A Farewell to Alms | Gregory Clark

Summary of: A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World
By: Gregory Clark


Step into the world of ‘A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World’ by Gregory Clark, where complex economic history is elucidated for a better understanding of how historical events have shaped our present world in more ways than one might initially imagine. Discover concepts such as the Malthusian Trap, the fascinating relationship between population and living standards, and how the Industrial Revolution has impacted societies both in Europe and around the globe. Explore how different cultures have encountered and dealt with issues such as poverty and wealth – and the enigmatic question of human happiness.

The Illusion of Progress

Life in the 18th-century England, as depicted in paintings, is often romanticized. However, recent data shows that the living standard of the average person in England at that time was no higher than that of the average Nukak today – an indigenous people living in the Amazon rainforest. This fact challenges the belief that technological advancements have led to a better quality of life. In fact, modern economic theory fails to explain the income disparities between societies. The Stone Age, with its more egalitarian society, may have been a better time to live than the Romantic Age. This illusion of progress raises questions about what we should value and pursue in our lives.

The Malthusian Trap and Its Impact on Society

The Malthusian Trap is a theory that explains the lack of progress in human society from the Neolithic Revolution until the 19th century. According to this theory, population growth leads to a decline in material living standards, as resources become scarce and technological progress is limited. The trap was named after Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, who examined the relationship between population and living standards in his book, An Essay on the Principle of Population, published in 1798. In a Malthusian economy, war, violence, crop failures, and natural disasters increase the death rate, thereby increasing the average living standards. Virtues such as peace, wealth redistribution, and public health initiatives decrease the death rate, but they are considered bad as they increase the birth rate, making everyone worse off. Furthermore, natural selection played a significant role in determining social hierarchy, as the children of the rich had to take jobs beneath their stations due to the static nature of the economy. The spread of bourgeois cultural attributes, such as patience, hard work, and ingenuity, formed the foundation for the next revolution. Finally, it is possible, though unlikely, that human nature was being tinkered with on the genetic level.

The Misconceptions of the Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution wasn’t as revolutionary as commonly believed, but rather an acceleration of a long-term trend. The rise in income per person since 1800 was due to technological advances and declining fertility rates. Traditional explanations for the Industrial Revolution don’t fit the evidence, and its occurrence in Europe was an accident of history, largely due to European social customs such as stable economies and lower birth rates. The agent for change in preindustrial economies remains unknown, and European social customs were the key factor that led to the distribution of middle-class values down the social hierarchy to drive economic growth.

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