A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World (The Princeton Economic History of the Western World) Kindle Edition

3.8 out of 5 stars 71 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0691121352
ISBN-10: 0691121354
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Editorial Reviews


Economic history often conjures images of musty tomes, bygone eras that no one knows about and in general, scholarship that is dry and difficult to relate to. Gregory Clark's new book A Farewell to Alms conveys a different image. Offering a sweep of history from the border between antiquity and the medieval age, the book is an attempt at tackling grand themes.


Right or wrong, or perhaps somewhere in between, Clark's is about as stimulating an account of world economic history as one is likely to find. Let's hope that the human traits to which he attributes economic progress are acquired, not genetic, and that the countries that grow in population over the next 50 years turn out to be good at imparting them. Alternatively, we can simply hope he's wrong. (Benjamin M. Friedman New York Times Book Review )

Clark's idea-rich book may just prove to be the next blockbuster in economics. He offers us a daring story of the economic foundations of good institutions and the climb out of recurring poverty. We may not have cracked the mystery of human progress, but A Farewell to Alms brings us closer than before. (Tyler Cowen New York Times )

[C]lark is very good at piecing together figures from here and there, including those from isolated groups of hunter-gatherers alive today. He makes a plausible case for the basic pattern: for thousands of years before the Industrial Revolution, there was essentially no sustained improvement in mankind's general material standard of living, nor was there much variation from place to place around the world. The Industrial Revolution made all the difference. (Robert Solow New York Review of Books )

A Farewell to Alms asks the right questions, and it is full of fascinating details, like the speed at which information traveled over two millennia (prior to the 19th century, about one mile per hour). Clark's combination of passion and erudition makes his account engaging. When a light bulb goes off in my head, the first thing I ask myself is 'Would this be interest if it were true?' Clark's thesis definitely meets that test. (Samuel Bowles Science )

Mr. Clark...has produced a well written and thought-provoking thesis, refreshingly light on jargon and equations. It could well be the subject of debate for years to come. (The Economist )

Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms is fully as absorbing, as memorable and as well written as [Jared] Diamond's remarkable bestseller. It deserves to be as widely read.... [A]ny book that is as bold, as fascinating, as conscientiously argued and as politically incorrect as this one demands to be read. (Clive Crook Financial Times )

Obviously, we?ve got a controversial argument here. But Clark makes a compelling case for the idea that the fruits of industrialization were open to all societies, but only a handful seized the moment. (William R. Wineke The Wisconsin State Journal )

Gregory Clark's new book A Farewell to Alms is an investigation of both our nasty, brutish, and short past and our more prosperous present. Mr. Clark first makes the case that we owe our current prosperity to the gifts of the Industrial Revolution. He then attempts to explain why that revolution happened in 18th-century England. (Edward Glaeser New York Sun )

Economic history often conjures images of musty tomes, bygone eras that no one knows about and in general, scholarship that is dry and difficult to relate to. Gregory Clark's new book A Farewell to Alms conveys a different image. Offering a sweep of history from the border between antiquity and the medieval age, the book is an attempt at tackling grand themes. (Siddharth Singh LiveMint )

For a novel and somewhat dispiriting theory of economic divergence, read A Farewell to Alms, published this year, by Gregory Clark of the University of California at Davis. He doesn't accept the view, common among the utopians, that natural endowments like soil and water explain why rich nations are 50 times as prosperous as poor ones. How can differences in natural resources possibly explain Zimbabwe's misery or Singapore's wealth? Clark amasses an extraordinary collection of historical data to explain why the Industrial Revolution was born in western Europe, not Africa or India. (William Baldwin Forbes )

Clark's ferociously systematic expounding of an alternative to the institutional explanation does...provide many delightful insights, large and small, along the way. Some of the observations in this very well-written book do make for nice dinner party anecdotes. (Harold James The American Interest )

Comes now Gregory Clark, an economist who interestingly takes the side of culture. In an important new book, A Farewell to Alms Clark suggests that much of the world's remaining poverty is semi-permanent. Modern technology and management are widely available, but many societies can't take advantage because their values and social organization are antagonistic. Prescribing economically sensible policies (open markets, secure property rights, sound money) can't overcome this bedrock resistance. (Robert Samuelson The Washington Post )

A Farewell to Alms is a brave new work, rich in both detailed facts and big ideas. Clark clears away much of the tangled brush of theories of long-term economic growth that have grown up in recent decades. This is the most ambitious and far-reaching book on long-term economic history to appear in many years, perhaps since Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. (Jack A. Goldstone World Economics )

Clark's book A Farewell to Alms is . . . Ambitious, staking out an entire vision of world history. . . . Clark's Malthusian model is forcefully argued. (Roger Gathman Austin American-Statesman )

[T]he author's engaging style and (relatively) jargon-free descriptions of the economic principles in play before, during, and after the Industrial Revolution in England turn this rich and detailed account into more of a sprint than a slog. . . . Whatever your reaction to this decidedly un-PC take on economic aid, [A Farewell to Alms] serves as a useful explanation of how we got where we are today and a reminder that new approaches are needed to close the yawning gap between the world's richest and poorest societies. (Roberta Fusaro Harvard Business Review )

Clark argues the English evolved biologically in ways that created prosperity. Before you dismiss the notion, read this brilliant tour of economic history. (MoneySense Magazine )

Clark adds substantively to an understanding of perhaps the important questions of this--or any--era: what makes economies grow, and why have some not experienced any success at all?....Alms is provocative, authoritative, insightful, readable, well documented, and an inescapable detour for anyone wanting to tackle economic growth and development topics and enter into these conversations. (A. R. Sanderson Choice )

Gregory Clark has written a fascinating book which is chock-full of insight and ideas. Clark paints on a big canvas and his deft handling of the puzzles and counterintuitive outcomes is delicious. 'No one,' he says, 'can claim to be truly intellectually alive without having understood and wrestled, at least a little, with these mysteries'. We are indebted to him for revealing more of them in such an electrifying fashion. (Ian R. Harper The Melbourne Review )

[A Farewell to Alms] is one of the most fascinating, and the most disturbing, historical works I have read. It seems to suggest that the gross inequality of our world has less to do with the inherent unfairness of global capitalism and more with scarcely ineradicable cultural difference. . . . [T]his is economic history as you never read it before. (A.N. Wilson The Daily Telegraph )

Why do some nations get rich while others stay poor? What are the conditions that allow an economy to take off and grow? These questions have puzzled economists for many years. But no explanation is more startling than the one proposed by Gregory Clark in his book A Farewell to Alms. (Ross Gittins Sydney Morning Herald )

This is a fine book, bristling with interesting data and opinions, more extensive than this review can possibly convey. Readily accessible to non-fiction readers, this book should fire more debate about a historical episode of unfailing fascination. (Michael G. Sargent Interdisciplinary Science Reviews )

This is . . . a remarkable book, with an unerring focus on the fundamentals of the Malthusian economy and the large-scale economic trends. It is a unique source of factual information, beautifully presented in almost 200 tables and figures, and will make an excellent textbook for college-level courses of history and economics. (Gerhard Meisenberg Journal of Biosocial Science )

[P]erhaps there is no higher praise for an author than to say that I disagreed with the arguments but liked the book. It made me think in new ways about the course of economic history. I recommend the book to anyone with an interest in the economic history of the world. (Rick Szostak New Global Studies )

I derived enormous stimulation from this book. At a superficial level, Clark offers a richly documented picture of England's economic history, put into perspective by comparisons with other parts of Europe and with the Far East, and sometimes even by references to amazing facts about ancient forager societies. . . . More fundamentally, the layman gets a good understanding here of what made for the Industrial Revolution and how its preconditions evolved in England over a period of centuries. Clark accuses economists of being undereducated about history. This will be somewhat remedied if they read his provocative book. (Wolfgang Kasper Policy )

As a self-proclaimed exercise in 'big history' this work succeeds extraordinarily well: it is engaging and readable, and it renders abstruse economic models and empirical results accessible to nonspecialists. (Zorina Khan Technology and Culture )

A Farewell to Alms is . . . worth scrutinizing. The book offers a distinct line of thought on evolutionary affairs. It is also valuable in historiographical terms as it recalls historical explanation forsaken due to shifting scholarly fashions. (Ian Morley The History Teacher )

Gregory Clark has written a stimulating, provocative, witty, and ambitious book. It is accessible to the uninitiated and a pleasure to read. Clark's valuable insights are presented with an admirable forcefulness, as are his grievous errors. In short, this is a book very much worth reading for the sake of argument and debate. (Jan De Vries Journal of Economic History )

Clark has provided a sensible and readable account of important frontier research in economic history. (Peter Howitt Journal of Interdisciplinary History )

Gregory Clark has given us a very provocative work. It is economic history, but with strong implications for contemporary problems. His quantitative techniques for demonstrating such phenomena as the innumeracy of pre-industrial humanity and the evolution of the speed of information flows are clever. (Arnold Kling Journal of Bioeconomics )

Product Details

  • File Size: 27087 KB
  • Print Length: 431 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (December 29, 2008)
  • Publication Date: December 29, 2008
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B001EQ4OLA
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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Omer Belsky on October 12, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Did you know that the average person's life in the Stone Age was no worse then that of the average 17th century Briton? That given their more varied nutrition and lesser workload, the lives of hunter gatherers were superior to both? That the Black Death caused a major improvement in European standards of livings during the 14th to 16th centuries? That the institutional conditions for economic growth, as normally understood, were better in the Middle Ages then they are today?

These are only few of the mind blowing and well documented claims put forward in Gregory Clark's breathtaking - there is no other word - "A Farewell to Alms". Clark confronts the greatest mystery of human history - why did the West leap forward, breaking away from millennia of stasis, to create the modern, industrial world? Clark not only refutes most of the common wisdom about the rise of the West, but also brings forth an astonishing array of data in support of a radically new interpretation. No doubt some specialists would disagree with Clark's conclusions; I have my doubts, too - but Clark's methodology, his thoroughness, and the rigorous manner in which he addresses a huge quantity of data makes "A Farewell to Alms" an instant classic and a model for all economic history.

Clark describes world economic history as essentially a two-phase story. The first phase, from the dawn of time to the Industrial Revolution, featured a barely changing world governed by the cold and remorseless laws of Malthus and Darwin. But those same laws brought on a slow revolution, and a new phenomenon was emerging - first in Europe, and slower in India, China and Japan - Economic Man.
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Format: Hardcover
The perennial question asked by economic historians is why some countries grow excedingly rich and others remain miserably poor. It is a question that writers of "big history" have asked: notably Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations (Bantam Classics), David S Landes in The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor, and Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. These works rely heavily on theory beyond the mere retelling of certain facts and events. It is in this tradition that Gregory Clark, economic historian at the University of California at Davis, presents the economic history of the the world. The underlying theory that informs his version is that social and possibly biological evolution explains economic growth. The specter of social darwinism haunts his imagination.

For Clark the critical stage of social evolution is when a society is able to emerge from the Malthusian trap of poverty. It is at this point where they diverge from the pack and actually experience social progress and economic growth.

Regarding the Malthusian trap, Clark argues that the well-being of the average person around 1800 was no better than the average hunter-gatherer 10,000 years earlier. According to Malthus' "Essay on the Principle of Population," with every technological advance that increases the efficiency of production, there is a corresponding increase in population, thus neutralizing any gains made in production.
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Clark says he spent 20 years writing this. I believe it. Despite frequent
amusing anecdotes, this is not a fun read. Clark is an academic who has hammered together what may be decades of project notes, charts, tables and yes, you know it is an academic writing when there are 24 pages of references and a bonus technical appendix.

His five main conclusions are: 1)mankind in 1800 was no better off than the caveman 100,000 years earlier, 2)since 1800, the unskilled worker has been the major beneficiary of the potentially stunning fruits of the industrial/technology revolution, 3) modern production techniques demand workers who exhibit discipline, hard work, meticulous attention to task completion, patience,literacy, thrift, prudence, 4)handouts of money to developing diverging countries where workers have poor attitudes are wasted(i.e. wasted "Alms"), 5)happiness does not depend upon absolute well being.

I like all the data he has, especially the trove from England 1200-1870,
and can use some of it in my Megatrend research, but will the average reader wade through the numbers and charts? I strongly disagree with his comment on page 289 that demography is unimportant in the U.S. and UK because of reductions in fertility. My research suggests that the reduction in fertility in the U.S. and most industrialized nations is leading to negative economic consequences that will rival an asteroid hit. Maybe the birthrate at UC-Davis is still OK?

Why Clark gets into the "happiness" issue is not clear? After he has demonstrated that good work ethic people are well rewarded with enormous per capita income, he bursts our balloon with the notion that it won't make you happy, unless you have more than your next door neighbor. For a more useful definition of happiness, Gregory should check out the research papers from the University of Chicago's Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, or see his book "Flow" published in 1990.
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