A Farewell to Alms

A Farewell to Alms continued to fascinate, though I am not convinced of its central thesis concerning the role culture and perhaps genetics played in making the Industrial Revolution happen in England rather than elsewhere. The theory still suffers too much from causation issues, especially because so many different things were happening within society that it is nearly impossible to disentangle cause from effect. Its most interesting prescriptions are the end, when Clark argues that Africa still hasn’t escaped the Malthusian Trap, in which a growing population consumes any efficiency gains in subsistence agriculture, leaving society as a whole no wealthier than it was prior to efficiency gains. As a result, he argues, aid from and contact with the West has actually made much of Africa worse off. Again, I am not convinced that problems with institutional governance are not the real problem with Africa, but the idea is worth considering because anything that would allow the West to better target aid is much welcomed.

Tyler Cowen does a better job with the book’s highlights and flaws than I care to and can. See this post too. He will continue discussing it on Marginal Revolution for the next several weeks, so those who want further discussion should check there.

Is A Farewell to Alms worth reading? Probably not, unless one has a keen desire to know more about a very specific part of or about developmental economics. I have no expertise in those fields and so am unable to ascertain the book’s importance aside from what others have written. A Farewell to Alms is dense with technical graphs that require some care to understand and don’t always seem relevant to Clark’s thesis, and its narrow subject matter indicates that a broad audience is unlikely. But expect it to influence debates about aid, colonialism, and development for many years to come.

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