Bold books that offer grand theses to explain the course of human history are risky endeavors. Few such attempts rightfully linger in the collective conscious: from the 18th century's The Wealth of Nations to the following century's Das Capital and potentially to the relatively recent Guns, Germs, and Steel. But most are quickly forgotten. If these are judged on the merit of the arguments, Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World, will quickly end up in the latter category.
Clark, an economic historian and the chair of the economics department at the University of California, Davis, asks a fundamental question of history: Why did the Industrial Revolution occur where and when it did? In other words, why did the global economy diverge? Why did northern Europe, particularly England, grow rich while the most of the rest of the world remained in poverty? And why haven't other areas caught up?
The answer he proposes is both beautifully simple and excessively reductionist. By essentially ignoring institutions such as government and religion, major developments, and power relations, his analysis is shackled by historical myopia. But the implications of his hypothesis go beyond 19th century British history. Clark's proposals have both explicit and implicit consequences for current political and economic debates. The author would have us embrace a retrograde social Darwinism, in which the wealthy of the world are on top of society's ladder due to superior culture and genetics.
Before 1800, Clark asserts, Britain was mired for centuries in a "Malthusian trap." Resources for survival were more limited than reproduction, causing a significant portion of people to die before having children. Innovations may have improved life temporarily, but the economic gains were quickly diluted among the subsequent greater number of surviving descendants.
During this time, four behaviors critical to the rise of industrial capitalism and the break from the trap became more prevalent: literacy, thrift, hard work and less violence. Although these "middle class values," as Clark dubs them, emerged gradually among the British, the wealthy exhibited them earlier and to a greater degree. Furthermore, the upper class also had better reproductive success than the general population, a result that Clark calls the "survival of the richest." Since the higher number of survivors among the wealthy split inheritances, medieval Britain was characterized by downward mobility. Though the heirs of the wealthy were poorer than their parents, their generational economic descent helped propagate their cultural characteristics of success throughout society.
Clark provides fascinating evidence to back up some of these claims. A key part of his extensive economic research is a survey of wills. Contrary to intuition, plenty of poorer British men (and the testators were overwhelming male) bequeathed their meager possessions to their children. The wills demonstrate that the wealthy did, in fact, have a greater numbers of surviving children. Using the ability to sign one's name as a proxy for literacy, Clark concludes that they were also more likely to be literate. Clark uses similar methods based on an impressive, diverse array of historical sources to demonstrate the rise of longer work hours, decreased interpersonal violence and stronger savings. Unfortunately, he too often supports broad generalizations with temporally and spatially narrow data. While this is understandable, given the limitations of records, it occasionally weakens his assertions.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of Clark's theory is its radical "economism." He reduces major institutional or political developments to simple quests for greater economic efficiency. Slavery, for example, is presented as merely an economically inefficient allocation of labor resources, as it prevented slaves from seeking the most productive use of their labor. Like other suboptimal institutions, it was only a matter of time before the economic advantages outweigh the benefits of oppression. So much for abolitionism's moral sway.
This reductionism allows, or causes, Clark to ignore history beyond his lens of efficiency. However, shifts such as the Magna Carta, the Protestant Reformation, the Glorious Revolution, the Thirty Years' War and the English Civil War certainly played no small part in altering balances of power within British society, consequently laying the groundwork for the Industrial Revolution.
For example, Clark chooses to overlook the enormous competitive advantages utilized by the northern European nations, and particularly their elite classes, by centuries of slavery and colonialism. However inefficient these systems may have been, they were forcefully maintained by their beneficiaries to transfer staggering values of expropriated labor and natural resources from conquered lands. But just as his brief discourse on slavery merely highlights its inefficiency, one of Clark's few passages on colonialism asserts that subjugated areas actually benefited economically due to the increased political stability conferred by their imperial conquerors. In an interview about his book, the author revives the white man's burden, claiming that the British "were not systematically exploiting India. They were in fact offering India the enormous possibility of becoming the second great industrial power in the world. That didn't happen, but it wasn't because of anything the British did. It was because of what happened internally in India."
Clark's extreme economic reductionism seems to have also blinded him to the relevant chronology. For example, he provides ample data comparing cotton processing in Britain and India in the early 20th century. After presenting evidence that indicates Indian workers simply worked less hard, the author concludes, "[L]abor problems were at the root of India's failure to industrialize under British rule in 1857-1947 and subsequently under independent Indian governments. The socially induced lethargy that afflicted Indian labor may have extended throughout society." The implication is clear: The peoples of the global south have been economically unproductive because they are lazy, preventing them from enjoying the benefits of colonialism.
When asking why economies diverged, the relevant period is that leading up to the Columbian contact. Thus the key question, so thoroughly explored by Jared Diamond, is why regions were already unequally developed at the time of contact. The overwhelming technological, and thus military, advantages of the European nations vis-ŕ-vis the global south were exploited by the former to extract resources from the latter. Not only did this help the colonial powers prosper, but the subjugated regions were ravaged by the disruption of all aspects of society and economy. For an economic historian to attribute the gap in labor efficiencies between Britain and India, after more than 200 years of colonial rule, to "socially induced lethargy" without discussing colonialism itself is simply stunning, if not downright offensive.
The author doesn't leave it to the reader's imagination whether the bourgeois virtues of the British and the ineptitude of the non-European world have been culturally or genetically transmitted. During Britain's Malthusian generations, Clark claims that "the attributes that would ensure later economic dynamism - patience, hard work, ingenuity, education - were thus spreading biologically throughout the population."
There are no known genes for Clark's middle-class values. And if they do exist, their contributions to reproductive survival would be so subtle and complex as to allow evolution to occur only in much larger timespans. Clark's only citation for such rapid genetic evolution is a single paper, by fellow economic historians, which offers a theoretical model for how a single, critical characteristic -- how many children to bear -- may have evolved genetically or culturally since the Neolithic Revolution. Neither Clark's book nor the referred paper reference the basics of genetics or evolutionary biology.
It's impossible to ascertain the intentions of Clark, who is British. But a hypothesis such as that proposed in A Farewell to Alms clearly has political implications, and the author belies his own leanings. In a discussion of taxes, he makes a point of claiming that modern Europe's taxation regimes "intrude just as shockingly into the lives of its citizens" as did the Inquisition, an institution that enforced religious dogma and political power through torture and executions.
The genetic reductionism put forth in this book is a troubling trend which, if left unchecked, has dangerous ramifications. As an increasing number of genes are attributed, sometimes inappropriately, to a range of physical and behavioral characteristics, a revival of social Darwinism has become tempting. For his part, Clark concludes that the West should give up on international development aid. Even more insidious than libertarian challenges to any protections against the ravages of the market is the belief that, contrary to Jefferson, we are not all created equal, and thus perhaps deserve our radically unequal outcomes.
Hopefully, neoliberal proposals will be judged on arguments other than the poorly-supported ones presented in Clark's book. Like 1994's The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, it uses snapshot quantitative data to back broad theories of cultural, genetic and racial differences, which in turn can be used in support of significant policy shifts. Let's hope that 13 years from now, A Farewell to Alms will inhabit the same dustbin as The Bell Curve does today.
Jesse Reynolds is the director of the project on Biotechnology in the Public Interest at the Center for Genetics and Society, a nonprofit advocacy organization and a contributor to its Biopolitical Times blog.