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.
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.
UPDATE: Ah, the perils of late night blogging. Commenter Koz correctly notes that Hanson’s thesis is a bit more nuanced that I give him credit for. Hanson ties European success to broader trends within Western culture, not just the achievements of a few outstanding figures. Again, I think this mistakes a proximate cause of Europe’s ascendancy for the underlying force(s) behind Western exceptionalism, but I should have been more careful with my characterization.
Interestingly enough, the author Hanson is criticizing – Jared Diamond – also suggests that geographic/political fragmentation helped create the necessary preconditions for European ascendancy.