The Protestant Work Ethic Makes Us Look Hard At The Chickens And The Eggs

Tyler Cowen:

Davide Cantoni (who by the way is on the job market, from Harvard) reports:

Many theories, most famously Max Weber’s essay on the ‘Protestant ethic,’ have hypothesized that Protestantism should have favored economic development. With their considerable religious heterogeneity and stability of denominational affiliations until the 19th century, the German Lands of the Holy Roman Empire present an ideal testing ground for this hypothesis. Using population figures in a dataset comprising 276 cities in the years 1300-1900, I find no effects of Protestantism on economic growth. The finding is robust to the inclusion of a variety of controls, and does not appear to depend on data selection or small sample size. In addition, Protestantism has no effect when interacted with other likely determinants of economic development. I also analyze the endogeneity of religious choice; instrumental variables estimates of the effects of Protestantism are similar to the OLS results.

The full paper, and other work by Cantoni, is here.  I believe this is the most thorough statistical test of the Weberian hypothesis to date.

Will Wilson at Postmodern Conservative:

Does anybody else appreciate the irony of the above quoted paragraph? Remember, this is Weber that we’re talking about.

James Kwak at Baseline Scenario:

As a fan of Weber and a former historian, the first thing I checked was Cantoni’s treatment of Calvinism vs. Lutheranism. The last chapter of The Protestant Ethic, “Asceticism and the Spirit of Capitalism,” focuses on Calvinism: “For everyone without exception God’s Providence has prepared a calling, which he should profess and in which he should labour. And this calling is not, as it was for the Lutheran, a fate to which he must submit and which he must make the best of, but God’s commandment to the individual to work for the divine glory” ((London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1985), p. 160). Section 4.4 and Table 8, however, find no difference either between Calvinist (Reformed) cities and all other cities, or between Calvinist and Catholic cities.

A defender of Weber could argue that what he was really talking about was the English strain of Calvinism known as Puritanism; that last chapter starts off by talking about English Puritanism only as an ideal type of Calvinism in general, but it when it talks about real economic impact it is mainly about England and the North American colonies (us). But tying the “Protestant ethic” to one historical form of Calvinism weakens Weber’s thesis considerably, since religious doctrine can no longer be seen as the prime mover of economic development.

Which leaves a question. This is probably the most famous passage Weber wrote:

“The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. … In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the ’saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.’ But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.”

So could we have gotten the spirit of capitalism without the Protestant ethic? Probably Weber would have said that no matter how you get there, capitalism itself is the iron cage. But maybe not.

Will at The League:

Assuming these findings are correct, I think Weber’s hypothesis is a good example of our tendency to mistakenly credit superficial factors for inciting major events like Northern Europe’s economic take-off. Weber’s theory always sounded vaguely plausible – “Protestantism, by stressing individual freedom and responsibility toward God, dispensed with the Church hierarchy and thus encouraged Protestants to become more flexible and open toward new ideas” (p. 6) – and had the added benefit of lending a scientific veneer to mid-century assumptions about the desirability of Protestant Northern European culture. This type of analysis has a long provenance, from claims about the innate superiority of Anglo-Saxon nations to contemporary theories about Europe’s unique “engineering culture,” but I think the fundamental problem here is mistaking a symptom of social change or some factor that happens to coincide with social change (in this case, the Protestant Reformation) for the underlying causes of success.

This line of analysis also reminds me of Victor Davis Hanson’s view of Western exceptionalism, in which a Luther or an Edison or a Machiavelli were drivers of European ascendancy rise rather than products of a new socio-economic environment. Obviously, there’s a feedback effect at work insofar as dynamic individuals exacerbate or emphasize the conditions that gave rise to their success, but I think notable historical figures or significant historical developments can’t really be separated from their broader political and social context.

At the risk of sounding like a nutty determinist, this is why I found Steven Davies’ recent essay at Cato Unbound so persuasive. By identifying Europe’s political fragmentation as the critical factor behind the rise of the Modern West, Davies is able to isolate a plausible “first cause” for a series of dramatic social changes – capitalism, secularism, modernity etc. – we now associate with European exceptionalism. This structural explanation strikes me as a lot more comprehensive (and satisfying) than pointing to a few outstanding individuals or a religious event as the driving factor behind social and political change.


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