NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

A THEORY OF AFFLUENCE

August 14, 2007

The Industrial Revolution in England -- the first escape from the Malthusian trap -- occurred because of a change in the nature of the human population, according to Dr. Gregory Clark, an economic historian at the University of California, Davis.

Further, it seems that the rich and their progeny are responsible for the change, says Dr. Clark:

  • For generation after generation, the rich had more surviving children than the poor.
  • That meant there must have been constant downward social mobility as the poor failed to reproduce themselves and the progeny of the rich took over their occupations.
  • As a result, the modern population of England is largely descended from the economic upper classes of the Middle Ages.

Moreover, as the rich pervaded all levels of society, Dr Clark documented that several aspects of what might now be called middle-class values changed significantly from the days of hunter-gatherer societies to 1800.  For example:

  • Work hours increased, literacy and numeracy rose, and the level of interpersonal violence dropped.
  • An increase occurred in people's preference for saving over instant consumption, which he sees reflected in the steady decline in interest rates from 1200 to 1800.
  • Overall, thrift, prudence, negotiation and hard work were becoming values for communities that previously had been spendthrift, impulsive, violent and leisure loving.

If the Industrial Revolution was caused by changes in people's behavior, then populations that have not had time to adapt to the Malthusian constraints of agrarian economies will not be able to achieve the same production efficiencies, Dr Clark's thesis implies.

Source: Nicholas Wade, "Habits of industry that made revolution work," The Scotsman, August 11, 2007.

 

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