Triumph of the Wills

Triumph of the Wills

A new apologia for Anglo-Saxon noblesse oblige needs a reality check.


I have a little prank that I occasionally play on my 5-year-old nephew. I imagine an outlandish story and tell it to him in a perfect deadpan tone. Then I watch as his face goes from expressing trust to suspicion and incredulity, until finally breaking out in laughter at the absurdity of my tall tale. Recently I told him a story about how his little brother, whom he remembers coming home from the hospital two years ago, actually hatched out of an enormous egg his parents kept in their living room. “Remember how your mommy and daddy each took turns sitting on it?” I asked him as I struggled to keep a straight face. Before long, the idea of his baby brother pecking his way into the world had him in stitches.

After reading A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World, I finally understand what listening to these stories must be like for my nephew. Gregory Clark lays out in a deadpan tone, complete with charts and graphs, a theory as farfetched as my wildest avuncular yarns. Clark writes with the sober authority of an economics professor (he chairs the department at the University of California, Davis), but the more one reads of his theory of the Industrial Revolution, the less possible it becomes to see it as anything other than preposterous. Clark tries to explain why England, of all the world’s nations, industrialized first. And his answer is this: certain reproduction patterns among medieval Britons allowed England to breed a hardworking population with bourgeois values. The issue of whether or not they hatched from enormous eggs is left unaddressed. But if it had been, one can be sure Clark would have included a graph showing that shell strength is directly related to offspring survival rates.

Clark’s argument hinges on extensive archival research on the wills of medieval Englishmen. Over the course of twenty years of research in dusty archives, Clark compiled data from more than 2,000 wills. He chose a time period (1585-1638) and regions (London, East Anglia, Bristol and Darlington) that provided the most comprehensive data possible. He then cross-referenced the information from the wills against parish registers compiled by the International Genealogical Index of the Mormon Church.

Clark concluded from his research that “economic success translated powerfully into reproductive success, with the richest individuals having more than twice the number of surviving children at death as the poorest.” As a result of this phenomenon, which Clark dubs “survival of the richest,” most of Britain’s population was descended from rich people after several generations. Not all the descendants of the rich were rich themselves: the medieval economy couldn’t provide all the talented sons of the rich with equivalent forms of employment; thus, there was constant downward social mobility. But after several generations, most of Britain’s population–rich and poor–was descended from the rich. And from these wealthy ancestors, Clark argues, nearly all Britons inherited the virtuous qualities that make people rich, like the ability to delay gratification (“low time preference rates,” in econ-speak). As he writes, “The attributes that would ensure later economic dynamism–patience, hard work, ingenuity, innovativeness, education–were thus spreading biologically throughout the population.”

For Clark, it is in the nature of settled agrarian societies to provide financial rewards to those with middle-class values. And being wealthy in a preindustrial society allows a man to support more children. The same phenomenon can be found in other settled agrarian societies, Clark writes, such as China and Japan; but in England, the most stable of all agrarian societies, the link between reproductive patterns and economic success was the most pronounced. While Clark is certain that the transmission of bourgeois virtues is “biological,” he hedges a bit about whether this inheritance is genetic or just cultural, usually putting a modifier like “perhaps” or “even” in front of his eugenic speculations.

Oddly, Clark never explains just how such traits are transmitted from one generation to the next. His lack of interest in the mechanisms of heredity is strange, considering his own data show that the children of the wealthy often experienced downward mobility, which calls into question–if, like Clark, one is wedded to the idea that bourgeois values are the key to wealth–whether parents’ values filtered down at all. For Clark it’s self-evident that breeding patterns explain why certain places industrialized, as well as why others did not. Places that never developed agriculture or places where the poor simply outreproduced the rich never developed middle-class values or a middle-class work ethic. As a result, they exhibit what Clark terms a “socially induced lethargy,” one that handicaps their economies to this day.

Clark attempts to defend this assertion with data measuring the slothfulness of Third World workers. He approvingly quotes an imperial-era textile expert from Britain who wrote in 1930, “Labour in India is undoubtedly on a very low par, probably it comes next to Chinese labour in inefficiency, wastefulness, and lack of discipline.” As one of Clark’s charts documents, in 1921 the average American mill worker could tend more than 700 spindles per hour, while the average Indian worker could tend just 118. That Indian textile workers weren’t giving their all for white managers in Raj-era mills genuinely seems to puzzle Clark. Why couldn’t sturdy British managers whip the natives into shape? After all, in Clark’s view the British Empire was a free-market paradise, not a shell game in which the rules changed from protectionism to laissez-faire based on the economic needs of the colonizer. And Clark does not even attempt to address the paradox of Spain, which, though it never developed a Protestant work ethic–workers there have national nap time every afternoon–remains wealthier than every one of its former colonies.

For Clark, a scholar who puts the very term political economy in scare quotes, the modern world of global capitalism functions in much the same exploitation-free way as the age of empire. By his lights, the low wages in today’s developing countries have nothing to do with the race to the bottom that creates “export processing zones”–regions where taxes don’t apply, and labor and environmental laws are lax–or even the overpopulation that has created a ruthlessly cutthroat labor market in some Third World countries. Rather, low wages are solely the result of low productivity innate to a specific population. Clark writes (without citation) that textile workers in modern India work only about fifteen minutes out of every hour they’re at the plant. That’s why they’re paid only 38 cents an hour. The question of uneven development has been solved, and it comes down to this: maquiladora slackers!

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.

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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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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