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Triumph of the Wills | The Nation

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Triumph of the Wills

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While Clark's theory is outlandish, his question is an important one: why are some places so rich and others so poor? Thinkers have been struggling with this question--perhaps the ultimate economic question--since the Industrial Revolution dawned in England around 1800 and a handful of societies began to pull away from the rest. And despite numerous brilliant attempts at explaining it--from Karl Marx's technocentric theory to Max Weber's culture-based hypothesis--it remains a question worth wrestling with to this day.

About the Author

Daniel Brook
Daniel Brook is the author of A History of Future Cities, which is out in paperback.

Also by the Author

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In his account of the relationship between literacy and economic growth, a relationship considered to be central to explanations of industrialization, Clark dismisses both the Marxist idea that the technological advance of the printing press was crucial to the spread of literacy and the Weberian insight that converting from a religion where the laity was forbidden to read the Bible on their own (medieval Catholicism) to one where they were encouraged to do so (Protestantism) increased literacy rates in Britain. For Clark, the rise of literacy is explained by the reproduction of a population that was better at reading. Similarly, Clark dismisses the structural arguments of both Jared Diamond, who in Guns, Germs, and Steel attributes the West's dominance to geographical good fortune, and Kenneth Pomeranz, who explains in The Great Divergence that Britain's resources--some naturally occurring, such as coal, and some pilfered, like the North American colonies themselves--were the keys to industrialization. Clark has little patience for those who suggest that democracy, which renders kleptocratic rule untenable, matters much at all. And the Adam Smith disciples at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank fare even worse. To Clark, the incentives of Smith's "invisible hand" work only for peoples who have already had the bourgeois virtues bred into them.

The most important question raised by A Farewell to Alms is not raised by Clark himself, however, but by the publication of his book. In the late nineteenth century, America's best-known social Darwinist, William Graham Sumner, a professor of political and social science at Yale, wrote, "Let every man be sober, industrious, prudent, and wise, and bring up his children to be so likewise and poverty will be abolished in a few generations." For Clark, this is exactly what came to pass in England. Clark eschews the term "social Darwinism," but it's an apt description of his thesis. The question raised by the publication of his book, then, is: why is social Darwinism back in vogue?

Social Darwinism is the ideology of Gilded Ages, times of stunning inequality and declining social mobility. Social Darwinism takes the manifest injustice of a socially ossified society and argues that its very ossification proves that such a society is just. You can see it in David Brooks's New York Times column when he reassures a nation in which predatory lending now serves the function once played by sharecropping that the "rich don't exploit the poor; they just outcompete them." You can also see it in The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. For Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, survival of the fittest proves that rich Americans deserve their wealth and poor Americans deserve their poverty. Clark merely applies the theory globally to rich countries and poor countries.

To the social Darwinist, it is societies with high degrees of intergenerational social mobility that are, in fact, the most backward. They have yet to allow all the talented to rise to the top. By contrast, the most ossified societies are the most advanced, for they have already allowed the best to ascend, where they continue to reproduce superior offspring. Thus, the meritocratic filtering period was always in the past. Perhaps, as the first social Darwinists argued, it was at the dawn of human history? Or, as Clark argues, in the Middle Ages? Or, as Mickey Kaus suggested in his 1992 book, The End of Equality, just a generation ago? Whenever it was, it is not now. The wheat has already been separated from the chaff. A few were already riding high long ago, and the rest continue to be run over.

Despite his book's provocative thesis, Clark's recommendations are exceedingly modest. He suggests that the usual medicine the West ships to underdeveloped countries--humanitarian aid and neoliberal economic reforms--will not succeed, for none of it addresses the root cause of poverty: laziness. No array of policies will work on Third World peoples because the peoples simply won't work.

Clark is not wrong to claim that the West, often with the best of intentions, has contributed to overpopulation in the developing world. Western medicine, he argues, has lengthened life spans in poor countries without increasing their productive capacities, resulting in more, poorer people. Yet Clark is so wedded to the idea that productivity and productivity alone determines wages that he doesn't consider the role of supply and demand in the labor market. Much of the developing world has too many people competing for too few jobs. And when people are so plentiful and so inexpensive to employ, there is little incentive for a country to industrialize.

Traveling in India three years ago, I was struck by the fact that I never saw an industrially produced broom. To this day, a broom in India is a stick with straw tied to one end. This is not because India lacks the technology to mass-produce brooms in a factory; it is because there is no incentive to do so. For instance, when one can hire a maid for, say, a dollar a day, there's little reason to invest in a labor-saving device like a broom, let alone a vacuum cleaner. Conversely, when labor is scarce and relatively expensive, the demand for time-saving devices goes up. Such devices in turn increase productivity, leading to the virtuous cycle of development. Overpopulation in developing countries is likely a key reason this cycle doesn't get going.

The real danger of the argument put forth in A Farewell to Alms is its assumption that political passivity, in rich and poor countries alike, fosters economic growth. Clark sees development as a rising tide that lifts all boats, with the biggest benefits going to the least skilled workers. If "worker discipline," by which Clark means showing up on time (without children in tow) and working diligently through the day without breaking for snacks or cigarettes, is the key to development, workers should just buckle down and do as they're told. But to the extent that developed nations have been able to build fairer economies, it has been because workers didn't sit back and take it--they organized, in politics and in the workplace. When Clark mentions that in modern-day England "the lowest-paid [tenth of the population] still gets about 40 percent of the average wage," this is largely because Britain's minimum wage is about twice the US minimum wage. In the deregulated United States, the working poor are common; one in six Americans makes less than 35 percent of the average wage, compared with just one in twenty Brits. In Clark's world, even the wage gap closes if left to the market. Yet notice that when today's rising generation of American women decided feminism was for their mothers, the male/female wage gap, which had been closing for decades, stagnated. And notice too that when a generation of American workers decided unions were for Grandpa in the mine and Daddy in the factory, not themselves in the office, inequality swung back to Gilded Age levels.

In places with inequalities even starker than our nation's, many 5-year-olds have more serious things to worry about than prankster uncles. Touring the New Seemapuri slum on the outskirts of New Delhi with a social worker, I met such kids: 5-year-old day laborers who rooted through the city's trash for salvageable materials. The children sold scrap paper by the sack--sacks larger than the children themselves. The going rate for glass shards was 25 cents a kilo. At a makeshift school run by my guide, several children came late from their trash-picking work. (They must have had high time preference rates.)

Clearly, progress doesn't just happen through an increase in worker discipline; often it happens through a breakdown of it. Just last month, a group of New Delhi's ragpickers won protective boots, gloves and aprons from the state government. Now the union is pressuring the government to create a municipal sanitation force with benefits. Progress is possible, and it takes hard work--the hard work of organizing on the job and in politics, not just the hard work of tending 700 spindles per hour.

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