional stylized example to illustrate their theories.

    In particular, economists don't read much by non-economists. Just as their theory would predict, economists are driven by self-interest, and their profession does not much reward curiosity about anything written by outsiders.

    In sharp contrast to economists, historians love facts and hate theories, a predilection that has the opposite advantages and disadvantages. Historians tend to be omnivorously curious and humble about how much they don't know. On the other hand, their love of detail makes them less likely to see the big patterns. While they are less often wrong than scientists, they are also less often right.

    In the uneasy middle reside the economic historians.

    Economic historian Gregory Clark begins A Farewell to Alms with a description of Malthusian England from 1200-1800. Due to England's wonderful stability, we have legal documents about property ownership and other economic facts going back 800 years.

    Even though medieval England had a free market economy with negligible taxes, and while the lives of the affluent improved due to inventions such as eyeglasses and the printing press, farm laborers saw no increase in their daily calorie intake over these 600 years.

    Clark's most important original research involves tabulating a couple of thousand wills from Will Shakespeare's era. Although today we expect the poor to have more children than the rich, the opposite was true before the Industrial Revolution. The richest testators' had twice as many surviving children as the poorest. Therefore, laborers tended to die out, while the lineages of the successful flourished.

    Thus the modern English are descended primarily from well-to-do farmers.

    So the English are mostly the offspring of what Clark calls "the strivers" of generations past: the people who farmed hard and effectively and saved their money to buy more land.

    From this, Clark deduces an explanation for the rise and spread of the Industrial Revolution that has surprised the economics profession.

    As Nicholas Wade, the genetics reporter of the New York Times, explained in his August 7, 2007 article In Dusty Archives, a Theory of Affluence, Clark believes the Industrial Revolution

    "... 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. "

    Is Clark's Darwinian explanation plausible?

    The crucial thing to realize about A Farewell to Alms is that Clark is trying to answer these two very different types of questions with one response.
    2. Why the Industrial Revolution happened in England in the late 18th Century--rather than in, say, the Low Countries, or the Ruhr Valley, or Japan at some other time

    This is a historian's question because it's a unique event. There's no point in developing a general theory about where and when the Industrial Revolution is most likely to take place, because it will never happen again.

    My guess is that the Industrial Revolution took both middle class habits of mind, for which the Japanese had evolved plenty of capability, and a little of the "zigzag lightning in the brain" that the Japanese have always claimed they lack in comparison to the more innovative Europeans.

    In contrast, Clark's second question--Why have the blessings of the Industrial Revolution spread to some countries but not to others?--is more important for the future. It can tell us something about where we're all going to live the rest of our lives--and our children, in their lives.
    ...more info
  • Small snafu
    When the copy mailed thru the USPO failed to arrive, I contacted Amazon thru e-mail.
    The book then arrived two days later in fine shape.
    All in all, I am pleased....more info
  • Very interesting, partly right
    This book provides very interesting descriptions of the Malthusian era, and a surprising explanation of how parts of the world escaped Malthusian conditions starting around 1800. The process involved centuries of wealthier people outreproducing the poor, and passing on traits/culture which were better adapted to modern living. This process almost certainly made some contribution to the industrial revolution, but I can't find a plausible way to guess the magnitude of the contribution. Clark is not the kind of author I trust to evaluate that magnitude.
    His arguments against other explanations of the industrial revolution are unconvincing. His criticisms of institutional explanations imply at most that those explanations are incomplete. But combining those explanations with a normal belief that knowledge/technology matters produces a model against which his criticisms are ineffective.
    He makes interesting claims about how differently we should think about the effects in Malthusian world of phenomena that would be obviously bad today. E.g. he thinks the black plague had good long-term effects. He made me rethink those effects, but he only convinced me that the effects weren't as bad as commonly believed. His confidence that they were good depends on some unlikely quantitative assumptions about benefits of increased income per capita, and he seems oblivious to the numerous problems with evaluating these assumptions. His comments in the last few pages of the book about how little average happiness has changed over time leads me to doubt that his beliefs are consistent on this subject.
    While many parts of the book appear at first glance to be painting a very unpleasant picture of the Malthusian era, he ends up concluding it wasn't a particularly bad era, and he describes people as being farther from starvation than Robert Fogel indicates in The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100. Their ability to reach somewhat different conclusions by looking at different sets of evidence implies that there's more uncertainty than they admit.
    He does a neat job of pointing out that economists have often overstated the comparative advantage argument against concerns that labor will be replaced by machines: horses were a clear example of laborers who suffered massive unemployment a century ago when the value of their labor dropped below the cost of their food....more info
  • Insightful, ambitious, efficiently argued
    A Farewell to Alms is a meticulously researched, well argued shot at big history. It's primary question is, 'Why did the Industrial Revolution occur in England?' Clark's answer, in sum, is that the English population was evolving in 4 essential ways. 1) Interest rates were in decline for centuries leading up to the IR, even though income was static, suggesting that the English were becoming more patient. 2) Literacy and numeracy rates were increasing, indicating an increase in intelligence (as well as making people more efficient economic actors). 3) Interpersonal violence declined, which created the necessary conditions of stability and low risk. 4) Work hours steadily increased, requiring a robust work ethic and ample discipline.

    Clark proves these claims and justifies their importance in innovative, engaging ways. The reason that England, rather then China, Japan, or India, evolved these traits to such an extent is that the upper class in England had greater reproductive success. England was thus permeated by economically oriented values. Clark does not take a definitive stance on whether these values were transmitted primarily through genetics or through culture.

    By providing evidence from ancient agrarian societies to modern hunter gatherers, he successfully keeps the scope of his argument very broad. At times, the economic jargon can get a bit confusing and dry, but at the same time it adds a refreshing element of sophistication to the book....more info
  • Unless you're an economist, wait for the movie version
    This book may or may not be important or correct but prospective purchasers should be aware of what it surely is: a snappy title attached to a dry economic treatise. The book consists of charts and diagrams and equations and of text discussing the charts and diagrams and equations. Those who read economics and mathematics textbooks for fun will eat this up; those looking for the political/policy discussion suggested by the title will be frustrated and disappointed.

    Why "a farewell to alms?" In a nutshell: poor countries are poor because their people do not work hard enough, for which there is no explanation (or at least no politically-correct explanation); reforming their institutions and giving them money does not help. But that message - which, whether it is true or not, could make an intriguing book - waits for the last couple of chapters and is largely presented by statistics. What goes before could be the source of at least two more interesting books, one about living standards in the past and the other about the causes of the Industrial Revolution. This is not any of those books, though perhaps someday someone else will use it to write them.
    ...more info
  • Social Darwinism Revisited
    A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World (Princeton Economic History of the Western World)

    Prof. Clark's book fails to prove his thesis, that somehow England broke out of the Malthusian Trap on account of cultural inheritance. Clark even claims that a genetic change may have occurred.

    That extraordinary claim about genetic change is totally undocumented in this book, or anywhere else. While even I suspect that something rapid is going on in the evolution of H. sapiens' brains, there is no proof of it. Unfortunately, we do not have any brain samples of people who lived in various ages, so we cannot make the comparison. Thus, to make such a claim in a supposedly peer-reviewed book is amazing to me. I can only think Prof. Clark's peers were asleep at the switch, or he slipped it in.

    The importance of Clark's few comments about possible genetic inheritance is not that it destroys the book, but that it raises questions about the objectivity and perspective of the author. For me, it smacks of Social Darwinism. Prior to writing this review, I confronted Prof. Clark with this charge, but he has, so far, declined to answer.

    The more substantial notion that the culture of the rich somehow imbued the poor, or at least the middle class, with a bourgeois elan that eventually translated into the Industrial Revolution is unsupported. There is a logical problem in the presentation. If, as Prof. Clark claims, the upper classes were persistently downwardly mobile during the entire period of the Malthusian Trap, how come the fraction of poor remained about the same?

    It seems to me the data are more simply explained, assuming downward mobility, by the hypothesis that those sliding down the ladder simply acquired the culture of their destination classes. It might have been otherwise, had a very large number of the elite been downgraded at once, but that is not what happened. Prof. Clark supplies no evidence whatsoever that the supposed cultural values which brought about the Industrial Revolution were gradually implanted into the population. He assumes that the children of the rich would carry the culture of their parents with them. He argues that, since the poor die off in the assumed Malthusian world, the downwardly mobile would eventually overwhelm the original occupants of the lower classes. To make such an argument is to assume that the downwardly mobile are partionned into a separate sub-class from the original occupants of the destination class. He does not consider the explanation that the downwardly mobile learned the culture of the destination class in order to survive.

    What he does write about is pre-Industrial economic conditions. While I think economics is certainly embedded in social practices (culture), it is a subset of culture, not the determinant of culture. Therefore, the economic data and argument Clark makes are essentially irrelevant to his claims about culture.

    There are several other deficiencies. Why would not the same process have occurred elsewhere? Were there not downwardly mobile rich in other countries? I found no convincing data supporting the notion of English Progress, which could not occur anywhere else. Clark's discussion of other societies,particularly China and Japan, is superficial. His discussion of India's textile industry, in particular, makes plain his belief that Indian culture and attitudes make Indians uncompetitive. It is not the fault of the British machinery or management. While Clark makes a minimal attempt to show that the lack of performance is not the result of the British Raj, I feel his views are close to those of the former colonial management. Maybe it's me, but I felt Clark's attempt to make England the only place where it could happen was prejudicial.

    Another question that arises is whether the timing of the technical civilization take-off is significant. That is, if human beings were in a Malthusian Trap during most of the last 10,000 years following the invention of agriculture, it makes little difference whether one or another society acquires technological skills within a few hundred years. Since the inception of the Industrial Revolution about 200+ years ago, the vast majority of human beings have learned and used its basic ideas. That is, the conversion time is only 2% of the time spent in the Malthusian trap. So, it isn't significant which region got the idea of being a technical civilization first.

    Clark's book is nowhere near Prof. Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs & Steel, or Collapse, in scope or depth. I think Diamond's work is the standard in this field, the one to be specifically refuted if that is what one wants to do. In my last book (GSQ), I assumed the results of Diamond's work. I have just completed revising GSQ, and did not include any reference to Clark's book. In other words, I do not believe Clark's theses warrant any rethinking of anthropology, cultural development or the history of world civilizations.

    Thus, leaving aside the serious theoretical defects, I take it Clark's book is a compendium of the extensive work he has done in England and elsewhere on Medieval economic conditions. That work has been published in the Journal of Economic History, and on his ucdavis.edu website. I think it is of some interest to professionals in Economics, but does not rise to the level of a general history of technical civilization. It does not explain the rise of modern technical civilizations.
    ...more info
  • Though provoking, certainly, but correlation is not always causation.
    Everything that everyone has said and well worth the read. My only caveat: this text has a bit more technical material than some others, and the graphs and accompanying commentary may put off some readers. This work is akin to Guns, Germs, etc., but it is not as "easy" a read. You need to work at it....more info
  • New Shocking Explanation of Economic Growth and Industrial Revolution
    There is a book forum on Marginal Revolution blog that discusses the new shocking ideas in this book. Here are some samples ideas:

    1) Hunter-gatherers in BC 100,000 really have living standards as high as people in 18th century England.

    2) Industrial Revolution is mainly caused by genetic and biological changes of human being.

    3) Institutions and Technological changes is only minor factors of Industrial revolution.

    4) Industrial Revolution started in England because the genetic and biological changes appears in British first.

    5) Survival of the Richest is critical for the Industrial Revolution.

    6) Industrial Revolution does not appear in China and Japen because the chinese and japanese culture does not favor the genetic and biological changes.

    7) and so on...

    I am not totally convinced by Gregory Clark arguments. But the data presented by Clark in the book forces me to "upper my attachment to the Malthusian model" as Tyler Cowen said. Although somebody thinks that Clark takes it too far, Farewell to Alms is a really good reference for both layman and economists who want to know why the third world countries are still poor and underdevelopment. But I must warn the readers that this book is not for any causal reader. The ideas and data in this book requires "deep thinking". The book forum on Marginal Revolution blog is a very good reference for anyone who want to understand what Gregory Clark really wants to tell.

    Chris Tam
    Hong Kong...more info
  • Stimulating but wrong-headed
    In A Farewell to Alms, Gregory Clark asks good questions: why did we wait so long for the industrial revolution? why did it occur when and where it did? why has it still not taken universal effect? He attacks the conventional story which sees the crucial pre-condition as the inalienability of property rights, first occurring in England. In other words, he argues that institutional arrangements don't matter that much.

    A Farewell to Alms has three broad strands. First, from the agricultural to the industrial revolution, accumulated capital and improved technology served largely to increase population. This section of the book presents some wonderful data, but Clark's argument is close to circular and less novel than he suggests. In any event, by his own account his analysis allows for a substantial variation in living standards between one and another society.

    Second, the industrial revolution was triggered by a slow accumulation of habits and values in English society, making for successful economic practices, which did not occur in (for example) China and Japan. If true, this would be very interesting, so let's explore it a little. Clark's argument draws attention to literacy, violence and interest rates. Let's focus on interest rates, which have the most objective data and are most relevant to economic life. Clark points out that rates in Western Europe fell from 10% or so in the middle ages to 4-5% on the eve of the industrial revolution. He goes on to note that rates include a "risk premium" and a "time-preference", capturing the universal inclination to consume today rather than tomorrow. The customary account of this fall emphasises the decline in the risk premium due to the improvement of property rights. By contrast, Clark argues that property rights were always pretty secure in England. Instead he proposes that there was an alteration in time-preference: that over the 400 to 500-year period, Englishmen became more willing to defer immediate gratification.

    His explanation for this is bizarre: that middle-class values (or possibly genes) permeated English society, because of the downward mobility of the surfeit of children born to the wealthy (but not the aristocracy, who killed themselves in battle with such gusto as to fail to reproduce altogether). On its face this is plain odd: everyday observation tells us that those undergoing downward mobility are keen to forget their parents' values. In addition, Clark's evidence won't haul the freight. He compares the surfeit of children born to wealthy testators (makers of wills) in England to the relative dearth born to Samurai and the royal family of Qin Dynasty China. But this fails to compare like with like. Wealthy testators in pre-industrial England were a mix of aristocrats, gentry-farmers and merchants. Samurai were military retainers (presumably not unlike the English aristocrats who also failed to reproduce), while members of the Chinese royal family were just that. We learn nothing from this comparison: Clark has failed to provide a reason to focus on time-preference rather than risk-premium in interest rates. So perhaps property rights are more important than he allows.

    Finally, Clark tries to account for the divergence in economic performance between the developed and less-developed world. To simplify matters, he argues that folks in the third world simply work less hard, once again possibly because their genes may incline them to do so. Setting aside the insalubrious whiff of this reasoning, it doesn't dispel the need to consider institutions and property rights. How otherwise to explain the comparative performance of East and West Germany; the success of China after Deng or Spain after Franco, the latter suggestively excluding the Hispanic economies of the Americas over the same period.

    A Farewell to Alms presents some wonderful data but its author strains for controversy so much as to undermine his arguments' effect. Clark is stimulating but wrong-headed.
    ...more info
  • Great subject matter
    This book is very thorough in a research-analysis sense, but it reads as though the author is defending himself from hostile peers (other economists). The average reader, who is at best a novice economist, will find this endless detail tiresome. The subject matter and the points made are very interesting, however....more info
  • Elegant and clear analysis of the wealth and poverty of nations
    The topic of this thrilling book, 20 years in the making, is nothing less than the history of civilization, from the Neolithic Revolution to the Industrial Revolution to today. Rather than relating history as a story of kings, Caesars, popes, prelates and presidents, Gregory Clark tells the story through economic data, much of which is the result of his own analysis of documentary evidence. Almost every other page contains a beautiful graph, table or chart illuminating some dimly lit bit of history. And Clark's detours are almost as wonderful as his main argument. His writing is elegant and clear, his sense of humor present but not annoying. While this book has outraged some commentators, it's hard to see why, given the caution with which Clark presents his conclusions. Most likely, the flash point is his stress on culture as enabling and retarding economic growth - views that sometimes get wrongly equated with racism. We recommend this book to anyone who wants to quantitatively enhance his or her conception of human history. ...more info
  • New Thinking that Deserves Careful Consideration
    Why are some parts of the world so rich and others so poor? Why did the Industrial Revolution (IR) occur in 18th-century England, and not some other time or place? Why did it make some areas even poorer? Clark suggests culture, not exploitation, geography, or resources.

    After extensive review of documents from early England, Clark concludes that stable political, legal and economic institutions existed in England long before industrialization. Thus, they were not the direct cause of its IR - what they did accomplish was to encourage people to abandon hunter-gatherer instincts (violence and impatience), and adopt hard work, rationality, and education as values. Prior improvements (averaging a paltry 0.1%/year) had been lost through concomitant population growth - bringing overall standards of living back down to prior levels. (However, why this did not continue after the IR was not made clear.)

    One startling observation in the book is that the average person in the world of 1800 was no better off than the average person of 100,000 B.C. Life expectancy was also no better (30-35 years), and stature (measure of nutrition and exposure to childhood disease) was higher in the Stone Age. In addition, the hunter-gatherers were more egalitarian.

    In sub-Saharan Africa, however, material consumption is now below the pre-industrial norm. They have been trapped in the Malthusian era, acerbated by modern medicine's reducing the minimum required to subsistence to below Stone Age levels. Thus, gaps in income inequality between societies has increased.

    Clark's research led him to conclude that a major explanation of why the IR took place first in England is that it benefited from the extraordinary fecundity of its upper classes, vs. China and Japan. England also benefited from access to raw materials from its colonies - something not available to Asia. (Other economists believe that this is the real reason England's standard of living took off in the early 1800s.)

    Missing from "A Farewell to Alms" is any in depth thought regarding why Asia has now achieved such dramatic growth. Their achievements argue strongly for the importance of effective governmental leadership. Regardless, another important Clark conclusion is that prescriptions from the World Bank and medical leaders are ineffective....more info
  • The Descent of Economic Man
    Did you know that the average person's life in the Stone Age was no worse then that of the average 17th century Briton? That given their more varied nutrition and lesser workload, the lives of hunter gatherers were superior to both? That the Black Death caused a major improvement in European standards of livings during the 14th to 16th centuries? That the institutional conditions for economic growth, as normally understood, were better in the Middle Ages then they are today?

    These are only few of the mind blowing and well documented claims put forward in Gregory Clark's breathtaking - there is no other word - "A Farewell to Alms". Clark confronts the greatest mystery of human history - why did the West leap forward, breaking away from millennia of stasis, to create the modern, industrial world? Clark not only refutes most of the common wisdom about the rise of the West, but also brings forth an astonishing array of data in support of a radically new interpretation. No doubt some specialists would disagree with Clark's conclusions; I have my doubts, too - but Clark's methodology, his thoroughness, and the rigorous manner in which he addresses a huge quantity of data makes "A Farewell to Alms" an instant classic and a model for all economic history.

    Clark describes world economic history as essentially a two-phase story. The first phase, from the dawn of time to the Industrial Revolution, featured a barely changing world governed by the cold and remorseless laws of Malthus and Darwin. But those same laws brought on a slow revolution, and a new phenomenon was emerging - first in Europe, and slower in India, China and Japan - Economic Man.

    Reverend and Economist Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) was the first to thus describe the world economy: in his model, people's wages were equal to the subsistence level; whenever wages increased, population increased, and pushed wages back to subsistence. Therefore, Clark argues, throughout history population was at equilibrium - whenever new technology increased productivity, the result was not higher living conditions, but higher population. Thus the difference in living conditions between times and places were caused by such effects as the different in hygiene level (improvements in hygiene ironically pushed down living standards by allowing people to survive on meager wages) and death by war and pestilence (which, equally ironically, pushed up wages).

    And then, in the 18th century, in a relatively small island nation, everything changed. The Industrial Revolution transformed the world, or at least England, Europe, the US, Australia and nowadays China. Mankind broke free of the Malthusian trap. Productivity growth rose in two orders of magnitude; Productivity gains no longer led only to population increases, but also to increase in the standards of living. The West today is rich beyond the wildest dreams of its 17th century ancestors.

    What happened? Most explanations suggest that Western Institutions were somehow improving: Markets were becoming freer, property rights more secure, the legal system more efficient, etc. Perhaps technology led returns on investment in human capital to increase

    Not so, says Clark. Markets were much less regulated in pre modern times then they are today. Property rights, in England at least, more secure. And the return on human capital - as measured, for example, in the difference between the wages of master artisans and simple workers - decreased or stayed unchanged.

    Furthermore, during the Industrial Revolution, hard work didn't pay; Inventors and Innovators repeatedly failed to reap the fruits of their inventions. Despite the gigantic leap in textile productivity, hardly anyone became really rich from textiles. Competition and knowledge leaks drove prices down, and the benefits were the consumer's, not the manufacturers'.

    What changed, Clark argues, is not the environment in which the economic actors operated. The actors themselves were no longer the same.

    In a Malthusian world, population was at equilibrium: barring efficiency growth, it did not increase. But while failing to increase, it was nonetheless very dynamic: a Darwinian struggle for survival, in which the Rich had many offspring, and the poor few. Thus, Clark suggests, through a combination to cultural transfers and Darwinian selection, the population changed. Upper class qualities spread to lower classes; Society was becoming Middle Class; Economic Man was born.

    Or shall we say, selected?

    As evidence, Clark sites several changes that did happen between 1000-1750: The Rise of Literacy, the Fall of Interpersonal Violence, the lengthening of working hours and the decrease in the time preference of money, which meant that people learned to postpone satisfaction. "Thrift, prudence, negotiation and hard work [became] values for communities that... [had been] spendthrift, impulsive, violent and leisure loving." (p.166)

    The reason this process happened first in Europe and not in China or India, Clark argues, is because Europe was the most Darwinian. In other societies, the difference in birth rate between rich and poor was not as dramatic.

    Clark's book is both exciting and troubling. Because it argues that the difference between the rich and poor nations is not in the way they organize their economies but in Cultural and likely genetic differences, it challenges both the right wing belief in the superiority of free markets, and the left wing faith in the equality of mankind. As a believer in both, I am troubled.

    I don't think Clark's book is complete: If the differences between Modern and Pre Modern people are genetic, they should be discoverable in our DNA. If they are cultural, the mechanism of cultural transmission should be explored. And Clark doesn't say anything about democracy - is it a coincidence that democracy flourished side by side with the economy?

    "A Farewell to Alms" is hands down the best book I read all year, and one of the best books on history, economics, or sociology I know. It is everything I look for in non-fiction - smart and elegantly written, challenging and illuminating, and grounded in both theory and empirical data. This one's for the ages. ...more info
  • Original, Fascinating, Thought Provoking
    This book is absolutely amazing, on a par with Diamond's Guns Germs and Steel.

    The industrial revolution allowed England to escape what has been called the Malthusian Trap--a condition common to every pre-industrial society. In the Malthusian Trap, any recognizeable gain in wealth by a society would result in a slight increase in population. As the population would rise, however, living standards would go down, and the death rate would go up. For this reason, population growth remained at a glacial pace of 0.005% for thousands of years. Then the industrial revolution happened. For the first time, population and prospertiy could increase in lockstep, trending ever upwards over long periods of time.

    By why did this happen in some places and not in others? Despite its many benefits, why has it proven to be so difficult to export the industrial model to other areas of the world? These are but a few of the questions that Clark addresses in his original and thought provoking book.

    What I have taken away from this book is that a lot of good will and human effort has been wasted by not taking in to account the significant differences that exist between people and cultures. We falsely assume that the fruits of industrialization are so obviously desirable that other peoples should do whatever they have to do to make the necessary adaptations to reap its rewards. But we are largely ignorant of why this can't so easily be done. The industrial revolution came to be within the context of a certain unique culture, and it makes sense that it could not be easily duplicated among other people with different values and ways of life.

    In attempting to explain the differences in wealth between one population and the next, Clark's approach is cultural. But here's the key: these cultural differences were shaped by selective pressures experienced by some peoples and not others. The conditions which gave rise to the industrialization of England were not present among other populations and are not even to this day. That is why it has proven to be be so difficult to duplicate elsewhere. His arguments in support of this thesis are clear, persuasive, original and rigorous. This book is a must read for anyone interested in understanding the monumental importantance of economic and cultural differences between cultures. The questions he raises adds a new dimension to ones perspective. I predict that at some point, when discussing solutions to the poverty which billions still confront, you will not be able to post a good argument without also being familiar with his. ...more info
  • Great read!
    This was a gift for my son who loved it! His primary interest is Economics. ...more info