A Farewell to Alms by Gregory Clark (Part Two)

Some time ago I finished Part Two of Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World (see my comments to part one). Part One deals with the Malthusian Ear which lasted until the Industrial Revolution taking place around 1800. Part Two discusses the Industrial Revolution in detail, in particular why it took place in England, of all places. The third part is devoted to the development subsequent to the Industrial Revolution.

Clark begins his discussion of the Industrial Revolution by claiming that the Industrial Revolution is mislabeled. Rather, he claims that the switch from having most of the population employed in agriculture to industry was a result of the idiosyncrasy of England’s geography and demography and that the Industrial Revolution had nothing inherently industrial about it (p. 193). In my opinion, when a lot of people shifted from working the fields to working in factories, whatever the reason, an industrial label is fine.

Despite the apparent complexity of modern economies, the fundamental equation of growth for the world since the Industrial Revolution can, according to Clark, be reduced to ‘the approximate expression’ (p. 203)
On the left is output growth, on the right is the share of income flowing to capital times the growth of capital. Of course, Clark has a wide scope, and one probably has to actually read his book to accept, if ever, this reduced expression. Anyway, he notes,

[…] when we arrive at this final truth as to the nature of modern growth we have lost all ability to empirically test its truth. It is a statement of reason and faith, not an empirical proposition (p. 204).

I find it interesting, and I also took note of similar rhetorics in Part One, that Clark moves from an ‘approximate expression’ to the ‘final truth.’ That growth equations are inherently hard to test empirically, however, I agree with.

Clark concludes his discussion of growth with a bold statement, true to his initial outlook:

[T]he path to explaining the vital event in the economic history of the world, the Industrial Revolution, is clear. All we need explain is why in the millenia before 1800 there was in all societies warlike, peaceful, monotheist, polytheist such limited investment in the expansion of useful knowledge, and why this circumstance changed for the first time in Britain some time around 1800. Then we will understand the history of mankind (p. 207).

It is clear; we are closing in on the core of Clark’s thesis. And Clark vastes no time getting there; already on the next page he writes:

This book adopts a particular view of the Industrial Revolution: that it emerged only millenia after the arrival of institutionally stable economies in societies such as ancient Babylonia, because in the interim institutions themselves interacted with and changed human culture. Millenia of living in stable societies, under thight Malthusian pressures that rewarded effort, accumulation, and fertility limitation, encouraged the development of cultural forms in terms of work inputs, time preference, and family formation which facilitated modern economic growth (pp. 208-209).

‘This book’ is coward and alienating; he should use I.

After discussing (and opposing; see last paragraph on p. 211 for an amusing instance) alternative theories of the Industrial Revolution, Clark discusses the Industrial Revolution in England in detail and asks ‘Why did the Industrial Revolution Appear so Dramatic?’ (p. 242). His explanation is the coincidence of faster productivity growth in England (which happened gradually, see Figure 12.5, p. 240) with ‘an unexpected and [notably] unrelated explosion in English population in the years 1750-1870’ (pp. 242-243). (He continues, ‘Britain’s rise to world dominance was thus a product more of the bedroom labors of British workers than of their factory toil’ (p. 243); Clark knows how to give his writing an interesting touch!) That is, Clark claims that the Industrial Revolution was a much more drawn out process than what is often thought, and that it was long in the making before 1800.

A question Clark adresses in Chapter 13 is why the Industrial Revolution took place in England, a tiny island in the outskirts of Europe, and not in traditionally more technologically sophisiticated China or Japan or even India. Clark hypotheses that both China and Japan were on their way to their own revolutions (that is, transitions to modern growth rates), but that changes happened at a slower pace there. In particular, it seems like middle-class culture and, perhaps more important (who knows?), genes, spread relatively quickly through the English society.

Clark concludes Part Two by discussing social consequences of the Industrial Revolution. He points out that those who have most benefitted are the unskilled workers in industrialized societies; the Industrial Revolution has brought equality and social harmony. Across societies, however, the Industrial Revolution has lead to larger income differences.

Before the Industrial Revolution the rich and the poor were close neighbors. Now they are but distant cousins, gazing at each other across national borders and widening income gaps [p. 299].

In Part Three, which I will discuss later, Clark discusses what he calls the Great Divergence which has happened after the Industrial Revolution.

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One Response to “A Farewell to Alms by Gregory Clark (Part Two)”

  1. A Farewell to Alms by Gregory Clark (Part Three) « Kvams Says:

    […] part of A Farewell to Alms; let me knot down some thoughts. I’ve commented on part one and two earlier; after discussing the pre-industrial world and the Industrial Revolution, Clark devotes […]

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