Everyone knows that Presbyterians, not Lutherans, are the hard-working Protestants

Via Will Wilson and MR, here’s an interesting paper on the Protestant work ethic:

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.

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14 thoughts on “Everyone knows that Presbyterians, not Lutherans, are the hard-working Protestants

  1. The “Great Man” theory of history is one that makes for the best stories around the campfire, which become the best scrolls, which become the best books, which become the best wikipedia articles.

    There are those of us, however, who have “great folks” in our own lives. Mom says that she never would have become a teacher if it weren’t for Aunt Doris, for example. I went through my membry banks and came up with six people who changed my life. Maybe not “I would be dead today if it weren’t for them!” changes, but I wouldn’t have this house/career/wife without them. “You gotta end up somewhere”, I hear you say and that is true.

    And yet.

    I have no problem thinking, for a second, that I wouldn’t be where I am today if it were not for my chemistry teacher in high school.

    It’s not hard to get from there to “we wouldn’t be where we are if it weren’t for Luther” (or whomever).

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  2. It is a commonplace in America today to talk about “ordinary Americans doing exceptional things.” The idea being that it is basically undemocratic to talk about exceptionaly gifted citizens except, maybe, in sports. But, of course, there are exceptional individuals, in all times and places. Sometimes they make history, sometimes not.

    One can speak of the Elizabethan Age, without Shakespeare, and say that the time and place engendered an exceptional body of art and thought under the reign of the (I must say) exceptional Elizabeth I. You could say that England provided “fertile soil” for these men and women. And that is true, I believe. But it also sprouted Willy S., who stood above the rest, as we know, a man for all ages.

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  3. VDH has written a lot of things, and maybe you’re talking about something else. But as far as that link goes, I think VDH gets the better of the argument. From what I can see VDH is not arguing for the “great man” theory of history, and in fact ought to agree that great men of the West are the product of their social-economic environment. But, the social-economic environment (or at least the part of it that counts) is cultural, not topographical or based on access to raw materials.

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  4. Will, despite your stated intentions, it seems to me that what you are saying easily plays into the hands of the cultural relativists who teach and claim, for example, that there are no real differences between North and South, in the Americas, that Henry Ford could just as easily have popped up in Vera Cruz as in Flint, Michigan. Indeed, they upbraid the West mercilessly for its past and present sins, all the while quietly ignoring the massive human tide moving from Central to North America and whatever destructive effects these peoples might wreck on our civilization. Moreover, these same relativists support and empower the illegals over the strong objections of our native population, be they Protestants, Catholics, Jews, whatever.

    Or, to put it differently, in what way does your position benefit the West?

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    • If life in general is just a random walk and some people stumble across success just as others stumble across failure and there is no rhyme, or reason, or any real way to push this one way or the other… well, somebody had to end up here.

      It was us.

      And anyone we happened to step on along the way, well… that’s just the way of the world and it ain’t anybody’s fault, one way or t’other.

      (That last part contains some amount of benefit, I imagine.)

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  5. All right, some well-deserved love for us Presbyterians!

    Once, during a break at a church meeting in which we did a little study of Calvin at the beginning, a fellow committee member (who is very well educated) started explaining to me that capitalism is a very Protestant/Calvinist (I can’t remember which he said) philosophy/system. Though I’m a fan of Protestantism, Calvinism and capitalism, I was a little skeptical.

    The most interesting part is that my friend is a socialist who converted to Presbyterianism from the Coptic church.

    I have no idea what the implication of his statement was.

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