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

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

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

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

Synopsis

Why are some parts of the world so rich and others so poor? Why did the Industrial Revolution--and the unprecedented economic growth that came with it--occur in eighteenth-century England, and not at some other time, or in some other place? Why didn't industrialization make the whole world rich--and why did it make large parts of the world even poorer? In A Farewell to Alms, Gregory Clark tackles these profound questions and suggests a new and provocative way in which culture--not exploitation, geography, or resources--explains the wealth, and the poverty, of nations.


Countering the prevailing theory that the Industrial Revolution was sparked by the sudden development of stable political, legal, and economic institutions in seventeenth-century Europe, Clark shows that such institutions existed long before industrialization. He argues instead that these institutions gradually led to deep cultural changes by encouraging people to abandon hunter-gatherer instincts-violence, impatience, and economy of effort-and adopt economic habits-hard work, rationality, and education.


The problem, Clark says, is that only societies that have long histories of settlement and security seem to develop the cultural characteristics and effective workforces that enable economic growth. For the many societies that have not enjoyed long periods of stability, industrialization has not been a blessing. Clark also dissects the notion, championed by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel, that natural endowments such as geography account for differences in the wealth of nations.


A brilliant and sobering challenge to the idea that poor societies can be economically developed through outside intervention, A Farewell to Alms may change the way global economic history is understood.

Excerpt

This book takes a bold approach to history. It discerns, within a welter of often sketchy and sometimes conflicting empirical evidence, simple structures that describe mankind's long history—structures that can accommodate the startling facts about human history and the present world detailed in these pages. It is an unabashed attempt at big history, in the tradition of The Wealth of Nations, Das Kapital, the Rise of the Western World, and most recently Guns, Germs, and Steel. All these books, like this one, ask: How did we get here? Why did it take so long? Why are some rich and some poor? Where are we headed?

Intellectual curiosity alone makes these compelling questions. But while the book is focused on history, it also speaks to modern economic policy. For the text details how economists, and the institutions they inhabit, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, have adopted a false picture of preindustrial societies, and of the eventual causes of modern growth. These fanciful notions underlie current policies to cure the ills of the poor countries of the world, such as those represented by the Washington Consensus.

Though the book is about economics, we shall see that in the long run economic institutions, psychology, culture, politics, and sociology are deeply interwoven. Our very nature—our desires, our aspirations, our interactions— was shaped by past economic institutions, and it now in turn shapes modern economic systems. This book thus also has much to offer readers interested in anthropology and political, social, and even cultural history.

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