3/4/09 - no better off than cavemen

In today's excerpt - by 1800 AD, the economic plight of the average man according to economic historian Gregory Clark in A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World was not better than that of his hunting and gathering ancestors. After 1800 the economic well-being of men in some societies skyrocketed upward and the well-being of others plummeted:

Before 1800 income per person—the food, clothing, heat, light, and housing available per head—varied across societies and epochs. But there was no upward trend. A simple but powerful mechanism ... ensured that short-term gains in income through technological advances were inevitably lost through population growth.

"Thus the average person in the world of 1800 was no better off than the average person of 100,000 BC. Indeed in 1800 the bulk of the world's population was poorer than their remote ancestors. The lucky denizens of wealthy societies such as eighteenth-century England or the Netherlands managed a material lifestyle equivalent to that of the Stone Age. But the vast swath of humanity in East and South Asia, particularly in China and Japan, eked out a living under conditions probably significantly poorer than those of cavemen.

"The quality of life also failed to improve on any other observable dimension. Life expectancy was no higher in 1800 than for hunter-gatherers: thirty to thirty-five years. Stature, a measure both of the quality of diet and of children's exposure to disease, was higher in the Stone Age than in 1800. And while foragers satisfy their material wants with small amounts of work, the modest comforts of the English in 1800 were purchased only through a life of unrelenting drudgery. Nor did the variety of material consumption improve. The average forager had a diet, and a work life, much more varied than the typical English worker of 1800, even though the English table by then included such exotics as tea, pepper, and sugar. Incomes rose sharply in many countries after 1800 but declined in others. ...

"So, even according to the broadest measures of material life, average welfare, if anything, declined from the Stone Age to 1800. The poor of 1800, those who lived by their unskilled labor alone, would have been better off if transferred to a hunter-gatherer band.

"The Industrial Revolution, a mere two hundred years ago, changed forever the possibilities for material consumption ... [and] represented the first break of human society from the constraints of nature, the first break of the human economy from the natural economy."


Gregory Clark


A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World


Princeton University Press


Copyright 2007 by Princeton University Press


Kindle loc. 147-170, 620
barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment