Some critiques of Farewell to Alms

Daniel Brook at the Nation finds fault with the thesis of Gregory Clark’s Farewell to Alms (via A&L Daily):

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?

This is not the first review to criticize the book for its Malthusian ideas; here is what Economic principals has to say on the book (a link to which I obtained via Marginal revolution):

The implicit proposition of A Farewell to Alms is that we should stop giving money to the poor. They’ll just become more numerous. Hoist as many as possible aboard; let the others sink or swim. Let selective pressure do its work. Only thus will the poor eventually escape their poverty.

From a scholar to come blinking out of the library where he has been studying English wills in the age of Shakespeare, this is simply offensive. For a sense of how completely at odds it is with the situation in present-day Africa, see is Is Anywhere Stuck in a Malthusian Trap?, an unpublished paper on the personal blog of World Bank senior economist Charles Kenny. Enough with the “big history” already. There were a lot of things I would have rather done last week than read A Farewell to Alms. But then I wasn’t won over by Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, either. And it was a much better written book.

However, Tyler Cowen, on whose recommendation I got the book (but haven’t read yet), has a more nuanced take on the book:

… we can now see that Clark’s core arguments don’t depend on Malthusianism; they require only that economic growth is something very difficult to accomplish, and indeed that is the case.

Tyler Cowen ran a book forum on the book which might be a nice place for a much closer look at the book; there is also a lengthy discussion on the book by Clark, Tyler Cowen and Brad DeLong, in case you be interested.

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