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

3.67  ·  Rating Details ·  730 Ratings  ·  83 Reviews

Why are some parts of the world so rich and others so poor? Why did the Industrial Revolution--and the unprecedented economic growth that came with it--occur in eighteenth-century England, and not at some other time, or in some other place? Why didn't industrialization make the whole world rich--and why did it make large parts of the world even poorer? In "A Farewell to Al
Hardcover, 420 pages
Published August 13th 2007 by Princeton University Press (first published July 24th 2007)
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Riku Sayuj
Aug 23, 2013 Riku Sayuj rated it liked it

Jared Diamond should be given the Nobel. If not for anything else but for getting historians and economists up in arms shouting “Our field is not That simple, Mister!!” . He has kicked off so many responses and counter-responses that it has enlivened an entire gamut of fields. This is one more response/alternative to how the modern world is the way it is. In fact in the very beginning the author classes himself with the Diamonds, the Adam Smiths and the North & Thomass of the world and puts
Oct 26, 2007 ba rated it it was ok
Phew finally! I've been reading this exclusively on the train for a few weeks now. I picked up this book because the reviews made it sound like Mr. Clark would be making a case that the Industrial Revolution occurred when and where it did for strictly Darwinian reasons of breeding. I wanted to see how he would navigate those dangerous waters which have taken out even the likes of Jimmy the Greek.

I began to get angry at the book during the introduction, when the author mentioned that he was tryin
Aug 24, 2007 Mowry rated it it was amazing
This is a fantastic book that uses some pretty interesting (and thorough) historical data to set a few economic assumptions about the Industrial Revolution on their heads. I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in economics and serious scholarship.

My only criticism: Clark spends a lot of time developing his theory on why the Industrial Revolution happened where and when it happened, but does very little to make suggestions to current economic policy. I'm very interested in how h
Nov 24, 2010 Letitia rated it it was ok
Really interesting and readable, if somewhat contradictory and elitist. Clark seems to want to make a case for biological superiority being a main factor in developed countries, but doesn't quite spit it out...perhaps because his editor wouldn't allow him to actually say something so ridiculous. He does present very interesting data and pushes the reader to explore and justify Euro/American intervention in developing countries.
Aaron Arnold
Nov 06, 2013 Aaron Arnold rated it really liked it
I keep thinking that someday, all these Big History books I read that violently disagree with each other on even minor points of history, data, or inferential technique will eventually add up to a single consistent theory, like lights of different wavelengths suddenly cohering prismatically into a pleasant glow of insight. Why are some societies more successful than others? Some argue national real estate (Diamond), others evolutionary dynamics (Turchin), others institutions (Acemoglu/Robinson), ...more
Parag Waknis
Feb 06, 2012 Parag Waknis rated it it was ok
I came across this interesting book on world economic history titled, “A Farewell to Alms” by Gregory Clark. Whenever, I open such a book my first impulse is to flip through pages and see what the author has to say about India. Most of the times, unfortunately, I am not surprised. A book that displays brilliance in its analysis and coverage otherwise, usually completely breaks down when talking about societies like India. It is almost always a typical representation of the Anglo-Saxon view of hi ...more
Feb 21, 2015 xhxhx rated it really liked it
A controversial thesis: in an agrarian society with an open social structure and strong (Malthusian) upper limits on population growth, natural selection will favor the more productive. The evidence: in a small population of farmers in late medieval Suffolk, the more productive had more children than the less productive. The fixation of the traits of the productive in early modern England promoted the development and adoption of capital-intensive technologies.

Selection pressures were weaker in C
Jan 21, 2008 John rated it liked it
Not as controversial as the reputation that precedes it. The link to genetic adaptation is only casually and scarcely thrown out in the prose as a possible explanation, but is discussed as mere conjecture. To sum up in a cynical short way, we are no closer to understanding a link, if there is one, between genetic adaptions and a propensity to succeed at innovation, advances and social stability than we were before Clark undertook this project. Clark spends the vast majority of the book highlight ...more
Julian Haigh
Jul 26, 2011 Julian Haigh rated it it was ok
This book was certainly not the brief economic history of the world its title purports. It was however (and I must excuse myself for my elemental understanding of economics), a nice catalog of differing opinions of the reasons for numerous economic realities.

His round-about conclusion suggests the importance of sociological differences as being the basis of current global inequalities as being related to beneficial Darwinian mating habits of the English. He shies away from his conclusion, but a
Mar 05, 2012 Milele rated it it was ok
There is some good history, data and analysis in this book but also a bunch of ethical problems and flawed comparators. Ekr raised the ethical issues on his blog post, but it can be summed up as "please don't describe a society as well-off because of caloric intake and dismissing whether it has a high infanticide rate, infant death rate, death rate due to war or crime, plus completely ignoring issues of equality and violent crimes against minorities, minors and women."

There's also lots of white/
Peter Gehred
Mar 12, 2010 Peter Gehred rated it really liked it
A fascinating and provocative read. The book is dogged, heavy on evidence, and conceptually challenging. I am not sure that Clark's conclusions are right, but they are certainly worth wrestling with. In particular, the outline of history into a pre and post-Malthusian era, the emphasis on the startling revolution of the Industrial Revolution, and the exploration of the cause of that revolution, and, indeed, his thesis that it has been largely mislabeled all are difficult yet worthwhile subjects. ...more
Nick Lo
Mar 26, 2013 Nick Lo marked it as to-read
I've not rated this as I just completely failed to get into it. Perhaps I wasn't its target reader but it was hard to determine whether it was aimed at laypersons or academics with some background in the subject. I suspect the latter being that I constantly had the feeling I'd walked into some topic part way through the curriculum. My recommendation for anyone contemplating this book is to start where I should have and view Gregory Clark - Beyond Belief 2007 on YouTube and/or read the NY Times a ...more
Apr 14, 2010 Brian rated it it was ok
Didn't take an economics course in college. Thought this might help make me less stupid. Barely worked.

The author states that virtually all societies, stone age or "developed", operated at the same level of personal wealth (as measured by the amount of labor needed to purchase a given commodity) for centuries until the Industrial Revolution. Then he attempts to explain why only some societies subsequently experienced increasing personal wealth and standard of living. floods his arguments with lo
Dec 24, 2014 Charles rated it really liked it
This book is part of the sub-genre that might be titled, if being honest, “Why Are All Today’s Rich People Europeans, Actually or Honorary”? It’s fascinating, though ultimately has, if not holes, lacunae that still need to be filled in before the argument becomes compelling.

Clark’s basic thesis is that certain desirable social traits arising in the English upper and upper-middle classes spread through the larger population, thereby allowing technological changes (which otherwise would not have d
I thought it had been fairly well established even in mainstream economics that the value of animal, female, child, indentured, enslaved, environmental and natural resource inputs have not historically been adequately accounted for in the balance sheets of hierarchical western male economic systems.

Yet here is a man in a white tower: delusional, so removed from history, and the understanding of life as real people worldwide live and have lived it, that reading his book had all the blood-chilling
Mar 22, 2011 Bryce rated it it was amazing
Farewell to Alms is the first book I read in my research project on economic growth after the industrial revolution. In order to understand the amazing and scary pace of economic growth in the last 200 years, it is important to know how economies worked in the prior 100,000 years.

This is a really strongly researched an emphatically written book book that attempts to sort out why the industrial revolution occurred when and where it did. Although it left a lot of questions, and I have a hard time
Joshua Hruzik
Sep 25, 2016 Joshua Hruzik rated it really liked it
A Farewell to Alms by Gregory Clark is refreshing, clever, and well-written.

In his exceptional book, UC Davis Prof. Gregory Clark sets out to write A Brief Economic History of the World while focusing on the Industrial Revolution.

The book starts by introducing the reader to the static Malthusian world that spanned from the Neolithic age until 1800. For ordinary people, the Malthusian world was a world of economic stagnation not comparable to today's growth rates. Material well-being could (in th
Aug 10, 2007 Bruce rated it really liked it
Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights (2007)
Gregory Clark, A farewell to Alms (2007)
Hunt, a UCLA historian, tries in this book to explain why 18th century western Europe was the first society in history to develop a concept of “human rights,” as opposed to the earlier idea of political and other rights enjoyed by certain individuals, such as Roman senators or King John’s barons. Her answer is that the concept developed in large part because of the invention of the novel as a literary form, earlier i
Jul 26, 2011 Sam rated it really liked it
The first third of the book covers the Malthusian economy that Gregory Clark says was the only game in town prior to about 1800 AD. Wealth would lead to population growth, which would reduce per capita wealth. Worldwide, wealth ranged from population-repressing malnutrition to about four times as rich. Then, first in England then elsewhere, population exploded while per capita wealth increased – the Industrial Revolution. Clark tries to explain why this happened when it did and where it did, usi ...more
Dec 22, 2016 Kate rated it did not like it
Shelves: non-fiction
It's untruthful to say I read this book. I got through the introduction and first chapter and gave up. Weak argument, not enough diversity of sources.
Dec 27, 2010 Ilya rated it liked it
Shelves: economics
All animals obey the laws described qualitatively by Thomas Malthus, and quantitatively by the Lotka-Volterra differential equations. They breed to the point of exhausting their food supply, falling prey to predators or murderous conspecifics, or dying of disease. The same was true for humans throughout all history until the Industrial Revolution, which happened in Northern Europe circa 1800. Seventeenth-century Englishmen such as Samuel Pepys were filthy, and therefore died of disease in higher ...more
Andrew Martin
Neerav rec; I found this to be a very, very troubling book.

deep thinking around "why the industrial revolution? and why 1770, not some other time?" is always interesting; we need some way to explain this

Clark's thesis is, basically, a Darwinian one - differential rates of reproduction between the rich and the poor mean that values/culture/etc get transmitted, and Clark is quick to speculate about the 'etc' - some variation on "maybe genetics" shows up countless times in the book, all speculativ
Fantastic book. It has a nice density to it, similar to the directly referenced Guns Germs and Steel. The book has helped to renew my pride in the prosperity of the United States, and the virtues which make that prosperity possible (which I thought I'd lost permanently after reading The Shock Doctrine). [return][return]I'm only halfway through, but the thesis appears to be this: Contrary to popular economic wisdom (in the author's opinion, I'm no expert here), strong institutions alone are not s ...more
Fred R
May 13, 2011 Fred R rated it really liked it
This is 21st Century Social Darwinism. Everything seems quite powerfully argued until one realizes that Clark simply has not thought seriously about what accounts for differences in the traits of a population. "Genes or culture" he says, at his most precise. There is plenty of work being done on this issue, and it's almost irresponsible of him to not even dip his toe in the water. Even a discussion of Max Weber's theory would have been a big step up.

I don't think his attacks on institutionalism,
Mark Lawry
Dec 25, 2014 Mark Lawry rated it it was ok
Clark spends a good third or more of the book explaining the Malthusian economy. The idea being that the world changed little between ancient Egypt to around 1800. Then he starts making some interesting points, the end... Other reviews stated that he attempts to answer why some societies are wealthier than others. He doesn't really do that. His thesis in his conclusion is that we really don't know why this is and that life has simply become more complicated since 1800. He seems to argue that the ...more
Jun 10, 2008 Pang rated it it was amazing
Shelves: recently-read
This book is among one of the best books I've read. It's well written and very informative, but not boring like a textbook can be. It's a book about economic development from pre-Industrial Revolution to now. The book focuses on answering three "interconnected" questions: "Why did the Malthusian Trap persist for so long? Why did the initial escape from that trap in the Industrial Revolution occur on one tiny island, England, in 1800? Why was there the consequent Great Divergence?"
World economic
May 08, 2009 Ernie.tedeschi rated it really liked it
"A Farewell to Alms" is an audacious attempt to narrate human economic history. Clark tackles questions like, "How much better off were human beings in 1800 than they were in Roman times?" (his answer: on average, not at all better off) and "Why did the Industrial Revolution arise in England in 1800 rather than another society at another time?" (his answer: it's complicated). His conclusions are not all equally convincing -- I thought his analysis of the pre-industrial world was much tighter tha ...more
Jun 04, 2012 Chris rated it did not like it
Shelves: didn-t-finish
I read the positive reviews in the NY Times and immediately bought this as soon as it came out in 2007 or so. Sat on my shelf. Finally get to it five years later and I'm assaulted with an armada of tables, figures, graphs, etc. My decision as to why I took only one economics course in college was vindicated when I wrestled with this book and I'm glad it was only one. If you want to know what this book is about then read the NYT review-don't read the book. Reading the book you will soon lose all ...more
Scott Sargent
Sep 23, 2008 Scott Sargent rated it it was amazing
Professor Clark: like John Kenneth Galbraith, Kevin Phillips, and George Orwell, he's a truth teller. Moreover - and this, to me, is very important - he's a writer who breaks down concepts into language that the layman can understand.

I'll come back and write more, but I think that a very important component of this book is the discussion about the reproduction and population dynamics of the group which eventually constituted the most important element in the Industrial Revolution. For the lack
Sep 09, 2007 Ben rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Nerds with Big Ideas
The anti-Guns Germs and Steel. This book is a doozy. Culture as the determinant of wealth and poverty, life and death! Not just culture - BRITISH CULTURE! And culture spread by the cold calculus of population dynamics. Many, many empirically true but completely counterintuitive ideas.

There is way too much to write here about this book, other than if I were in college right now I probably would have to read it for a sociology class, and therefore it probably would not get read. I mean, it's subti
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Clark, whose grandfathers were migrants to Scotland from Ireland, earned his B.A. in economics and philosophy at King's College, Cambridge in 1979 and his Ph.D. at Harvard in 1985. He has also taught as an Assistant Professor at Stanford and the University of Michigan.
Clark is now a professor of economics and department chair until 2013 at the University of California, Davis. His areas of research
More about Gregory Clark...

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