A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World

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A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World by Gregory Clark Princeton University Press * 2007 * 420 pages * $29.95

Reviewed by Gene Callahan

Economic historian Gregory Clark has written a fascinating book offering a serious challenge to the currently predominant explanation of why, beginning around 1800, "Western" societies have experienced a rate of economic growth never before seen in history. Clark supports his case with an impressive body of empirical evidence, making his challenge impossible to ignore.

Contemporary economists commonly propose that the West experienced its recent, unprecedented growth because there alone people finally hit upon the "right" institutions to promote prosperity. Just why they did so has been attributed to various causes. Max Weber, for example, pointed to the Protestant exaltation of worldly success as the key factor.

However, Clark contends that the historical evidence does not support this thesis. To the contrary, as he illustrates with many instances, the conditions supposedly responsible for the unique phenomenon of the Industrial Revolution also were present in a number of other societies. For example, late-medieval and Renaissance England was characterized by tax rates hovering around 1 or 2 percent, negligible government budget deficits, secure property rights, little violent crime, extensive social mobility, and active markets in land and capital. But centuries passed before the surge in English productivity occurred. Clark argues that such cases demonstrate that the institutional explanation is unsatisfactory.

Instead, Clark claims that the Neolithic Revolution, when humans first adopted agriculture, meant that certain traits, which previously had been unimportant, became pro-survival. These included skill in the symbolic thinking, particularly literacy and numeracy, needed to follow increasingly complex transactions, the self-control to forgo some current consumption in favor of ensuring future success, a lowered preference for leisure over labor, and the reduced impulse to employ violence. Clark proposes that, over the millennia separating the Neolithic and Industrial Revolutions, the reproductive advantage yielded by such traits gradually made them commonplace in agricultural societies, transforming the character of their populations and finally producing modern "bourgeois" society.

Clark notes that his thesis doesn't mean that those humans who embraced agriculture were intellectually superior to those who did not. In fact, a medieval English peasant's productivity peaked around the age of 20, while a hunter from the Ache tribe of South America doesn't reach maximum productivity until 40, indicating that the hunter is mastering the more complex set of cognitive skills. Rather, a settled farming existence rewards forms of intelligence that are irrelevant to a hunter-gatherer, forms that are prerequisites for sustained economic growth. …