Tag Archives: Industrial Revolution

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?

Why the Industrial Revolution? Why not an Industrial Counter-Revolution?

My friend Lexington Green of Chicago Boyz emailed me “King Kong and Cold Fusion: Counterfactual Analysis and the History of Technology,” by Joel Mokry. The piece was originally Chapter 10 in Unmaking the West. The piece is very deep, and should definitely be read on paper.

The article focuses on the question of why there was an Industrial Revolution in the west at the time there was. That is not just where there was this or that invention, but why all of a sudden there this rush of economically productive innovations that’s still going on.

The Industrial Revolution ended the Starving Years (the Malthusian Era) that began some 12,000 years ago. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, technological growth was slow enough in non-violent societies that population growth always kept up, leading to just enough resources to keep the population alive at its standard of living. (East Asians, being more hygienic, required less calories to keep alive, and so suffered worse living conditions. Western Europeans, being filthy, suffered higher losses from disease, and thus more nutritious diets.)

The Industrial Revolution is around 200 years old, but note that’s includes the years of growth that preceeded the return to Malthusian normalcy. It took until about 150 years ago that the average Englishman’s living standards were as high as there were when Columbus discovered America.


From A Farewell to Alms, page 195

The article that Lexington sent makes a big deal of evolutionary analysis, and it’s right to do that. As both the article and Enterra CEO Stephen DeAngelis note, evolution is a process of random change and non-random selection. Two ideas flow from this:

  1. Any change that actually takes hold was preceded by many identical changes that did not take hold
  2. Selection can be unfriendly

For the first, consider that while Europeans can drink milk because of one specific mutation, the ability to drink milk may have evolved 25 times in our species’ history.

For the second, consider the history of technological relapse. In a matter of years, the Chinese lost their ability to navigate the oceans, and would be defeated by an island nation that may not have been worth the bother of conquering in Admiral Zheng He’s time. The Mokyr articles notes some other examples of relapse:

The religious strictures that prevented Islam from adopting the printing press for centuries and the politics of insulation and the ban on firearms practiced in Tokugawa Japan…

Thus, we have two questions. “Why was there potential for an Industrial Revolution in Europe at al” and why “Why did the Industrial Revolution happen in Europe” and “why didn’t an industrial counter-revolution occur there, as well?” Why did Europeans have the ability to innovate? And why didn’t Europeans revolt against the machines in the way that the Chinese, the Japanese, the Muslims — and for that matter, the Tasmanians — did?

The first question is quite possibly the result of climate resulting in and interacting with culture and genetics.

To answer the second question: the Europeans did try to overthrow the machines, of course. William Blake, writing in 1804:

And was Jerusalem builded here

among these dark Satanic Mills?

Less obliquely, the Luddites just killed people. There was an Industrial Counter-Revolution, and this was a real war.

However, the European states set themselves to fighting this counter-revolutionary movement. This is strange, because the landed classes should have been united in their fear of industry. The Luddites, the breakers, all those criminals and terrorists, were fighting for King and Country, to defend the Predatory State and extend the Starving Years. The counter-revolutionaries were fighting to keep their chains.

I think the answer is cooperative competition, that existed in Europe but did not exist to the same extent in China or Japan. While primitive by modern standards, Europe in 1800 constained a system of nation-states. England fought the breakers because the English were more afraid of the Dutch than they were of the Revolutionaries.

Fortunately for us, the distracted Europeans focused on fighting each other, allowing the Revolution to overtake them all.