Review of “A Farewell to Alms” by Gregory Clark

This book has been in my stack of books to read for a while. I kept seeing it on other peoples’ lists of books that have impacted their thinking (e.g. Isegoria’s), so I decided it was time.

The book’s argument is pretty straightforward. The vast majority of the book discusses evidence which bolsters the relatively simple argument. I think I may have waited too long to read the book, as I had basically accepted the argument already, after reading summaries of the evidence from so many others.

Here’s the argument:

In the Malthu­sian econ­omy be­fore 1800 eco­nom­ic pol­icy was turned on its head: vice now was virtue then, and virtue vice. Those scourges of failed mod­ern states—war, vi­olence, dis­or­der, har­vest fail­ures, col­lapsed pub­lic in­fras­truc­tures, bad san­ita­tion—were the friends of mankind be­fore 1800. They re­duced pop­ula­tion pres­sures and in­creased ma­te­ri­al liv­ing stan­dards. In con­trast poli­cies beloved of the World Bank and the Unit­ed Na­tions to­day—peace, sta­bil­ity, or­der, pub­lic health, trans­fers to the poor—were the en­emies of pros­per­ity. They gen­er­at­ed the pop­ula­tion growth that im­pov­er­ished so­ci­eties.

How did England escape this Malthusian trap? The rest of the argument is:

The rich­est men [in England] had twice as many sur­viv­ing chil­dren at death as the poor­est. The poor­est in­di­vid­uals in Malthu­sian Eng­land had so few sur­viv­ing chil­dren that their fam­ilies were dy­ing out. . . . The at­tributes that would en­sure lat­er eco­nom­ic dy­namism—pa­tience, hard work, in­ge­nu­ity, in­no­va­tive­ness, ed­uca­tion—were thus spread­ing bi­olog­ical­ly through­out the pop­ula­tion. . . . In­deed the ev­idence is that the poor­est in­di­vid­uals in the Malthu­sian era would typ­ical­ly not re­pro­duce them­selves at all. [This is basically opposite of what is happening today]

Thus, in sum:

The an­swer haz­ard­ed here is that Eng­land’s ad­van­tages were not coal, not colonies, not the Protes­tant Ref­or­ma­tion, not the En­light­en­ment, but the ac­ci­dents of in­sti­tu­tion­al sta­bil­ity and de­mog­ra­phy: in par­tic­ular the ex­traor­di­nary sta­bil­ity of Eng­land back to at least 1200, the slow growth of En­glish pop­ula­tion be­tween 1300 and 1760, and the ex­traor­di­nary fe­cun­di­ty of the rich and eco­nom­ical­ly suc­cess­ful. The em­bed­ding of bour­geois val­ues in­to the cul­ture, and per­haps even the ge­net­ics, was for these rea­sons the most ad­vanced in Eng­land.

This argument also explains why other countries and cultures have been unable to reap the rewards of advanced technologies:

In a mod­ern world in which the path to rich­es lies through in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion, why are bad-tem­pered ze­bras and hip­pos the bar­ri­er to eco­nom­ic growth in sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa? Why didn’t the In­dus­tri­al Rev­olu­tion free Africa, New Guinea, and South Amer­ica from their old ge­ograph­ic dis­ad­van­tages, rather than ac­cen­tu­ate their back­ward­ness? And why did the takeover of Aus­tralia by the British pro­pel a part of the world that had not de­vel­oped set­tled agri­cul­ture by 1800 in­to the first rank among de­vel­oped economies?

It’s worth noting that the book’s finding undermines the basic assumption of modern, mainstream economics:

The pre­ferred as­sump­tion [of modern, mainstream economics] is that the de­sires and ra­tio­nal­ities of peo­ple in all hu­man so­ci­eties are es­sen­tial­ly the same. The me­dieval peas­ant in Eu­rope, the In­di­an coolie, the Yanomamo of the rain for­est, the Tas­ma­ni­an Abo­rig­inal, all share a com­mon set of as­pi­ra­tions and a com­mon abil­ity to act ra­tio­nal­ly to achieve those as­pi­ra­tions. What dif­fers across so­ci­eties, how­ev­er, are the in­sti­tu­tions that gov­ern eco­nom­ic life.

Er, not, if Clark is correct:

The bite of the Malthu­sian con­straints was tighter in Eng­land than in Asia. The pro­cess­es of se­lec­tive sur­vival were ac­tu­al­ly more se­vere in pre-in­dus­tri­al Eng­land. . . . income-based dif­fer­ences in fer­til­ity seem to have been much less pro­nounced in both Japan and Chi­na.

So the resulting populations were selected based on different pressures.

I think the book goes best with Understanding Human History and The 10,000 Year Explosion. If I take a meta-lesson from these works it’s that evolution is constantly happening, whether we like it or not. The effects of evolution, even over relatively short periods of time, are difficult to underestimate. Read the books together for maximum effect.

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