Archive for May 16, 2012

Why “Farewell to Alms” is Pure Bullshit

May 16, 2012 3 comments

You might have noticed that CONservatives and LIEbertarians constantly refer to certain books as if they were some sort of semi-divine gospel. I would go so far as to say that some books such as Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged‘, Charles Murray’s ‘The Bell Curve and Friedrich Hayek’s ‘The Road to Serfdom‘ are literary masturbatory aids for people with certain world views.

Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World” by Gregory Clark is one such, somewhat recent, addition to that cannon of masturbatory material. The main thesis of this book is that somehow the “super intelligent” and “well-bred” children of the “totally meritocratic” rich had to take menial jobs left vacant by the death of the “undeserving” poor whose kids died because of a Malthusian struggle for the basics of life such as food and shelter. He then makes some noise about the rise of a different type of man.. a homo economics, who was willing to diligently slave away for shit wages and crappy lifestyle for the high-minded purpose of building a civilization because of the superior genes for intelligence inherited from his illustrious noble ancestry. Ya.. it appears pretty ridiculous when you look at it in perspective, doesn’t it?

CONservatives and LIEbertarians loved the book, because it suggested that they might be the descended from “deserving” and “smart” aristocrats than stupid proles. Of course, tracing the ancestry of prominent families would reveal that their founders were always some lucky proles rather than some super-human ‘John Galt’ types- but why spoil a good fantasy. But back to the book itself..

The idea that people with more money and resources might have more children who lived to adulthood is not new. Infact I would argue that it was universal in the pre-contraception era across all organized civilizations. But somehow it did not seem to have any effect in other cultures- from China and Japan to India and pre-colombian Meso-America.

Furthermore, it did not have an effect in European populations before the 17th century.

Think about it.. the conditions in Europe from the beginning of the dark ages (4-5th century AD) to the 17th century AD were pretty dire. While there were periods of good weather and general plenty- there were also large blocks of time when the weather was shitty, starvation was rampant, bloody wars were frequent and diseases killed millions of people. I would argue that the median conditions, social customs and conventions did not change much over 10 centuries- from the 4th to the 14th century AD. The first real changes in Europe occur in the 1400s and 1500s, when a combination of simple, but profound, technological advancements such as the printing press and gunpowder weapons changed the palate of options for the people in those countries. But that was still not enough to jump-start the industrial revolution. So what changed by the 17th and 18th centuries that finally did it? Remember that science, technology and institutions do not develop unless there is a plausible need for them.

What was the ‘need’ that made developing them worthwhile?

Is it a mere coincidence that the late 17th to early 18th century was also the era when the west was finally able to steal gold, land and resources from many other parts of the world? While the Spanish had been stealing gold from south and central America for over a century, their spending patterns and economic system meant that the new gold quickly ended up in the hands of those who built stuff and provided services for them. By the time countries like England and France entered the colonialism game in earnest- all the easy gold was gone. Therefore their colonial enterprises were based on enslaving people to work on stolen land to harvest resources for producing something that could be sold at profit to some other sucker. Alternatively the products could be used to expand their empires to enslave more people for more free labor and resources.

The industrial revolution did not start as an altruistic and noble endeavor to uplift mankind. It was about finding better ways to rob, steal, enslave and murder for profit.

It therefore started in those parts of the world that were in the best position to do so. By the late 17th century, Spain and Portugal were ‘have-beens’ whose socio-economic systems were still mentally stuck in a more primitive and direct form of mercantilism. Other parts of the world such as China, Japan, India were too rooted in their ancient ways and mindsets to change. Countries in North-Western Europe were pretty much the only players in the game and they had the right level of technology at the right time in history to take the lead and run with it. Furthermore they were young enough to not have the cultural sclerosis that had afflicted Asian civilizations, since like forever.

The willingness of north-west Europeans to play nice with their fellow countrymen during the industrial revolution was linked to opportunities to steal, rob, enslave and murder ‘other’ people for a feasible shot at making it. The development of institutions and mores that made the industrial revolution possible and successful was also largely due to the willingness of people to take some shit for a lottery ticket to riches. Given that they lacked other options to improve their lives, it was quite rational. In any case, it did pay off for a moderate percentage of people.

The question that CONservatives and LIEbertarians must ask is- Would the first phase of the industrial revolution have occurred if there were no new lands to plunder, people to enslave and resources to extract? While the later phases of the industrial revolution have benefited humanity as a whole, it most certainly did not start out that way.

What do you think? Comments?