Saturday, August 25, 2007

A Small Contribution to the Debate on Marginal Revolution on Gregory Clark's, 'A Farewell to Alms'

Following yesterday's post on the online debate over on Marginal Revolution, I append a short comment on my reading of pages 1-112. For context visit Marginal Revolution, ands scroll down the posts until you find the debate. What do you think? Join in if you are minded.

Gregory Clark’s theme in the first 112 pages of 'A Farewell to Alms' centres on the long-standing average subsistence intake of food/calories from stone-age times to 1800, and displays an admirable, indeed ingenious, grasp of the statistical evidence. Finding this claim compelling, I think we should step back a little and ask: is the evidence exceptional, in the sense that: is that all we have to say about human societies over the same period? Was history abut nothing else beside permanent low average diets; is that all that happened?

Following the rules, I have not read or looked beyond Tyler Cowen’s limit of 112 pages. But it occurs to me that a great deal more was happening during that period, at least in different parts of the world that suggest Gregory is focusing on an interesting, even arresting, but less important part of the social evolution of people.

We can see this in the evidence from ‘newly discovered’ hunter-gather societies outside Europe from the 16th century (note, Europe was counting; stone-age man was not), and it was the explorers who were looking over long distances, the tribes were not. Gregory Clark’s point, which I accept, is that the average consumption of the people in those ships’ crews, their sponsors in Europe and the mass of people outside the elites, had subsistence levels not much different, if at all, from the ‘savage’ tribes they found in distant lands. The savage tribes were egalitarian and on subsistence (still are); the explorers were unequal and the bulk were on subsistence.

There was a difference, and highly significant, the subsistence level explorers came from societies that had accumulated surpluses in wealth: ‘the annual product of the necessaries, conveniences and amusements of life' - not money! (Adam Smith, Richard Cantillon, etc.,), much of what went to the minority elites (their pampered consumption) and also into productive consumption (towns, road, harbours, ships, weapons and other trappings of ‘civilisation’).

The mass of people of all ages lived off subsistence, if they hadn’t population would never have grown at all, but in some societies, over millennia, part of the annual surplus went into social infra-structure, including literature, knowledge, and technology, and it was this that which brought Britian (at the end of a long chain of social and economic development, through Adam Smith’s Four Ages of Man) to ‘1800’, the watershed where everything changed for them and now us.

I look forward to reading (when Tyler Cowen says its OK) Gregory Clark’s development of his theme.


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