Tag: calvinism

Is It Really the Protestant Work Ethic?

 

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.