AE Monthly

Articles - October - 2007 Issue

<i>A Farewell to Alms</i> -- a book considered

Fta

A book worth reading


By Bruce McKinney

This is a brief economic history of the world with a focus on the Industrial Revolution. It is written by Dr. Gregory Clark. In it he offers a fresh perspective on recent economic developments that have intriguing implications for the world economy over the next one hundred years.

The difference between mathematics and economics is the difference between certainty and informed speculation. Mathematics looks at numbers and sees fixed if sometimes obscure relationships. Economics is the imposition of explicative theory on those things we do for money and reward. It's the difference between What are you paid and why do you work? Dr. Clark who teaches at the University of California at Davis, has written a thought-provoking book about Industrial Revolution, its causes and uneven spread around the planet. Using historical data available for England for the pre-industrial period [1200 to 1760] he creates a statistical baseline that, when compared to England from 1761 to the present, shows distinctive economic differences in the later period which he describes, as other economists have, as the first Industrial Revolution. In creating a clearer statistical picture of pre-industrial England he has created a unique pre-post comparison. He then interprets the causes for the Industrial Revolution through an examination of what changed. It is not an entirely certain process but original and highly worthwhile.

Modern economic theory credits institutions for creating the amalgam of factors that have enabled economic development. He credits the individual or more accurately, the sum of them, who acted from self-interest in an environment that was uniquely pliant to individual initiative. The development of the British Empire with a unifying language, sound laws, low taxes, minimal barriers to technology transfer, and relative peace were the apparent preconditions for the economic development achieved within the British Empire between 1860 and the eve of World War I. His book, A Farewell to Alms, by clarifying the past glimpses the future. And at 377 pages plus reference material, it's a rarity in economic theory, the easily understood book. No doubt, other economists will hold this against him.

He sees the world before the Industrial Revolution as stasis or as Dictionary.com defines it: the state of equilibrium or inactivity caused by opposing equal forces. He defines the modern era as beginning about 130,000 BC and being in stasis until 250 years ago. Then, in England, the Industrial Revolution began to take hold. It was, in his view, a thousand years in the making. His perspective is economic so the birth, death and revival of religions, the coming and going of dinosaurs, even the major shifts of humans as hunter-gathers to farmers are simply scenes observed from the window of trucks flying across Kansas on Route 40. They simply confirm his view of pre-industrial life as an equation:
P = F
where the number of people possible was equal to the amount of food available. When food was more plentiful population expanded. When the food supply diminished population fell. He allows that technology, perhaps more aptly labeled invention, increased food supply in some areas and mentions the production of rice in Japan and China as examples. But he believes that advances in food production, in the pre-Industrial Revolution period, always ultimately were reflected in increasing population that in time ate its way back to starvation and falling population. This is called the Malthusian Trap.

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