Farewell to Alms

by Gregory Clark

August 10th, 2009

The long gap between my last entry here and today does not reflect any reading stoppage on my part. I have continued reading apace but I stopped to re-read some old books that I read more than ten years ago. I once believed that a book, once read, had nothing new to offer, but I no longer believe that. What you get out of a book depends entirely upon the mental context you bring to the reading. Things that escaped you in an earlier reading will take on a new meaning when you bring more education to the reading.

This book represents an impressive collation of a huge array of economic statistics. This guy has researched his problem to death and buttresses his arguments with mountains of statistics. In some cases, I thought that he overdid it. "Enough already!" I found myself thinking. "You've proven your point -- move on!"

His basic argument comes in two parts. The first part is that, for all of human history until the Industrial Revolution, there was an iron law relating agricultural productivity to population: as agricultural productivity increased, population increased to eat up the extra food. The net wealth per capita did not increase. The peasant of 1700 ate no better than the peasant of 700. Humanity was locked in a trap that prevented it from making serious economic progress, because most of the increase in output was immediately consumed by the starving peasants. Yes, technology could improve life, but the pace of technological change was too slow. People could breed faster than inventors could invent.

Then the Industrial Revolution came along and everything changed. People started growing wealthier. They ate better and per capita income increased. This was a dramatic change that has spread to much of humanity, but there are still perhaps a billion people stuck in the trap.

Clark asks, "Why did the Industrial Revolution change everything?" He proposes a number of hypotheses to explain the change, and then examines each one closely. Surprisingly, he ends up rejecting every one of his hypotheses. For example, he wonders if the Industrial Revolution induced women to marry later (since wives were expected to breed, the only form of birth control was to defer marriage. But no, the evidence he found indicated that women in England did not marry later because of the Industrial Revolution.

He also examined fertility rates as a function of wealth. What he found is that mortality of rich men's children was lower than that of working-class people.

He draws no final conclusions in the book itself. However, the title seems to me to suggest that foreign aid is a wasted effort; i.e., if you give food to them, they'll just breed more and there will be even more hungry mouths to feed. A rather sad conclusion, but I think it is implicit in the point of the book.