Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
Why are the United States, England, and northern Europe rich while southern and eastern Europe poor? You will hear many answers, and a popular one cribs from Max Weber — Protestantism. I am a Protestant myself, so one might think that I should like this answer, but as a historian, I believe in studying history to learn from it, not merely have my own biases confirmed. And frankly, I don’t really like this answer.
The argument is that Protestants — by which are normally meant Calvinist lineages, not Lutherans — have several beliefs that encourage hard work, living modestly, and investing. The first is the doctrine of predestination and the elect. At the beginning of the world, God elected who would be saved. One can never know whether is in the elect, but material success was a strong suggestion of it. Thus, financial prudence was encouraged. Second, the iconoclastic tendencies meant that churches did not collect funds from their parishioners for elaborate and ornate decoration, leaving more money in the hands of the people. Going along with that point, virtually every form of wasteful spending — luxurious clothes, food, furniture, entertainments, gambling — was condemned as sinful. Finally, charity to the poor was kept extremely minimal in honor of Paul’s statement that those who will not work will not eat. All this, according to Weber, added up to a society that generated wealth and had nothing to spend it on except more capitalistic investment, and these societal elements continued to encourage wealth creation even as the Calvinist denominations shrunk in favor of Methodists and Baptists who didn’t share the inciting doctrines.
Well, allow me H.L. Mencken: “Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” Frankly, the “Calvinism makes people rich” theory strikes me as being one of those explanations, because it ignores so many other factors that distinguish Protestant Europe from Catholic and Orthodox Europe.
Let’s start with the most obvious: geography. Being in different locations with different access to seaports, prevailing winds, trade routes, and natural resources like crops, fishing, wood, stone, and ore — of course the people of the British Isles, Scandinavia, and northern Germany are going to have different levels of wealth from those of Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Austria, and Poland, who in turn are going to have different levels of wealth from Russia, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania. And not only do the different Christian denomination countries have different levels of wealth, they’ve changed quite dramatically relative to each other. Italy was in an excellent spot to take advantage of the winds and currents on the Mediterranean when most European trade came through Constantinople and so was rich while England was poor; England was in an excellent spot to take advantage of the trade winds and currents going to the Americas and so was rich while Italy was poor.
What about demographic history? Catholic countries were settled by Celts and Romans who preferred large towns and cities; Protestant ones by Germans and their close cousins Scandinavians who preferred to be more independent and isolated. Perhaps what we see is an ancestral preference for liberty that reveals itself in both religious and economic independence, or a preference for more democratic structures. Iceland’s Parliament, after all, is the oldest in the world, with England’s not that much younger, while countries like Ireland, Spain, and Italy have had their current representative democratic governments for less than a century.
Closely related, we have political history. The Reformation occurred as much because the religious leaders had political patrons willing to support them, whether Martin Luther with the Elector of Saxony or John Calvin with the Elector of the Palatinate, as its novel teachings (see Jan Hus for what happened when one taught against the Catholic Church without political patronage). Perhaps the correlation isn’t that Calvinism makes for more successful people but rather than a king or noble willing to defy the Catholic Church also made better political choices to encourage his people to become wealthier.
Or it could be even more random than that — perhaps France, Spain, and Austria just crapped out on their rulers while England, Sweden, and Prussia/Germany lucked out. My historical imagination can’t quite imagine Charles V of Spain/Austria or Louis XIV of France becoming less interested in wars of succession and glittering palaces and more interested in capital investment and business-friendly laws if only they had embraced the TULIP and denied the Real Presence during the Eucharist, after all.
Yes, the Reformation is now half a millennium old, and life in traditionally Protestant countries is wealthier than that in traditionally Catholic ones. In trying to establish a denomination’s effects on economic wealth, however, we cannot ignore the multitude of complicating factors that go into creating a wealthy country, and we certainly don’t have the ability to run a properly scientific experiment to isolate the variables. Let’s not embrace the neat, plausible, and possibly wrong theory just because it tickles our prejudices.
That being said … does anyone know of a critique of Weber’s theory that has some hard data attached to the possibilities I’ve thrown out?