23 of 26 people found the following review helpful
Stimulating but wrong-headed,
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This review is from: A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World (Princeton Economic History of the Western World) (Hardcover)
In A Farewell to Alms, Gregory Clark asks good questions: why did we wait so long for the industrial revolution? why did it occur when and where it did? why has it still not taken universal effect? He attacks the conventional story which sees the crucial pre-condition as the inalienability of property rights, first occurring in England. In other words, he argues that institutional arrangements don't matter that much.
A Farewell to Alms has three broad strands. First, from the agricultural to the industrial revolution, accumulated capital and improved technology served largely to increase population. This section of the book presents some wonderful data, but Clark's argument is close to circular and less novel than he suggests. In any event, by his own account his analysis allows for a substantial variation in living standards between one and another society.
Second, the industrial revolution was triggered by a slow accumulation of habits and values in English society, making for successful economic practices, which did not occur in (for example) China and Japan. If true, this would be very interesting, so let's explore it a little. Clark's argument draws attention to literacy, violence and interest rates. Let's focus on interest rates, which have the most objective data and are most relevant to economic life. Clark points out that rates in Western Europe fell from 10% or so in the middle ages to 4-5% on the eve of the industrial revolution. He goes on to note that rates include a "risk premium" and a "time-preference", capturing the universal inclination to consume today rather than tomorrow. The customary account of this fall emphasises the decline in the risk premium due to the improvement of property rights. By contrast, Clark argues that property rights were always pretty secure in England. Instead he proposes that there was an alteration in time-preference: that over the 400 to 500-year period, Englishmen became more willing to defer immediate gratification.
His explanation for this is bizarre: that middle-class values (or possibly genes) permeated English society, because of the downward mobility of the surfeit of children born to the wealthy (but not the aristocracy, who killed themselves in battle with such gusto as to fail to reproduce altogether). On its face this is plain odd: everyday observation tells us that those undergoing downward mobility are keen to forget their parents' values. In addition, Clark's evidence won't haul the freight. He compares the surfeit of children born to wealthy testators (makers of wills) in England to the relative dearth born to Samurai and the royal family of Qin Dynasty China. But this fails to compare like with like. Wealthy testators in pre-industrial England were a mix of aristocrats, gentry-farmers and merchants. Samurai were military retainers (presumably not unlike the English aristocrats who also failed to reproduce), while members of the Chinese royal family were just that. We learn nothing from this comparison: Clark has failed to provide a reason to focus on time-preference rather than risk-premium in interest rates. So perhaps property rights are more important than he allows.
Finally, Clark tries to account for the divergence in economic performance between the developed and less-developed world. To simplify matters, he argues that folks in the third world simply work less hard, once again possibly because their genes may incline them to do so. Setting aside the insalubrious whiff of this reasoning, it doesn't dispel the need to consider institutions and property rights. How otherwise to explain the comparative performance of East and West Germany; the success of China after Deng or Spain after Franco, the latter suggestively excluding the Hispanic economies of the Americas over the same period.
A Farewell to Alms presents some wonderful data but its author strains for controversy so much as to undermine his arguments' effect. Clark is stimulating but wrong-headed.
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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 15 Jul 2009 16:53:21 BDT
Last edited by the author on 15 Jul 2009 17:10:34 BDT
Tim Heydon says:
I suggest that Christianity was the main reason why the West forged ahead. Christianity in Europe supported the rule of law and property rights which were developed by the Romans and the ethics which encouraged trade in Christian Europe. It lay behind the development of modern science which did not occur in Islam which also had access to Greek learning, or in China where technology was at one time more advanced than in the West, or elsewhere. This is because Christianity fathered faith in reason, which was not possible in other religions. The Christian conception of a rational God who could be glorified by exploring his rational. lawful creation, Nature, was unique. The Koran is thought to contain all necessary knowledge, whilst the Islamic concept of God is that he cannot be bound by laws, including his own. Eastern religions thought of nature either as recurring in cycles or as inscrutable mysteries.
This idea of the origins of Modern Science was first put forward by Alfred North Whitehead, co-author with Bertrand Russell of 'Principia Mathematica' and is now generally accepted. (See for example 'For the Glory of God' by Rodney Stark and Nemo's 'What is the West?')
Hands -on technology using science developed because of the high esteem put on manual work by Non- conformist Protestantism in 18th Century England whilst the capital necessary was available because of Christian ideas about wealth.
Another good reason for the advance of the West is the average intelligence of its people, high in comparison with some other areas, without which the inspiration of Christianity would not have had the same effect.
Posted on 1 Mar 2011 11:04:00 GMT
S Wood says:
Good grief, religious and racial chauvinism are evidently alive and well? Not a word on imperial factors, slavery, the wealth extracted from use americas, etc.
In reply to an earlier post on 27 Jun 2011 20:49:09 BDT
A. O. P. Akemu says:
You argue that Christianity was the main reason that Europe forged ahead since it lay "behind the development of modern science, which did not occur in Islam". But the Christian West had pretty much forgotten Greek learning before the Islamic world re-introduced classical texts to Westerners in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. How come a 'rational' Christian religion managed to do away with Greek learning for almost 500 years.
How about the robust Medieval Islamic tradition of falsafah (basically, philosophy) that promoted rational thought, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy? Does this tradition imply that "the koran [was] thought to contain all necessary knowledge".
While the rise of reason and rationality in Renaissance Europe might have helped birth the scientific age, it is by no means clear that Christianity leads inexorably to reason and the age of science. Perhaps, you are judging the past from the vantage point of post-enlightenment thought? Are you fitting the facts to your conception of history and denigrating the cultural achievements of other civilisations (Islam, the East) based on an exalted view of Christianity's rationality?
In reply to an earlier post on 2 Jul 2011 13:48:47 BDT
K. N. Crosby says:
Clearly the book was written for ahistorial crackpots. Europe became dependent on the outside world in the C15th and has been able to drive an unfair bargain ever since. Other societies' poverty correlates with European plunder followed by integration into a world economic system enforced by mass slaughter. Farewell to Alms? "Gimme the money or the kids get it!" more like.
Posted on 6 Jun 2013 10:32:09 BDT
Mike Swain says:
Thank you for your review Miles. I share some of your scepticism. However, I choked a little at your statement "everyday observation tells us that those undergoing downward mobility are keen to forget their parents' values". My observation, for what it is worth is that although some children are keen to demonstrate a break with parental values, In later life - I mean once they start work - those values often (almost invariably) emerge undiminished. I also think there is plenty of evidence from the literature that such traits are strongly culturally transmitted, although probably not wholly from parents.
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A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World (Princeton Economic History of the Western World)(9 customer reviews)