8/11/09 - farmers

In today's excerpt - with the productivity gains of the Industrial Revolution the percent of the population required to feed the world dropped from up to 80% to 2% and thus allowed the world to move from villages to cities:

"Most Malthusian (pre-Industrial Revolution) economies had 70 or even 80 percent of the population employed in agriculture. By 1861 that share had dropped to 21 percent in England. But that switch to industry, as we shall see, was due to the idiosyncrasies of England's geography and demography. There is, in fact, nothing inherently industrial about the Industrial Revolution. Since 1800 the productivity of agriculture has increased by as much as that of the rest of the economy, and without these gains in agriculture modern growth would have been impossible. We have to resign ourselves to the fact that one of the defining events in human history has been mislabeled. ...

"Material well-being has marched upward in successful economies since the Industrial Revolution to levels no one in 1800 could have imagined. After six hundred years of stasis, income has increased nearly tenfold since 1800. ... As income marched upward the share of farm products in consumption treaded downward, and the share of farmers among producers declined in step. In preindustrial economies farmers made up 50 - 80 percent of the population. Today,if we had a free market in food, 2 percent of the population could feed everyone. The farm population share in the United States, for example, is 2.1 percent. Half of these people are kept in farming by government subsidies that futilely try to stem the inexorable exodus from the land and from rural communities. A mountain of European Union subsidies keeps 3.3 percent of the French in their beloved campagne. The less sentimental British, with a more efficient agriculture, employ only 1.2 percent of the population in farming. The Industrial Revolution looks peculiarly industrial largely because of the switch of population and production out of agriculture and into industry thanks to higher incomes.

"The switch of labor out of agriculture has profoundly affected social life. In Malthusian societies most of the population lived in small rural settlements of a few hundred souls. They had to be close to the daily grind of their work in the fields, since they walked to work. In the southeast of England, for example, villages in the eighteenth century were on average only two miles apart. Typically they had fewer than a hundred residents. The countryside was densely settled because of all the labor required in inefficient preindustrial agriculture: plowing, reaping, threshing, hauling manure and tending animals.

"With an ever-dwindling proportion of the population tied to the land through agriculture, modern populations are footloose. People can locate anywhere, but they have concentrated increasingly in urban centers because of the richer labor market and the social amenities they offer."


Gregory Clark


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


Princeton University Press


Copyright 2007 by Princeton University Press


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