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

3.65 of 5 stars 3.65  ·  rating details  ·  436 ratings  ·  66 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...more
ebook, 432 pages
Published December 29th 2008 by Princeton University Press (first published July 24th 2007)
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Riku Sayuj

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...more
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...more
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...more
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.
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/...more
Julian Haigh
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...more
Parag Waknis
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
Peter Gehred
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
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...more
Dave Peticolas
Like "Guns, Germs, and Steel", Clark's book is attempting to answer the question "why are some countries rich and others poor?" In particular, Clark is asking why the Industrial Revolution started when and where it did. His answer is cultural, and possibly even genetic, evolution resulting from the unique circumstances and Darwinian selection pressures that were operating in England for much of its pre-Revolution period. It's a striking claim, but he lays out a significant amount of evidence for...more
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
Aaron Arnold
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
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
Fred R
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,...more
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
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...more
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
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...more
"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
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
Nick Lo
May 25, 2013 Nick Lo marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
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
Greg Clark has an interesting take on the origins of the Industrial Revolution and what he calls the Great Divergence in the development of various nations, the divergence between the rich and poor nations. He also offers some interesting and controversial speculations. Clark's basic point seems to be that the Industrial Revolution was an evolutionary process and only appears to be a discontinuity with all previous economic history. To say more would perhaps undermine his argument, but I will sa...more
Jan 04, 2008 Ben rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
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...more
So far it is quite interesting and certainly challenges some of the mainstream, politically-correct approaches to the questions regarding why Western civilization leaped so far ahead economically after 1800, and large swaths of the rest of the world--mostly in Africa--have stagnated. One dubious proposition is the social-darwinist theme the author continues to refer to. The author does not point to hard evidence of genetic changes in the population (England) that brought us the Industrial Revolu...more
Scott Sargent
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...more
Joe Malicki
Good book on economic history of how technology developed, and why some regions are poorer than others.

Most interesting things I took away from this book were:
1) The virtuous spiral of the industrial revolution is largely a result of free time and high real wages due to the black plague in Europe.
2) Third-world countries are still poor because they're stuck in a Malthusian system where technology and aid reduce the cost of living, thus increase the population that can live at subsistence.

No grea...more
If you like books that make you reconsider much of what you "think you know" about history and the world we live in, then pick up this book and give it some thought. Not sayin' you'll come away with changed opinions. But like Guns, Germs and Steel, A Farewll to Alms is a gutsy thesis that attempts nothing less than to answer one of the greatest riddles of human history: why are some of us rich and some us poor? This book raises more probing questions than it provides answers. That, to me, is the...more
Hot garbage. An interesting thesis, but not an impressive one. Not worth the time to read. Just read the NYT review below instead and save yourself the trouble:


That is much more interesting than the book itself. I also had to chuckle at the part of the Intro where he mentions he is fortunate that economics and history professionals are so little interested in the area he works on. Hmm, I wonder why.
Patrick Gallagher
This is a really original book that looks at crude statistical economic data to debunk myths about why societies are prosperous. I think of it as a rebuttal to books like Collapse or Guns Germs and Steel that point to the existence of institutions or technology in certain societies. The Author of Farewell to Alms makes a strong case that everything boils down to cultural norms.

This book will bore you after a while if you don't have an understanding of statistical regression.
I couldn't get through this. I'm finishing up an MA in Economics and one of my courses was in Economic History, so perhaps I feel the ending was spoiled for me. There are countless figures and trivia packed into this book and after 286 pages (which I've slowly read through while studying for my exams over the past 6 months), I just can't get motivated to read any more.

An interesting thesis, but one which I find unconvincing. I quit.
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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
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