Sunday, April 22, 2012

Brief Reflections on The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Throughout his outstanding work, The Wealth And Poverty Of Nations, Harvard Professor David Landes explores the role of culture in the promotion or suppression of trade, industry and wealth formation. What study of the intersection of capitalism and culture is complete without mentioning Max Weber's groundbreaking book: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. A key element in this book was not that the Protestant Ethic promoted the pursuit of wealth, but rather in encouraged values and everyday behaviors (such as a strong work ethic, thrift, saving, self control, eschewing Catholic other-worldliness) that was conducive towards the successful pursuit of enterprise and industry. Although this theory has fallen out of favor with most sociologists, Professor Landes beliefs that historical data supports it.

The debate of culture's role in creating and maintaining an economically dynamic society actually holds relevance in the United States. For well over a 100 years the United States has welcomed in millions of non-Protestant immigrants (including my own family), but a strong consensus existed among political, economic and educational elites for the need to assimilate these newcomers into the dominant Anglo-Protestant culture of the land. Without a doubt these diverse immigrants and their descendants contributed immensely to the United States, but only in the context of Anglo-American traditions of rule of law, limited government, economic freedom and the Protestant Work Ethic. It is self evident to all but a progressive that if the founding culture of the land were (let's say) Iberian Catholic, we would be (for good and for bad) economically and politically more like Mexico. But, ironically a half century of cultural revolution has led
to such a decay of traditionally Protestant Virtues (hard work, thrift, savings, investment, etc.) among Protestants Populations (both in the United States and in Europe) that it may take an influx of sober and industrious Asian Immigrants to uphold the traditional American Ethos.

"I do not agree. No on the empirical level, where records show that Protestant merchants and manufacturers played a leading role in trade, banking, and industry. In manufacturing centers (Fabriques) in France and Western Germany, Protestants were typically the employers, Catholics were the employed. In Switzerland, the Protestant cantons were the centers of export manufacturing industry (watches, machinery, textiles); the Catholic ones were primarily agricultural."

"Nor on the theoretical. The heart of the matter lay indeed in the making of a new kind of man - rational, ordered, diligent, productive. These virtues, while not new, were hardly commonplace. Protestantism generalized them among its adherents, who judged one another by conforming to these standards."

"Two special characteristics of the Protestants reflect and confirm this link. The first was stress on instruction and literacy, for girls as well as boys. This was a by-product of Bible reading. Good Protestants were expected to reach the holy scriptures  for themselves. (By way of contrast, Catholics were catechized but did not have to read, and they were explicitly discouraged from reading the Bible.) The results: greater literacy (in 1900 illiteracy was 3% for England, whereas it wa 56% in Spain and 78% in Portugal) and a larger pool of candidates for advanced schooling; also greater assurance of continuity of literacy from generation to generation. Literate mothers matter."

"The second was the importance accorded to time. Here we have what the sociologist would call unobtrusive evidence: the making and buying of clicks and watches. Even in catholic areas such as France and Bavaria, most clock makers were Protestant; and the use of the instruments of time measurement and their diffusion to rural areas was far more advanced in Britain and Holland than in Catholic countries."

"This is not to say that Weber's "ideal type" of capitalist could be found only among Calvinists and their later sectarian avatars. People of all faiths and not faith can grow up to be rational, diligent, orderly, productive, clean, and humorless."

"The Protestant Reformation. however, changed the rules. It gave a big boost to literacy, spawned diss
sents and heresies, and promoted the skepticism and refusal of authority that is at the heart of the scientific endeavor. The Catholic countries, instead if meeting the challenge, responded by closure and censure."

In contrast, in Catholic Spain, the "gates of knowledge and exploration" swung shut:

"In 1558, the death penalty was introduced for importing foreign books without permission and for unlicensed printing. Universities (were) reduced to centers of indoctrination; unorthodox and dangerous books were placed on an Index Librorum Prohibitorum (1557 in Rome, 1559 in Spain),  and safe books appeared with an official impimatur ("Let it be printed"). Among the books on the Spanish list: scientific works banned becauase their authors were Protestant...Nor were the Spanirds allowed to study abroad, lest they ingest subversive doctrine. The same year (1559), the crown forbade attendance at foreign universities except for such safe centers as Rome, Bologna, and Naples."

"So Iberia and indeed Mediterranean Europe as a whole missed the train of the so-called scientific revolution...The British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper has argued that this reactionary, anti-Protestant backlash, more than Protestantism itself, sealed the fate of southern Europe for the next three hundreds years."

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