A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World
"He is a benefactor of mankind who contracts the great rules of life into short sentences, that may be easily impressed on the memory, and so recur habitually to the mind" —Samuel Johnson
The basic outline of world economic history is surprisingly simple. Indeed it can be summarized in one diagram: figure 1.1. Before 1800 income per person – the food, clothing, heat, light, housing, and furnishings available per head - varied across societies and epochs. But there was no upward trend. A simple but powerful mechanism explained in this book, the Malthusian Trap, kept incomes within a range narrow by modern standards. …
Since the economic laws governing human society were those that govern all animal societies, mankind was subject to natural selection throughout the Malthusian Era, even after the arrival of settled agrarian societies with the Neolithic Revolution. The Darwinian struggle that shaped human nature did not end with the Neolithic Revolution that transformation of hunter-gatherers into settled agriculturalists, but continued indeed right up till the Industrial Revolution.
For England we will see compelling evidence of differential survival of types in the years 1250-1800. In particular economic success translated powerfully into reproductive success. The richest men had twice as many surviving children at death as the poorest. The poorest individuals in Malthusian England had so few surviving children that their families were dying out. Preindustrial England was thus a world of constant downward mobility. Given the static nature of the Malthusian economy, the superabundant children of the rich had to, on average, move down the social hierarchy. The craftsmen’s sons became laborers, merchant’s sons petty traders, large landowner’s sons smallholders.
Just as people were shaping economies, the economy of the pre-industrial era was shaping people, at the least culturally, perhaps even genetically. The arrival of an institutionally stable capital-intensive pre-industrial economic system in England set in motion an economic process that rewarded middle class values with reproductive success, generation after generation. This selection process was accompanied by changes in characteristics of the pre-industrial economy that seem to owe largely to the population displaying more “middle class” preferences. Interest rates fell, murder rates declined, work hours increased, and numeracy and literacy spread even to the lower reaches of the society.
The book proposes a variant of these evolutionary ideas, along the lines suggested by Oded Galor and Omar Moav. The Neolithic Revolution which established a settled agrarian society with massive stocks of capital changed the nature of selective pressures operating on human culture and genes. Ancient Babylonia in 2,000 BC may have seemed superficially to be an economy not dissimilar from that of England in 1800. But the intervening years had profoundly shaped the culture, and maybe even the genes, of the members of English society. These changes were what created the possibility of an Industrial Revolution only in 1,800 AD not in 2,000 BC.
Other scholars have recently posed the challenge of “Why an Industrial Revolution in England as opposed to China, Japan or India?” The speculation here, and it is just a speculation, is that England’s island position and its highly stable institutions, which resulted in a surprisingly orderly and internally peaceable society all the way from 1066 to the present, advanced the process of preference evolution more rapidly than in the more turbulent agrarian economies.