Review of "A Farewell to Alms" by Gregory Clark

Greg Clark‘s book could easily be called “In Inquiry into the Nature, Causes, and Effects of the Industrial Revolution.” But that’s a boring title, unfit for the world-altering subject matter. So instead the book’s titled A Farewell to Alms, which sounds like the title of an adventure story — which of course, it is.


A Brief Economic History of the World

A Farewell to Alms focuses on three questions: What caused the Industrial Revolution? What were the Industrial Revolution’s positive outcomes? And what were the bad effects of the Industrial Revolution? Answers to these questions follow below.

1. What caused the Industrial Revolution

Clark’s analysis is generally limited to the past 800 years, though on occasion he reaches back as far as the roman Empire. Thus, causes that preceded the Christian era are not addressed. Books such as Before the Dawn or potentially Guns, Germs, and Steel better serve to lay the deep-foundations for why some places have more advanced civilization than others.

Thus, A Farewell to Alms focuses on comparing Europe, China, and Japan. In the centuries preceding the Industrial Revolution both the European states and the Chinese empire experienced territorial growth, through the use of navies to settle distant colonies or the settling of agricultural lands by Han under the late Ming and the Qing. Technologies improvements allowed Japan to outpace Europe during this time, in spite of being confined to a few islands.

Period England Japan China
ca. 1300 5.9 million 6 million 72 million
ca. 1750 6.2 million 31 million 270 million

Table 13.1, pg 267

Clark argues that by about the time of the American Revolution, an Industrial Revolution was inevitable in all three cultures. Europe, China, and Japan were all undergoing population growth limited by starvation. This meant that there was constant downward selection, meaning that even if here was no variation in thrift, prudence, and other virtuous traits at the beginning, these traits would be selected over time. (Clark does not go into the genetics, but these traits are highly heritable).


Higher European birthrates, according to Clark, just made this process faster in the West than the East.

Using literacy rates and interest rates, Farewell argues that China and Japan were on the same path towards industry, but were a few centuries behind.

2. What good came of the industrial Revolution

The first casualty of the Industrial Revolution was the landed class. Agriculture rent as a portion of gross domestic product has plummeted throughout the west. While this started before the Industrial Revolution, and in deed may be a cause of it, return on capital and return on skills also fell in this period.

There has never been time to be a propertyless worker with minimum marketable skills than right now, at least in the industrialized world.

Similarly, Industrialization led to massive building subsidies in much of the world. India benefited, for instance, from Western technology, capital, infrastructure, telecommunications, and management in spite of having a workforce much less efficient than Europe’s. Similarly, most of the benefits of the industrial production of England at the start of the revolution went to industrialized countries — such as the Netherlands and the United States — and the customers of the factories, rather than the Industrial Magnates.

Over the long run, economic growth has been a major force for lessening inequalities in the industrialized world since the Industrial Revolution.

3. What were the bad effects of the Industrial Revolution?

Some countries have been harmed by the Industrial Revolution. Clark emphasizes here the misery of some states in sub-Saharan Africa. For them, the major consequence of the Industrial Revolution is that modern medicine low allows people to be kept alive at a lower level of subsistence than was fomerly the case. Drugs, in other words, substitute for calories.

A Farewell to Alms is written at a level appropriate for an introductory, graduate-level seminar outside of economics. The book is denser than most, similar to The Blank Slate in its density of coverage. still, it’s not an economic ext, and the “technical appendix” doesn’t go much beyond algebra.

Also at tdaxp: Why no Industrial Counter-Revolution?

Major Apologies to S.M. Stirling!

S.M. Stirling isn’t just the international best-selling author who has made a permanent mark on science-fiction and fantasy literature. He isn’t only a major influence on how I think about history, as a result of his Draka trilogy.

He also joins the ranks of those unlucky enough to have their comments eaten by blogspirit’s awful spam filtering system.

Fortunately, Mr. Stirling sent in his comment through email, so I could manually publish it. However, whenever people complain to me about blogspirit’s brain-dead anti-community “spam” filtering, I think of the dozens or hundreds who give up, and whose voices are never heard.

An excerpt:

First, it provided a self-regulating population-control mechanism because marriage (and birth) rates tracked the economy, with a lag. When times were hard by customary standards, people married later and more never married; for example, the population of England stopped growing in the 1640’s and didn’t start up again until the 1720’s, for exactly that reason — as many as a quarter of the women in late Stuart England never had children, and the average age of marriage was as high as 26….

Hence the Industrial Revolution in England didn’t have to pry people out of time-encrusted customary communities of peasants ‘rooted in the soil’, because if any such had ever existed they’d been dissolved a long, long time before.

Read the rest!