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.”
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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.