Sunday, September 09, 2007

Gregory Clark's A FAREWELL TO ALMS

Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World has been generating a lot of discussion. My interest in the book comes from its Darwinian theory of the Industrial Revolution. As I study the book, I am generally persuaded, but I am slow to fully embrace it because it goes against what I have believed about this issue.

Explaining why the Industrial Revolution emerged first in England, beginning around 1800, is one of the great questions in the social sciences. Throughout human history up to that point, all societies were caught in what Clark calls "the Malthusian trap." Clark shows that the average person in 1800 did not enjoy better material standards of living than the average person of 100,000 BC. This was because short-term increases in income due to technological improvements would bring growth in population, which would eventually force income down as greater numbers of people would divide up the limited resources. In the long run, birth rates would have to equal death rates. This was the natural economy of all animal species as subject to natural selection, including human beings. But then something happened in England around 1800, so that average incomes rose without falling, and this has spread to the most prosperous societies over the last 200 years.

The common explanation from many economists is that the institutional incentives for productivity--private property rights, free markets, low taxes, rule of law, limited government--developed first in England. The human preferences for accumulating material wealth had always been there throughout history, but the cultural evolution of institutional incentives in England was necessary to direct and channel these preferences. Before reading Clark's book, this was my position.

Against this, Clark offers some powerful empirical evidence that many, if not most, of these institutional incentives were already present in England in the Middle Ages, when private property was protected, taxes were low, markets were free, and so on. So there must have been something else at work to explain the emergence of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century.

Clark's answer is that from 1200 to 1800 in England, there was a Darwinian process of "survival of the richest" by which the richest families had the highest fertility rates, so that their offspring spread through the population of England. This evolution favored the spread of middle class or bourgeois values. "Thrift, prudence, negotiation, and hard work were becoming values for communities that previously had been spendthrift, impulsive, violent, and leisure loving" (166). "The bourgeois values of hard work, patience, honesty, rationality, curiosity, and learning" were embedded "into the culture, and perhaps even the genetics" of the English (11).

This last phrase--"the culture, and perhaps even the genetics"--is repeated in various ways through the book but without much explanation. The thought seems to be that while the evidence for a cultural evolution of bourgeois values is strong, the evidence for a genetic evolution of such values is not so clear. It would be hard to prove such a genetic change by group selection in only a few centuries.

I can believe that such a cultural evolution of bourgeois values could have occurred, and if so, this would be part of what I have called Darwinian political science, which rests on the interaction of history at three levels--the genetic evolution of the species, the cultural evolution of groups within the species, and the individual history of political judgments.

There are, however, some unresolved problems in Clark's reasoning. Most important for me is whether he can adequately explain the "demographic transition." Beginning around 1890, fertility rates in the most prosperous societies begin to vary in inverse proportion to wealth. Wealthier classes of people tend to have fewer children. This reverses the "survival of the richest" trend that Clark finds in England leading up to the Industrial Revolution and then up to 1890.

Clark offers various possible explanations for the demographic transition (289-96). He seems to reject the ideas that increasing incomes in general reduce fertility or that the lack of contraception in earlier years kept fertility high. He seems to favor explanations based on the idea that people had to produce more children in the past to hope to have two or three surviving children because of the high infant mortality in the past, or based on the idea that increasing social status for women made them less inclined to submit to the rigors of mothering many children. But Clark never lays out his final assessment of the demographic transition.

This is an important issue, because it seems that if the "survival of the richest" had not shifted to the demographic transition at the end of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution would have returned to the Malthusian trap, because overpopulation would eventually have exhausted the resource base (see 289).

I would suggest that Clark's position needs to be reformulated slightly. He has shown that explaining the English Industrial Revolution as a product of institutional incentives is not sufficient. But by implication those institutional incentives are still necessary conditions for the "survival of the fittest" to bring about the cultural evolution of bourgeois values over hundreds of years. The crucial point, then, is that introducing capitalist, liberal institutions into a poor society is not going to immediately bring prosperity. That might require a long period of cultural evolution.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There is a point beyond which intelligence reduces fertility. Mensa members, for example, have fewer children, even when controlled for most other factors. Perhaps rising average intelligence, with the particular scientific breakthroughs and schooling and environmental improvements, put society beyond a previously unreached fertility low-point.

Also, perhaps the first widespread rejection of religion, what with Darwinism and Nietzsche's 'God is dead' ideas with others, removed the logical justification for more children. Believers are more fertile to this day, so perhaps a cultural backfiring from biological drives in a novel situation caused the reduced fertility, and our prosperity is just a happy accident (one which, however unlikely, of course would have to have happened for us to be able to discuss the idea on the internet).