A Farewell to Alms

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Two more reviews of Gregory Clark's book on development. First, Ben Friedman in the NYT (skeptical but fascinated)...

Every story has to begin somewhere. Do we think technological
progress was responsible for the Industrial Revolution and the
astonishing increase in living standards in some countries but not
others since then? Fine, but what brought about the new technology?
Maybe social and political institutions — democracy, tolerance, the
rule of law — played a role in when and where living standards
increased. But where did they come from?



After decades of banishment to the realm of sociology and other such
disciplines, the idea that a society’s “culture” matters has recently
reappeared in economics. David Landes, an economic historian and a
living national treasure if there ever was one, began this movement
nearly 10 years ago when he looked in part to culture to explain “why
some are so rich and some so poor” (the subtitle of his classic
overview of world history).



But why not go one step further: If culture is responsible, where does it
come from? Why do some countries have an economically helpful culture
while others don’t? And, since no society got very far in economic
terms before the Industrial Revolution, what caused the culture of the
recently successful ones to change?



In “A Farewell to Alms,” Gregory Clark, an economic historian at the
University of California, Davis, suggests an intriguing, even startling
answer: natural selection. Focusing on England, where the Industrial
Revolution began, Clark argues that persistently different rates of
childbearing and survival, across differently situated families,
changed human nature in ways that finally allowed human beings to
escape from the Malthusian trap in which they had been locked since the
dawn of settled agriculture, 10,000 years before. Specifically, the
families that propagated themselves were the rich, while those that
died out were the poor. Over time, the “survival of the richest”
propagated within the population the traits that had allowed these
people to be more economically successful in the first place: rational
thought, frugality, a capacity for hard work — in short the familiar
list of Calvinist, bourgeois virtues. The greater prevalence of those
traits in turn made possible the Industrial Revolution and all that it
has brought. (A lacuna in the argument is that Clark never says just
how prevalent this Darwinian process made the traits he has in mind.
Would an increase from, say 0.05 percent of the population to 0.50
percent have mattered much?)



Clark’s book is delightfully written, offering a profusion of detail
on such seeming arcana as technology in Polynesia and Tasmania before
contact with the West, Sharia-consistent banking practices in the Ottoman Empire and
bathing habits (actually, the lack thereof) in 17th-century England.
But Clark’s eye is fixed steadily on the idea he’s pushing; the details
are fascinating, but they are there because they help make his central
argument.



Second, Deidre McCloskey (pdf; unimpressed and somewhat aggrieved), via Marginal Revolution.



My FT review of the book is here. (I was fascinated, too, but I should have made more of my reservations.)

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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