Tyler Cowen is doing a book club on Greg Clark's A Farewell to Alms. Tyler, like me, is sceptical of the book's central claim: that the Industrial Revolution happened in Britain because the English elites outbred the poor.

Tyler offers this explanation for the growth:


Core Europe, starting in late medieval times, developed a new and still poorly understood organizational technology. This was, very roughly, the ability to work in groups, cumulate technologies and advances, and learn from each other in competitive environments. Most notably, this new technology led the Florentine and Venetian Renaissances, especially in the visual arts. But there was more. The rise of printing. The rise of classical music, starting in 1685 or whenever. The rise of early modern philosophy. Europe goes crazy with inventiveness, albeit in splats and bursts. (Clark's own chapter 12 gives good evidence for this tendency, though it will play a less central role in his version of the story.)

It is also the case that most of these bursts of inventiveness didn't do much for the average standard of living. Yes mastering oil paint technique made Florence richer but not so much.

It just so happened that one of these bursts came in science, technology, and engineering. And it came in England, mostly for reasons of "national character." It just so happened that the English burst did more for the standard of living, for reasons of external benefits. But having had such a burst was not unique to England. England was just one spoke on a more broadly turning wheel, and a European distribution of bursts was well in place prior to most of the special conditions we might find in England.

England, by the way, also had the literary revolution of the 18th century, and England plus Scotland drove the rise of modern economics. There is no Chinese Adam Smith and that is because that Europe was pulling decisively ahead in ideas production. I consider this a fact of great importance whereas for Clark it is a sideshow to some other story.



I am tempted to resist this interpretation--was there really no inventiveness in various Chinese cities? But Tyler is unlikely to have missed the trend; he's no cultural imperialist. So on this matter, I will outsource my opinion to him.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.