August 6, 2007

Greg Clark's A Farewell to Alms

From the New York Times:

In Dusty Archives, a Theory of Affluence

For thousands of years, most people on earth lived in abject poverty, first as hunters and gatherers, then as peasants or laborers. But with the Industrial Revolution, some societies traded this ancient poverty for amazing affluence.

Historians and economists have long struggled to understand how this transition occurred and why it took place only in some countries. A scholar who has spent the last 20 years scanning medieval English archives has now emerged with startling answers for both questions.

Gregory Clark, an economic historian at the University of California, Davis, believes that the Industrial Revolution — the surge in economic growth that occurred first in England around 1800 — occurred because of a change in the nature of the human population. The change was one in which people gradually developed the strange new behaviors required to make a modern economy work. The middle-class values of nonviolence, literacy, long working hours and a willingness to save emerged only recently in human history, Dr. Clark argues.

Because they grew more common in the centuries before 1800, whether by cultural transmission or evolutionary adaptation, the English population at last became productive enough to escape from poverty, followed quickly by other countries with the same long agrarian past.

Dr. Clark’s ideas have been circulating in articles and manuscripts for several years and are to be published as a book next month, “A Farewell to Alms” (Princeton University Press). Economic historians have high praise for his thesis, though many disagree with parts of it.

The basis of Dr. Clark’s work is his recovery of data from which he can reconstruct many features of the English economy from 1200 to 1800. From this data, he shows, far more clearly than has been possible before, that the economy was locked in a Malthusian trap _ — each time new technology increased the efficiency of production a little, the population grew, the extra mouths ate up the surplus, and average income fell back to its former level.

This income was pitifully low in terms of the amount of wheat it could buy. By 1790, the average person’s consumption in England was still just 2,322 calories a day, with the poor eating a mere 1,508. Living hunter-gatherer societies enjoy diets of 2,300 calories or more.

… The tendency of population to grow faster than the food supply, keeping most people at the edge of starvation, was described by Thomas Malthus in a 1798 book, “An Essay on the Principle of Population.” This Malthusian trap, Dr. Clark’s data show, governed the English economy from 1200 until the Industrial Revolution and has in his view probably constrained humankind throughout its existence. The only respite was during disasters like the Black Death, when population plummeted, and for several generations the survivors had more to eat. … Dr. Clark started to wonder whether natural selection had indeed changed the nature of the population in some way and, if so, whether this might be the missing explanation for the Industrial Revolution.

A way to test the idea, he realized, was through analysis of ancient wills, which might reveal a connection between wealth and the number of progeny. The wills did that, , but in quite the opposite direction to what he had expected.

Generation after generation, the rich had more surviving children than the poor, his research showed. That meant there must have been constant downward social mobility as the poor failed to reproduce themselves and the progeny of the rich took over their occupations. “The modern population of the English is largely descended from the economic upper classes of the Middle Ages,” he concluded.

As the progeny of the rich pervaded all levels of society, Dr. Clark considered, the behaviors that made for wealth could have spread with them. He has documented that several aspects of what might now be called middle-class values changed significantly from the days of hunter gatherer societies to 1800. Work hours increased, literacy and numeracy rose, and the level of interpersonal violence dropped.

Another significant change in behavior, Dr. Clark argues, was an increase in people’s preference for saving over instant consumption, which he sees reflected in the steady decline in interest rates from 1200 to 1800.

“Thrift, prudence, negotiation and hard work were becoming values for communities that previously had been spendthrift, impulsive, violent and leisure loving,” Dr. Clark writes.

Around 1790, a steady upward trend in production efficiency first emerges in the English economy. It was this significant acceleration in the rate of productivity growth that at last made possible England’s escape from the Malthusian trap and the emergence of the Industrial Revolution.

In the rest of Europe and East Asia, populations had also long been shaped by the Malthusian trap of their stable agrarian economies. Their workforces easily absorbed the new production technologies that appeared first in England.

It is puzzling that the Industrial Revolution did not occur first in the much larger populations of China or Japan. Dr. Clark has found data showing that their richer classes, the Samurai in Japan and the Qing dynasty in China, were surprisingly unfertile and so would have failed to generate the downward social mobility that spread production-oriented values in England.

Hmmhmmh, well the Japanese and Chinese seem to be awfully bourgeois anyway, so I'm not sure what Dr. Clark's point is here … My guess is that the Industrial Revolution took both the bourgeois virtues, which the Japanese had in spades, and a little of the old "stroke of zigzag lighting in the brain" that the Japanese have always claimed they don't have compared to the more creative Europeans.

After the Industrial Revolution, the gap in living standards between the richest and the poorest countries started to accelerate, from a wealth disparity of about 4 to 1 in 1800 to more than 50 to 1 today. Just as there is no agreed explanation for the Industrial Revolution, economists cannot account well for the divergence between rich and poor nations or they would have better remedies to offer.

Many commentators point to a failure of political and social institutions as the reason that poor countries remain poor. But the proposed medicine of institutional reform “has failed repeatedly to cure the patient,” Dr. Clark writes. He likens the “cult centers” of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to prescientific physicians who prescribed bloodletting for ailments they did not understand.

If the Industrial Revolution was caused by changes in people’s behavior, then populations that have not had time to adapt to the Malthusian constraints of agrarian economies will not be able to achieve the same production efficiencies, his thesis implies.

Dr. Clark says the middle-class values needed for productivity could have been transmitted either culturally or genetically. But in some passages, he seems to lean toward evolution as the explanation. “Through the long agrarian passage leading up to the Industrial Revolution, man was becoming biologically more adapted to the modern economic world,” he writes. And, “The triumph of capitalism in the modern world thus may lie as much in our genes as in ideology or rationality.”

What was being inherited, in his view, was not greater intelligence — being a hunter in a foraging society requires considerably greater skill than the repetitive actions of an agricultural laborer.

Okay, but, according to Clark, the people whose descendents survived in England weren't agricultural laborers so much as their bosses, the farmers who told the laborers what to do. And the English were among the most innovative farmers, with an agricultural productivity takeoff that preceded the Industrial Revolution and made it possible by freeing workers to leave the farm and take factory jobs.

Rather, it was “a repertoire of skills and dispositions that were very different from those of the pre-agrarian world.”

Reaction to Dr. Clark’s thesis from other economic historians seems largely favorable, although few agree with all of it, and many are skeptical of the most novel part, his suggestion that evolutionary change is a factor to be considered in history.

Historians used to accept changes in people’s behavior as an explanation for economic events, like Max Weber’s thesis linking the rise of capitalism with Protestantism. But most have now swung to the economists’ view that all people are alike and will respond in the same way to the same incentives. Hence they seek to explain events like the Industrial Revolution in terms of changes in institutions, not people.

Dr. Clark’s view is that institutions and incentives have been much the same all along and explain very little, which is why there is so little agreement on the causes of the Industrial Revolution. In saying the answer lies in people’s behavior, he is asking his fellow economic historians to revert to a type of explanation they had mostly abandoned and in addition is evoking an idea that historians seldom consider as an explanatory variable, that of evolution.

The decline in English interest rates, for example, could have been caused by the state’s providing better domestic security and enforcing property rights, Dr. Hoffman said, not by a change in people’s willingness to save, as Dr. Clark asserts. … [More]

Australian law prof Andrew Fraser offered a somewhat similar explanation for the English breakthrough a couple of years ago in an article that was censored by the Deakin Law Review. As I summarized in

Perhaps the most intriguing of Fraser's many themes: his paradox that the same high level of "trust" (to use Francis Fukuyama's term) extending beyond kin that has allowed the English-speaking peoples to build self-governing institutions that square the circle of reconciling individualism with cooperation also threatens to undermine the Anglosphere—by making us suckers for self-sacrificing ideologies that more clannish immigrants laugh at.

In most countries, in most eras, you needed to belong to an extended family "mafia" for protection. Upper-middle class individuals in English-speaking countries, at least when not watching The Sopranos, generally just don't get the importance of extended families in the rest of the world. Anglosphere intellectuals are especially oblivious, for emotional reasons—they tend to despise their relatives, who often aren't as smart as they are, but frequently make more money.

The English were perhaps the first to break out of this rut. Fraser notes:

"Over time, individualistic social structures encouraged the emergence in England of the common law of property and contract and, later still, the emergence of impersonal corporate forms of business enterprise, all requiring cooperation between strangers…"

Some of the cultural attributes that emerged in Northwestern Europe that made individualistic polities possible include, include, according to Fraser:

"Only a people such as the English, characterized by the ‘non-kinship based forms of reciprocity’ associated with Protestant Christianity, monogamy and companionate marriage, nuclear families, a marked de-emphasis on extended kinship relations, and a strong tendency towards individualism could possibly succeed in creating such a 'society of strangers.’"

Fraser speculates that these attributes have genetic roots. While that’s certainly possible scientifically, we're still a number of years away from being able to test that idea empirically.

But even if the roots of our civic societies were purely cultural in origin, as they may well be, these are not tendencies that immigrants can or will choose to adopt immediately—especially in our era, which glorifies multiculturalism and denigrates the host culture's traditional values.

Fraser argues:

"This exposes a fundamental paradox built into the free and open societies of the West: The only racial groups able to fit seamlessly into the society of strangers constituting a civic nation are those whose members can easily shed the deeply-ingrained ethnocentrism and xenophobia characterizing most non-European peoples."

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Vol-in-Law said...

"Thrift, prudence, negotiation and hard work.."

These (and non-violence) are middle-class values, not aristocratic values. Most 'rich' in 1200 AD were not peaceful hardworking urban burghers, they were warrior knights and barons.

The rich having more children than the poor has been true for most of history (exceptions include the modern welfare states), and most of all in polygamous societies. Downward mobility has been a fact of life in all societies and I doubt it has anything to do with the industrial revolution.

Conversely, the spread of middle-class values may well be a factor.

BTW having lived in Scotland, Ireland, northern, central and southern England, something I've noticed is that those middle-class values are far more prevalent in southern England than in the north or the celtic fringe (with the midlands in-between). Being Scots-Irish myself I have the typical hot temper and awareness of the possibility of violence, which seem to be largely absent in the southern English.

I think this cultural difference is definitely a factor - you see it in the USA too, with the English-Yankee north industrialising well before the largely Scots-Irish South.

Among Europeans, the Germans and Scandinavians share the phlegmatic middle-class demeanour of the southern English, and it's notable that Germany industrialised perhaps even more successfully than Britain.

Vol-in-Law said...

There is evidence from medieval English skeletons that the population has changed considerably in a few centuries - and from genetics we know this is a change in a settled population, not due to immigration. 800 years ago English brains were considerably smaller, and male skulls show more pronounced brow ridges. It's likely that the English were more predisposed to violence and less intelligent.

It's not clear exactly what factors led to this evolutionary change (downward mobility being common in most societies); but nuclear families rather than clan-based society seems to have already emerged in England in the early middle ages; perhaps impelled by the Norman conquest and a particular form of hierarchical feudalism (French feudalism quite different in some ways).

Looking abroad, it seems that highly neotenous agrarian populations (China, Japan, Korea notably) seem highly capable of industrialisation, once they have European examples to copy. Both the Caucasian populations of the mid-East, and the peoples of Africa, do not. I suspect that both society (clan-based cultures) and individual genetic factors (aggression, intelligence etc) play their part in determining whether a society can sucessfully industrialise.

bjdouble said...

From reading Adam Smith, I've always thought that capitalism emerged when the big land owners in any community stopped employing an army of maids, butlers, gardeners, and whores and started spending their money on "trinkets of frivolous utility." That's how they shifted their spending from quasi-charitable household service occupations to durable consumer goods that could be resold at a yard sale, and therefore transformed futile labor into productive work. The reason for the change was a different moral attitude towards charity and family, like this guy seems to suggest.

The new moral understanding can be put in a syllogism:

Major) Contributing to the common good is a moral obligation
Minor) Unlimited accumulation contributes to the common good
Concl) Unlimited accumulation is a moral obligation

Anonymous said...

"The only racial groups able to fit seamlessly into the society of strangers constituting a civic nation are those whose members can easily shed the deeply-ingrained ethnocentrism and xenophobia characterizing most non-European peoples."

Or, more simply: Non-whites who wish to function in a civic society should act less like themselves.

Or maybe they should keep to their own society, and let whites have ours.

David said...

I moved from Nashville to Jacksonville Florida over ten years ago, and was struck by the difference in temperament: Nashville was characterized by hot-tempered, low-IQ people of very bad faith; there was always the possibility of violence breaking out. Jacksonville, in contrast, initially struck me as full of frighteningly naive goofballs, openly discussing nerdy subjects and displaying open, friendly, "whitebread" innocence to a breathtaking degree. Took a while to get used to the idea that the people around me weren't apt to stab or rob me and could actually be talked to. (However, Jax has since deteriorated into the multikult.)

Anonymous said...

Blah blah blah. Look, the Industrial Revolution happened because people discovered how to exploit fossil fuels, first coal then oil, to produce machine slaves (vs human slaves). Having all these machine slaves working for people is what dramatically increased the standard of living. With the decline of fossil fuels will come the decline of Industrial Society, no matter how great are its Middle Class values.

Oh, and its just silly to call hunter-gatherers "impoverished".

Floccina said...

And what role did Jethro Tull's plow play?

How about pacifistic protestants?

If Clark is correct that will be very bad.

Thingumbobesquire said...

Firstly, to present as a new theory, a rehashed Protestant work ethic equals capitalism is highly disingenuous. Secondly, the lack of any reference to works such as Alexander Hamilton's report on the subject of manufactures to the congress is astoundingly ignorant. The Industrial Revolution happened because of the application of science and inventions toward increasing the productive power of humanity. It happened because it was POLICY of folks like Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin. Please get some perspective.

Anonymous said...

I think some posters are missing a critical point of the article: the industrial revolution didn't just pop out of nowhere and land in England by the chance invention of steam engines and cotton gins.

England was primed, clearly more than other potential nations, by a social, legal, economic structure that allowed ideas, investment, risk, trade, etc to individually and cooperatively flourish.

There are many complex moving parts that had to come together just right for the industrical revolution to occur. These are not found in xenophobic, tribal based societies regardless of high IQ - neither NE Asians and Jews were anywhere close to industrializing at the time.

Regarding technology, China was a world leader in many areas but lacked the social organization and incentives to turn them into anything resembling the industrial revolution.

If you've ever done business outside of Anglo dominant cultures you'd know firsthand why so many countries in the world are destined to be followers at best and could never pioneer anything resembling an industrial revolution.

Anonymous said...

I feel like Kevin MacDonald is that crazy guy kept locked in a closet than no one can talk about. There are similarities between Clark's ideas and what KMD has written in regards to the develop of Western institutions. The only problem is KMD has published two or three too many books for people to associate with him.
Also Cochran/Harpending's paper on the Ashkenazi presents an elucidation of hypotheses to test out KMD's ideas presented in TPSDA. Don't tell Pinker.

Karen said...

The conclusions I am forced to are depressing for a homeschooler. Universal semi-compulsory education is obviously the institution that could kickstart this process.

Anonymous said...

These (and non-violence) are middle-class values, not aristocratic values. Most 'rich' in 1200 AD were not peaceful hardworking urban burghers, they were warrior knights and barons.

It probably predates the emergence of a middle class, though. Steve ought to take a gander at "The Origins of English Individualism: The Family, Property and Social Transition" by Alan Macfarlane, published about 30 years ago. Macfarlane's thesis is that there has been a basic misinterpretation of English history as favored by the Whigs, and that there has indeed been something "special" about England. He shows at length how medieval England fails to fit standard definitions of "peasant" society and in fact displayed the distinctive marks of individualism as early as the 13th century.

Steve would find it gives some support to his contentions, namely that the nuclear family system, far from being a "recent" development (as often claimed), is in fact ancient, durable and flexible, its simple molecular structure very likely allowing societal change to proceed rapidly in areas such as industrialization and urbanization. The theory sheds light on why market liberalism has failed to take root in the third world.

Luke said...

I think everybody is right here. There was a conjunction of causes for why it all started in England yet went on to be copied by certain groups elsewhere, though not all (at least so far). I do believe that Weber's thesis is one of the keys: the forward looking, self-sacrificing ethic of Christianity (as peculiarly interpreted by dissenting groups in England, Holland, and later Scotland) led to science, capitalism, and democracy. In some ways Holland got a head start, but England's island situation proved crucial in the long run, being both a cheap source of national defense, and a spur to sea power and foreign trade. Once the possibilities of industrialization were manifest, the demonstration effect came into play in those areas that were compatible, if only for reasons of being politically (ie, militarily) competitive. Germany and Japan, for example, and most recently China. IMHO.

Anonymous said...

All of those middle class values are associated with protestantism. Protestantism encourages literacy to engage in personal bible study. Long working hours(diligence) and a willingness to save(prudence) are values found in the book of proverbs in the bible. Non-violence is obviously encouraged by Jesus. So it seems to me that these "middle-class values" are the synthesis of old testament and new testament values coupled with the literacy it takes to do that. Another hallmark of the transition to industrialized societies is the development of civil society institutions that are based on voluntary participation... institutions such as these could have been inspired to come about as a result of new testament teachings exhorting people to voluntarily contribute their wealth, time, and effort to the common good.

Anonymous said...

i've seen this article discussed on a few pages, but it seems to me like a main point is being missed.

if england benefited from the rich having more children than the poor and the downward mobility that resulted, what does it mean that today the poor are having significantly more children than the rich?

maybe "idiocracy" (the mike judge film) really is an indication of the future.

Vol-in-Law said...

Anon re Alan MacFarlane:
"He shows at length how medieval England fails to fit standard definitions of "peasant" society and in fact displayed the distinctive marks of individualism as early as the 13th century. "

I think this is an important point, I agree that there definitely seem to be indications of an unusually individualist ethos among the English at least as far back as the middle ages. The 'sturdy English yeoman' is an important figure in English history long before the rise of the towns. English culture was never very much like the peasant cultures of Italy, France, and most of the agrarian world.

This may be connected to the early creation of the Common Law of England, whereas the rest of Europe went from essentially local/tribal law to 'received' Roman law. In England a man could in theory and often in fact stand before his betters and rely on the Law to defend him. I think that has a profound psychological impact.

Unfortunately there are worrying signs that the Rule of Law is breaking down in modern Britain under the influence of cultural Marxism and the European Union.

Anonymous said...

It's possible that the english adopted protestantism because of their individualism that was evident in medieval times and that protestant values in concert with scientific advances propelled the industrial revolution.

Mark Seecof said...

Not plow, seed drill. Jethro Tull's seed drill. Why do you think the band picked that name?

Anonymous said...

Karen said: "The conclusions I am forced to are depressing [...] Universal semi-compulsory education is obviously the institution that could kickstart this process."

Karen, is that your idea of a new idea?

Steve Sailer said...

It sounds like Clark's got some good data on England, but how does he know the same eugenic pattern wasn't true everywhere else?

Still, I can imagine that the selection pattern was slightly different in England, perhaps because it was an island and thus a little more secure (including security of property, which is conducive to the commercial virtues) than on the Continent, especially after 1066. But, still, Clark may have ended up answering a different question (e.g., why Europe?) than the one he thought he did (why England?).

Anonymous said...

He was "surprised" that rich people left more progeny?! I can't take anybody seriously who would be surprised to find this in a society rapidly accelerating in achievement.

It seems he went into this study with very strong bias about population growth (that it's horrible) and came away forcing to look to evolution.

And the best he could come up with were "different behaviors" were passed on, but intelligence has nothing to do with it?

Along with the values and religion, I believe the average I.Q. reached a threshold, ala "I.Q. and the Wealth of Nations" where England could come up with and sustain the Industrial Revolution. The other countries, with similar i.q.s but perhaps not values, saw its fruit, and adopted it.

Anonymous said...

There are a lot of holes in Clark's theory.

He says that the wealthy in England had more children than the poor, while the wealthy in Japan had relatively small families. This would imply that the genes of the wealthy are common in England and uncommon in Japan, making the English more genetically fit for an industrialized economy.

The Japanese still do pretty well at industrial production. What would you rather drive on a cold and rainy night in the middle of nowhere; a Japanese car that never breaks down, or an English car that spends more time at the mechanic's than on the road?

And if the English are so much better "evolved" for capitalism than the rest of Europe, why aren't they richer than the Swiss, the Dutch, the Flemish, Luxembourgers, etc.?

When I first read about the book, I thought it was a spoof. Unfortunately, I was wrong. I Googled the book and found that it received a favorable mention on the website of the Libertarian National Socialist Green Party. I thought the website was a spoof, but I was wrong again. If things keep going the way they're going, Time will look like Mad Magazine.

~ Risto