- A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World
Gregory Clark always has exhibited one of the keener minds in the field of modern economic history. Possessed as he is with great quantitative skills, wit, and more than a bit of irreverence, he often has brought a special angular approach to oft-debated historical questions. His numerous journal articles published over the last two decades comprises a corpus unto itself. For those not yet familiar with his body of work, this book brings together, amplifies, and refines many of those earlier contributions that he has made to the field.
Clark, or his editor, may be excused for exaggerating the actual focus of this book. Rather than “a brief economic history of the world,” it would seem to be more fitting to subtitle this work “an economic history of Britain in world-historical perspective.” Certainly, the book’s full title is more than a bit odd since the author makes it quite clear that certain parts of the world have witnessed an “alms build-up” rather than “a farewell to alms” over the past two centuries. Be that as it may, as in much of Clark’s earlier publications, this book’s thesis actually revolves around a set of interrelated questions largely concerning British economic history: What were the origins of British industrialization? Why was Britain the first nation to industrialize? Why didn’t the rest of the world follow Britain’s path of economic development and transformation? These three questions also provide the narrative structure upon which the book is organized.
In some ways, part of the answer Clark provides for the first question is both the most contentious and the least convincing aspect of this work. Certainly, there is an almost palpable delight taken in the author’s explanation and contextualization of Britain’s pre-industrial [End Page 854] Malthusian trap. Yet, Clark’s explanation of why the jaws of the trap were never sprung again in Britain after the fourteenth century relies upon an uncomfortable marriage of Malthusianism and behavioral Darwinism. Agrarian societies, it is claimed, exhibited a specific process of social selection through the “survival of the richest” (112). That is, economic success in agrarian Europe was rewarded with reproductive success. This reproductive success helped to literally disseminate throughout society a “repertoire of skills and dispositions” (188) that made the descendants of these generations biologically better adapted to succeed. Among these unique biological adaptations were literacy, patience, non-violence, and hard work, a set of virtues that Clark labels anachronistically as “middle-class values.” Therefore, according to Clark, there is no reason to seek the origins of capitalism, for example, in the rise of a protestant ethic or a unique set of economic and political institutions favorable to its development. Instead, capitalism arose first in Britain, and more specifically in England, due to a process of Darwinian natural selection that operated within a specific economic environment.
Whether such behavioral adaptations to a specific set of economic incentives are functionally equivalent to Darwinian genetic adaptations to the physical environment is only one of the several fundamental questions raised by this argument. Does the fact that experiments in the domestication of wild animals indicate that animal behavior can be rapidly modified apply to the human condition as well, as the author suggests? Is culture, therefore, genetically determined through natural selection?
Equally important for Clark, however, is the function his argument performs as a theoretical alternative to theories of economic growth that have sought to account for British industrialization by the development of a unique set of social or economic advantages, such as private property rights, constitutional democracy, or human capital. For Clark, such institutional accounts of industrialization are caught in an “intellectual death spiral” (147) in which empirical research dramatically contradicts economic theory. For example, based upon the institutional criteria applied to developing countries by “such cult centers” (328) as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, medieval England was characterized by...