What’s Wrong with the World

The men signed of the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark.


What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

The Rise and Fall of Middle-Class Virtue

If you Google the phrase "root causes of poverty," you will come up with almost a hundred thousand hits. But if you Google the phrase "root causes of wealth," you will come up with exactly...three. And of those three, two are part of the phrase "root causes of wealth and poverty," and the third is part of the phrase "root causes of wealth or poverty."

I guess most people are just much more interested in the causal preconditions that lead to poverty than they are in the causal preconditions that lead to wealth. Which strikes me as odd, since, so far as I can tell, there is nothing even slightly puzzling about poverty. All you have to do to be poor is...well, nothing. So it strikes me as hardly surprising that poverty is the default condition of mankind. Wealth, on the other hand...now that's a puzzle to me — especially at the social level. And it's a rarity: only in the last couple of hundred years have some human societies escaped from the Malthusian trap where the number of mouths multiplied as fast or faster than the productive capacity to feed them. And even today, only a minority of societies have fully made that escape. So how did they do it?

Gregory Clark, an economic historian at the University of California, Davis, has just published a revolutionary new book, A Farewell to Alms, arguing that the answer lies not in changing political ideas and institutions, or in advancing technology, but in the transformation of the very character of mankind in the centuries leading up to the industrial revolution. In essence: people in Western Europe evolved the middle-class virtues.

Nicholas Wade, the excellent science reporter for the New York Times, summarizes Clark's thesis like this:

"...the Industrial Revolution — the surge in economic growth that occurred first in England around 1800 — occurred because of a change in the nature of the human population. The change was one in which people gradually developed the strange new behaviors required to make a modern economy work. The middle-class values of nonviolence, literacy, long working hours and a willingness to save emerged only recently in human history...Because they grew more common in the centuries before 1800, whether by cultural transmission or evolutionary adaptation, the English population at last became productive enough to escape from poverty, followed quickly by other countries with the same long agrarian past."

But how and why did these values spread? Clark's answer has a Darwinian ring to it: because, unlike today, in earlier centuries, the rich had more children than the poor. We are so accustomed to a world in which there is a strong negative correlation between income and fertility that this may seem surprising. But through careful analysis of ancient wills, Clark has shown that "generation after generation, the rich had more surviving children than the poor." As Wade observes, "that meant there must have been constant downward social mobility as the poor failed to reproduce themselves and the progeny of the rich took over their occupations." Thus, according to Clark, "the modern population of the English is largely descended from the economic upper classes of the Middle Ages." He speculates, plausibly enough, that "as the progeny of the rich pervaded all levels of society...the behaviors that made for wealth could have spread with them." Thus “thrift, prudence, negotiation and hard work were becoming values for communities that previously had been spendthrift, impulsive, violent and leisure loving.”

* * * * *

One interesting implication of Clark's work is that attempts to jump-start non-Western economies by transplanting Western-style liberal democratic political and social institutions may be doomed to failure: "if the Industrial Revolution was caused by changes in people’s behavior, then populations that have not had time to adapt to the Malthusian constraints of agrarian economies will not be able to achieve the same production efficiencies." The World Bank, the IMF, and neo-conservative democratizers, please take note.

But for me, the most interesting issue that all this raises concerns our own present and future here in the West. For the difference in fertility to which Clark credits the rise of middle-class virtue is a thing of the past. The tables have turned, as they say — and with a vengeance, as they also say. As I noted above, there is now a strong negative correlation between income and fertility, both within Western societies, and between Western and non-Western societies. Moreover, the productive energies unleashed by the rise of middle-class virtue have made economic security so easy to come by that the middle-class itself can now afford to indulge itself in the "spendthrift, impulsive, violent and leisure loving" vices of the under-class. And that seems to be exactly what it is doing. England, once the cradle of middle-class virtue, would now seem to be its graveyard:

"Has a society ever changed so much, so quickly? In 1955, the American anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer wrote: 'The English are certainly among the most peaceful, gentle, courteous and orderly populations that the civilised world has ever seen. The control of aggression has gone to such remarkable lengths that you hardly ever see a fight in a bar and football crowds are as orderly as church meetings.'

"Those words could hardly sound more hollow in the England of 50 years later, where anti-social behaviour prevails, where chief constables admit they have lost control of their cities, where feral children wander without restraint, where drug-taking and gun crime is rife, where family structures have broken down and authority has collapsed..."

Not a year seems to pass without some distinguished English thinker pronouncing an Elegy over his lost country, or lamenting its strange moral death. Instead of the virtues of the middle-class gradually diffusing downwards, it seems that the vices of the under-class are now rapidly diffusing upwards.

So where is all this leading? Will the decline and fall of middle-class virtue eventually undermine the affluence that its rise made possible in the first place? Or is the sheer momentum of the post-modern economy such that it can support indefinitely an ever-growing population of thugs and derelicts and spongers?

It's hard for me to decide which possibility I find more depressing.

Comments (31)

Intriguing, Steve.

Here is my initial speculation: the costs of raising children are overstated, and the benefits understated. Forget the Darwinian explanation and consider what we might call the Gilder Explanation (named after that eccentric genius George Gilder): Every new life is a new creative independent soul, a new engine of human potential, an image-bearer of the Source of all Creativity; any economic model which calculates children as burdens and not assets, is a faulty model.

Paul - yes, I think that the well-off, at least, now tend to overestimate the costs of raising children, and to underestimate the benefits - though one hates to put it so crassly.

They didn't used to. And I guess one way of putting Clark's point is that it's *because* they didn't used to that widespread prosperity became possible.

It was also Gilder who once talked about the S-curve of wealth, saying that wealth didn't carry on much past the fourth generation or so. Others may recall what he said with respect of virtue (it's been a while) but I'm reasonably sure that any creative talent could run the numbers and come up with patterns and correlations spanning not only generations but ages. The danger is that once you see a pattern is to think it's written in the stars.

Anyhow, the causes and origin of wealth and the causes and origin of virtue will need separate treatment at some point, not to mention the fertility rate. Technological advancement also alters labor supply. There are many more important factors, such as the conveniences (real and imagined) from democratic political institutions and the concomitant severance of virtue from a soul that is subject to judgment after death.

Thanks for passing this along, Steve.

I have to say that Clark's thesis, summarized by Wade, sounds to me like it has a problem: Was it true in the centuries before 1800 that the rich in England were the people most likely to have and pass on middle-class virtues? There is, after all, a reason why they are called "middle-class virtues." Wouldn't the population of the rich in those centuries have been skewed towards the aristocracy? Now, I'm not going to start raking the English aristocracy of the 1600's and 1700's over the coals. My impression is that they had their own set of virtues, courage and a strong sense of responsibility for a wide set of dependents (noblesse oblige) being among these. But my strong impression also is that the value of long working hours (except in warfare among those who became soldiers) and a drive to save money were not among them and were unlikely to have been taught by parents or to have been especially highly represented in that population, even if we posit some underlying physical or innate basis for such virtues.

Another problem that occurs to me is that, if I'm right that the rich in those centuries tended to be the aristocracy, primogeniture was an aggressively anti-Darwinian social mechanism. Dumb or smart, dissipated or self-controlled, the eldest son was given every facility for reproducing, was pushed to do so, and as much as possible was saved any ill consequences of his own faults in so doing. A wife was found for him, his children were wet-nursed and raised by more competent people if necessary, and so forth. This is hardly a situation particularly likely to produce middle-class virtues by means of natural selection.

Hmm, heres something funny, if you actually do google those terms you get this:

  • root causes of poverty: 1,940,000 hits
  • root causes of wealth: 1,840,000 hits

You people just lie without even blinking to get your point across, no matter how false. Just like the Bush administration, the Vatican, and 90% of religious leaders.

It's funny, you must have figured none of your readers would actually Google those phrases, because their Christians, they always just nod in agreement and act like they know something about it.

Always think for your selves people...

Itsa Secret condescends to instruct us from his lofty heights on Mount Olympus. If you were a gentleman, you could have said something like:

"Hmm, when I Google 'root causes of poverty': 1,940,000 hits; when I Google 'root causes of wealth': 1,840,000 hits. Are you sure about your numbers?"

and waited for an answer, maybe you could have had a good discussion. But at least we now know what you are.

Itsa Secret: just tried it again:

"root causes of poverty" yields 98,300 results.

"root causes of wealth" now yields *4* results - 'cause this page is now included. (Fast work, Google!)

I think maybe you forgot about the quotation marks.

Kinda crucial. But please do carry on.

Did the rich have more childern only in England?
Isnt this supposed to be universal if Darwinism be true,

British forehead size, linked to IQ, has increased considerably over the past 650 years. Recently, however, there has been a strong dysgenic effect caused by the welfare state. One study showed that London criminals have twice as many children as non-criminals.

Forehead size - http://uplink.space.com/showflat.php?Cat=&Board=humanbio&Number=433644&page=17&view=collapsed&sb=5&o=0&fpart=

I'm inclined to grant that the phenomena analyzed by Clark's theory may comprise a small part of the explanation; but I'd place most of the weight on sheer creativity and the contingencies of history. Creativity may be amenable to certain rough statistical analyses, but on the micro-level is unpredictable, a flash of genius. As for the contingencies of history, many of the inventions and innovations responsible for the rapid advance of Western nations in the relevant period were developed within an economic system which has a history. Even if we assume that the traits of providence, future-orientation, and thrift are fully heritable, it still required a few centuries of gritty, politically-driven transition for the economic system for which these improvements were created to materialize. People, for example, had to be "made willing" to labour in factories, or on farms for wages, particularly when, for much of the period, an independent farmer could provision himself more abundantly than he could if he simply earned a wage. Various traditional forms of economic activity were restricted or proscribed; game laws, laxly enforced during the medieval period, returned with a barbaric ferocity. My own Irish ancestors, perceiving that early wage-labour was a raw deal, opted instead to poach, whereupon they lived somewhat more comfortably than those around them who accepted meagre wages.

Haha, the quotation marks are pointless if they yeild less results. Genius!

Oh and evolution has been proven, you are aware of that right?

Someone ignorant of the differences between a quoted Google search and an unquoted one is in no position to lecture the rest of us on ignorance.

Oh, and knock it off with the attitude and tone. Write respectfully or not at all.

H.L. Mencken had his own dyspeptic but wry preposterous claim that he could "...argue that most of the best blood in the South is now [1920s] in the n****rs [ed]."

His main arguments were in "The Sahara of the Bozart"

1. "The South has simply been drained of all its best blood. The vast bloodletting of the Civil War half exterminated and wholly paralyzed the old aristocracy, and so left the land to the harsh mercies of the poor white trash, now its masters."

2. "... in the South the men of the upper classes sought their mistresses among the blacks, and after a few generations there was so much white blood in the black women that they were considerably more attractive than the unhealthy and bedraggled women of the poor whites."

I think only time will tell whether Gregory Clark's tongue is as firmly ensconced in his cheek as was Mencken's.

When I google:

itsa secret is totally ignorant about how google works

I get 11,900 hits.

I'm with Lydia. Color me unconvinced. First, in England in particular, since that is where the industrial revolution began, it is not evident on its face that the aristocracy were more posessed of bourgeois values than the lower orders, or even that they were particularly posessed of them at all. Secondly, it's unclear that those behaviors would be genetically transmitted. Going in the opposite direction, it is unlikely that the descent of the modern English into depraved yobishness is the consequence of wholesale genetic change compared to their grandparents or great-grandparents.

Insofar as IQ is heritable, and insofar as IQ was broadly speaking as helpful to a rising member of the gentry in the 13th century as it would have been to a Hanoverian-era merchant angling for a peerage, we may be looking at a long term eugenic effect. Of course, discussions of IQ are the opposite of PC, and besides, would it not be the case that a similar long-term rise in IQ would have occurred in all hierarchical societies where the wealth and status had some relationship to IQ, and the wealthy had greater reproductive success than the poor? If so, why England, or why northwestern Europe, as the seat of the industrial revolution if the same effect should have been expected in China, Japan, or Poland? Once again, we must return to cultural and historical explanations.

Finally, to what extent is it the case that the bourgeois virtues in and of themselves were either necessary or sufficient to break out of the Malthusian trap of preindustrial economics? I don't know the answer. There was a rise in European agricultural productivity in the 11th-13th centuries, and then again beginning in the 16th century, but not enough by any means to free the majority of men from the plow. Some of this rise in productivity may be owed to a change in behavior by proprietors of agricultural and pastoral land, but it also owes something to the opening of Atlantic fishing grounds, the sugar plantations, built on worked-to-death slave labor, and the introduction of new crops like maize and potatoes. The really dramatic changes, though, as opposed to the gradual ones, didn't occur until coal was harnessed for power.

All told, I don't know. Interesting topic for discussion, though.

I agree that yobbishness is mostly cultural, linked to the decline in religion, never particularly strong, and the rise in single motherhood. Gangs are usually a product of a large concentration of single mothers, as beyond some threshold level of single mothers in an area, as Charles Murray showed, adults simply lose control of a neighborhood.

"would it not be the case that a similar long-term rise in IQ would have occurred in all hierarchical societies where the wealth and status had some relationship to IQ, and the wealthy had greater reproductive success than the poor?"

Yes, high IQ Chinese mandarins who passed the rigorous state exams were able to acquire many concubines and had much greater reproductive success than the general population. China is presently one of the most intelligent countries in the world, only its ridiculous cultural decisions have held it back so far, but it will undoubtedly become the most powerful country in human history, I'm thinking at least 6 times more powerful than the US today, its IQ level makes this an inevitability.

Anyway the main point - England was meritocratic enough for a good portion of its history, enough to alter the IQ of the population, while other European societies rewarded more aristocratic activities like war and plunder. It's all very complex. For example, we don't know how the fact that 95% of the Russian population were slaves until the mid-nineteenth century impacted on Russian genes, or if the practice of western priests (usually the more intelligent members of society) not reproducing had a mild dysgynic effect over time.

This was an interesting post, and I don't want to derail the serious discussion of the implications. However, the reason the Google search is so imbalanced is because nobody ever uses the phrase "root causes of wealth". I have never heard it before in my life. Instead, we say things like "building wealth" - 633,000 hits, or "creating wealth" - 832,000 hits.

Step2--That was his point. We don't use it, and we do use "root causes of poverty," because many intellectuals think it is a big mystery where poverty comes from. Or, at least, they want to make a mystery out of it so that the rest of the world can be made to feel that it is our fault when anybody is poor. They feel rather guilty about anybody's having wealth, they don't realize that there's anything good about prosperity, so they aren't curious about what causes people to be able to produce wealth. In other words, "root causes" is meant to suggest that we're digging deep down and solving an important mystery worth solving, and lefties are concerned to do this concerning poverty, not wealth.

I was simply noting the way we use language, for instance we talk about improving our health or the root causes of disease, but never the root causes of health.

It seems to me that in order to build wealth, it takes a combination of knowledge, opportunity, and motivation. Mileage may vary, but those three in some combination are minimum requirements. Optimally, there is a broad base of all three in society. Poverty on the other hand, just takes a deficiency in any one of those three to manifest. Poverty has a an easier threshold to achieve, which makes it more ingrained and difficult to break the cycle.

Thanks, especially to Lydia, Maximos & Cyrus for some interesting objections that I simply don't know enough to answer.

I gather that the libertarian "Marginal Revolution" blog will be hashing over Clark's book in detail:


Should be interesting.

Step2 - I think you're on to something, but I can't help noting that "root causes of health" brings up 13,100 Google hits, while "root causes of disease" bring up only 9,880!

That was a surprising result! It appears that the word health is always, or almost always, followed by a word like problems, inequities, or disparities. Kind of a strange reversal to the intent of the search, maybe Google has a sense of humor.

Haha, christians are funny, I do SEO and web design for a living. I can get a page to a PR of 3 in 3 months, no easy task. I've been hired by major companies to get their sites to a higher PR on google specifically. YOU don't know how google works.

Christians: always lying to get their point across. Fear

Mr. Secret: Googling "root causes of wealth" (with quotation marks) now brings up six results.

You may or may not know something or other about how Google works. But you still show no sign of understanding the difference between a Google search with quotes and without.

Oh, and by the way - I'm not a Christian.

When I google:

itsa secret is totally ignorant about how google works

I get 11,900 hits.

That provided an excellent and well-needed belly laugh.

That provided an excellent and well-needed belly laugh.

It was a purely factual statement. I leave interpretation of its significance to others.

Itsa A Secret's arguments -

Your a liar, Your a Christian, All Christians are liars wouldn't pass a freshman logic class, since both the premises and the conclusion are demonstrably false.

Thanks, Steve, for a thought-provoking discussion starter.

I'm interested in your observation: "Instead of the virtues of the middle-class gradually diffusing downwards, it seems that the vices of the under-class are now rapidly diffusing upwards." If we stipulate that this is true, what do you think the reasons might be?

And to Itsa Secret, I suggest you desist. Telling mean lies about people to their faces is unlikable, unprofessional, and reveals poverty of thought. Please do it behind our backs where it will have the same effect but might cause you less embarrassment.

Itsa Secret
haha w/e you are (man or woman) not ezackly a genius but do you have a personal experience youd like to tell us about? cause um you seem to have a lot against them =]
btw its against their religion to lie

It is simply the loss of the practice of Virtue in society. One of the periods of greatest change was at the birth of America, when principled reason supplanted centralized power. Men like Ben Franklin created a government whose job was to level the playing field and to enable opportunity. In my book, WEALTH VIRTUES (http://WealthVirtues.com), I rely on the wisdom of Dr. Franklin to enable the middle class to regain control over the neo-socialism that wants to take root in America.

Post a comment

Bold Italic Underline Quote

Note: In order to limit duplicate comments, please submit a comment only once. A comment may take a few minutes to appear beneath the article.

Although this site does not actively hold comments for moderation, some comments are automatically held by the blog system. For best results, limit the number of links (including links in your signature line to your own website) to under 3 per comment as all comments with a large number of links will be automatically held. If your comment is held for any reason, please be patient and an author or administrator will approve it. Do not resubmit the same comment as subsequent submissions of the same comment will be held as well.