Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Clark on the Industrial Revolution: An Afterthought

There are something like (I lost count) 100 reviews of Greg Clark's Farewell to Alms up at Clark's UC-Davis website, so it is unlikely that I, having just got round to reading it now, will find much new to say. But I do want to offer a sort of meta-thought that may not have surfaced in the discussion so far.

Background: Clark' book is subtitled A Brief Economic History of the World; in his preface Clark, with winsome modesty, declares that he takes “a bold approach to history.... an unabashed attempt at big history.” It is nothing of the sort. It is an assemblage of data, some from Clark's own work, some from others, mostly about the coming of modernity in the British economy, framed with a summary of data on “subsitence economics” going back to the neolithic revolution. But you can hardly call an economic history "bold" or "big" when it excludes almost entirely anything from South America, Indonesia or Russia and expends more than half its energy on England, with a lesser component British relations with India. Jan DeVries form Berkeley suggests that it might be called Some Findings from Suffolk Testators, 1620-1638.

Much of the detail is fascinating, at least to an outsider, particularly as Clark undertakes to shoot down so many kinds of conventional wisdom about the background to modern-day growth. In detail, the writing is sprightly; Clark has a donnish sense of humor and seasoned ear for the curious anecdote or quotation. But what seems to have caused so much buzz is what he presents as his thesis. What caused the Industrial Revolution in Britain: "The extraordinary fecundity of the rich and economically successful" (11). I.e., the the rich had bigger families, with surplus children. There wasn't enough room at the top, so the surplus children drifted downward in the social scale, carrying with them (this is the clincher) their bourgeois values.

I won't pretend to have read all the 100-odd reviews of Clark's book, but I've sampled quite a few and I think I can make some generalizations: most find it a good read; quite a few even a very good read (particularly, I should say, those who--like me--don't pretend to keep up with all the literature). But in my sampling, I haven't found one--not one-that fully embraces Clark's central premise. And I've seen quite a few who are happy to say that they think it is just bollocks.

I say his "thesis," but this is my term, not Clark's. And indeed, his presentation of his own argument is surprisingly off-handed and indirect: the closest you come to a direct statement are a few pages tucked into the middle of the book (223-6). And even here, Clark makes no pretense to offer specific, affirmative evidence for his point. His case is entirely negative, in the sense that having (seemingly) demolished prominent competing theories, then out of the infinite universe of possible untested hypotheses he selects one and more or less declares that this one must be it.

It's not hard to imagine why so many commentators would be willing to take a potshot at so easy a target. Aside from the odd snide remarks about the smugness and self-assurance of his neo-Social-Darwinism, it's no mean trick to point out that he really doesn't support his own thesis and then, if it seems worthwhile, to suggest that maybe he doesn't read some of the positive evidence right either.

But here is one curious fact: out of all this mass of criticism, it is hard to find many (or any) who will say it is a really bad book. Over and over again we get reviewers who seem to say: oh yes, Clark, good fellow, fine story teller, loved the stuff about the wills in Suffolk. Fundamentally wrong, of course, but let's have him up for tea.

And finally, my point: my guess is that Clark doesn't really have his heart in it either. He knows that facts are facty little things and it is much easier to find counter-evidence than evidence. But he knows that a book saying "well, it's complicated..." --while it may get a respectful hearing, is bound, after a decent interval, to sink like a stone. He knows he is far better off with any theory than he is with no theory at all. And if it gives the adversaries something to chew on--why, so much the better, at least they are chewing.

Chewing. Yes, that might well be the right metaphor. We say that the gonfalon of the economist is "there ain't no free lunch." Clark shows that the real slogan is "just as long as you call me for dinner."

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