For much of history, the rich really were different. They had more descendants, for one thing. And they tended to prize thrift, prudence, negotiation and hard work over more fun things like being spendthrift, impulsive, violent and leisure loving. And their children were downwardly mobile, poorer than they were.
Those differences may explain why the surge in economic growth that historians call the Industrial Revolution occurred, economic historian Gregory Clark argues in his forthcoming book, A Farewell To Alms. According to Clark, it was the spread of people descended from British nobility that hatched the Industrial Revolution.
Today Nicholas Wade of the New York Times' Science Section describes Clark's thesis.
Generation after generation, the rich had more surviving children than the poor, his research showed. 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. “The modern population of the English is largely descended from the economic upper classes of the Middle Ages,” he concluded.
As the progeny of the rich pervaded all levels of society, Dr. Clark considered, the behaviors that made for wealth could have spread with them. He has documented that several aspects of what might now be called middle-class values changed significantly from the days of hunter gatherer societies to 1800. Work hours increased, literacy and numeracy rose, and the level of interpersonal violence dropped.
Another significant change in behavior, Dr. Clark argues, was an increase in people’s preference for saving over instant consumption, which he sees reflected in the steady decline in interest rates from 1200 to 1800.
In short, the downward mobility of British upper classes gave rise to the Industrial Revolution that resulted in a dramatic upward mobility for much of the world. To put it slightly differently, just because money can't buy you love doesn't mean loving can't make you richer.
In Dusty Archives, a Theory of Affluence [New York Times]