Thursday, August 09, 2007

On the Industrial Revolution - another weary theory

In a book titled 'A Farewell to Alms', due out next month from the Princeton University Press, Dr. Gregory Clark, an economic historian with the University of California, Davis believes that the Industrial Revolution - the surge in economic growth and activity that heralded the rise of affluence in England in the 1800’s - happened because of a change in the attitude and nature of human beings and not primarily because of the development of efficient and stable social institutions (as is more normally accepted). Review of the book in the Times here.

Graphs scanned from the New York Times (click on image for clarity)

Essentially the gist of his argument can be whittled down to the following: The rich people in England reproduced more, their progeny had a greater chance of success in living out their lives, they slowly were acclimatized to the principles of a less violent, less brutal form of social intercourse, sowing the seeds that produced the industrial revolution. Then you might ask, what about the rich in similar parts of the world like China, India and Japan. Out here, Dr. Clark has drummed up records to prove that the rich were not as fertile as the rich in England because of recorded lower than normal rates of fertility among the affluent in the Asia’s which means that the Malthusian laws of a steady state population remained in vogue in these countries leading to no revolution but a steady state of agrarian stasis in these areas.

The basis of Dr. Clark’s work is his recovery of data from which he can reconstruct many features of the English economy from 1200 to 1800. From this data, he shows, far more clearly than has been possible before, that the economy was locked in a Malthusian trap _ — each time new technology increased the efficiency of production a little, the population grew, the extra mouths ate up the surplus, and average income fell back to its former level. The tendency of population to grow faster than the food supply, keeping most people at the edge of starvation, was described by Thomas Malthus in a 1798 book, “An Essay on the Principle of Population.” This Malthusian trap, Dr. Clark’s data show, governed the English economy from 1200 until the Industrial Revolution and has in his view probably constrained humankind throughout its existence. The only respite was during disasters like the Black Death, when population plummeted, and for several generations the survivors had more to eat.
Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema (British, 1836 – 1912), Bachanal, 1871, Oil on canvas, 16” X 32”

Generation after generation, the rich had more surviving children than the poor, his research showed. That meant there must have been constant downward social mobility as the poor failed to reproduce themselves and the progeny of the rich took over their occupations. “The modern population of the English is largely descended from the economic upper classes of the Middle Ages,” he concluded.As the progeny of the rich pervaded all levels of society, Dr. Clark considered, the behaviors that made for wealth could have spread with them. He has documented that several aspects of what might now be called middle-class values changed significantly from the days of hunter gatherer societies to 1800. Work hours increased, literacy and numeracy rose, and the level of interpersonal violence dropped. It is puzzling that the Industrial Revolution did not occur first in the much larger populations of China or Japan. Dr. Clark has found data showing that their richer classes, the Samurai in Japan and the Qing dynasty in China, were surprisingly unfertile and so would have failed to generate the downward social mobility that spread production-oriented values in England.
Juan O’Gorman (Mexican, 1905 – 1982), Ruinas de la Torre de Babel, ink and pencil on paper, 22” X 13”

No doubt, the book makes you think. In addition, the New York Times tells us that he has drummed up reams of sufficient research and background investigations to support each of the premises in the book. I am definitely going to get this book when it hit the stands in the hopes that it will provide clues on one of the enduring questions that I have not an answer to: The inability of Asian economies to produce any kind of an Industrial Revolution at about the same time (assuming that all of humanity progresses socially and culturally at about the same rate) and I hope this book sparks answers to some of these more vexing questions...

I do have a couple of issues with the arguments presented which I guess can only be answered by a closer reading:

Although not explicitly mentioned, it also seems that he does not seem to credit the Enlightenment and the 'age of reason' (1790's) as a major lubricant for oiling the locomotive of the industrial revolution...

Isn’t attributing a cultural tour de force like the Industrial Revolution to the mating practices of rich horny English peoples a bit too simplistic?

In a rhetorical side note, the argument that the rich people provided for the seeds (pun unintended) of the Industrial Revolution could be subverted by the right set of people (you know which set) to bolster the assumption that the rich should be taxed less such that they can use the excess income to invest and raise standards of living is strong....

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