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The Protestant Work Ethic Is Real

• September 04, 2013 • 10:51 AM

Office work. (PHOTO: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Thanks to a recent paper in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, we finally have some answers for why Americans work so hard.

Why do we work the way we do? For years Americans have been arguing over whether or not it has something to do with the country’s religious history. Does a history of Protestant religiosity make us work harder? Now we’ve finally got some answers.

The influence of Protestantism on American capitalism has been a matter of considerable debate since German sociologist Max Weber wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in 1905. The book wasn’t even translated into English until 1930, but it’s particularly interesting to this country because Weber argued that capitalist success stems from Calvinism.

Today just 53 percent of Americans identify with some sort of Protestant church, and only the Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, and Baptist denominations (which directly influence less than five percent of the American population) can be called churches in the Calvinist tradition. But Calvinists were the religious ancestors of our Puritans, the English Calvinists who helped establish the Massachusetts Bay Colony so that they could have a place to practice their (rather extreme) religion in freedom. Because they were some of the first major settlers of the United States, they had a rather profound influence on our country’s economic development.

John Calvin proposed that man’s fate is essentially set. People either are or are not destined to go to Heaven. The outcome is determined (or pre-determined) at birth. And there’s not much you can do to change that. Being nicer to your co-workers or walking old ladies across the street isn’t going to put you in Heaven if God has already made up His mind.

Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion explains eternal fate is “of the eternal election, by which God has predestinated some to salvation, and others to destruction.” Some are saved and some will burn in Hell for all of eternity. Though this tenet is, it’s worth pointing out, part of a very complicated philosophy, there were, Calvin proposed, certain “outward signs” of one’s eventual fate. Someone particularly good looking, or with particular skills, or who might have started a successful business—that could be a sign that he is among the elect.

Calvinists, naturally, looked to figure out who the elect were. If they became successful in business, perhaps that was a sign of God’s preferences. Weber argued that it was this that motivated capitalism.

But in the course of its development Calvinism added something positive to this, the idea of the necessity of proving one’s faith in worldly activity. Therein it gave broader groups of religiously inclined people a positive incentive to asceticism. By founding its ethic in the doctrine of predestination, it substituted for the spiritual aristocracy of monks outside of and above the world the spiritual aristocracy of the predestined saints of God within the world.

This tradition was also responsible for promoting the idea of a job as a “calling,” as opposed to something one did for money:

[O]ne’s duty in a calling, is what is most characteristic of the social ethic of capitalistic culture, and is in a sense the fundamental basis of it. It is an obligation which the individual is supposed to feel and does feel towards the content of his professional activity, no matter in what it consists, in particular no matter whether it appears on the surface as a utilization of his personal powers. Or only of his material possessions (as capital).

What went hand-in-hand with this was a sense not of the pursuit of money as a sin, but the waste of money on frivolous luxuries. Another tenet of this philosophy was a sense that charity promoted beggary and laziness. And so the God-fearing, prosperous merchants had no choice but to invest. And invest they sure did.

The Weber argument is interesting, but until now no one really knew whether it was true or not. It’s a good story—that much we’ve collectively agreed on—but it was hard to tell if it was Protestantism or some other factor that led capitalism (and affiliated laws and policies) to spread. Certainly there were predominantly Catholic countries that also had capitalism. Weber’s argument seemed compelling, but, like many economic or historical arguments, it was a story without real proof.

Enter a group of Dutch economists, who have discovered that the Protestant work ethic is real. A recent paper by André van Hoorn and Robbert Maseland:

Test[s] the relation between Protestantism and work attitudes using a novel method, operationalizing work ethic as the effect of unemployment on individuals’ subjective well-being. Analyzing a sample of 150,000 individuals from 82 societies, we find strong support for a Protestant work ethic: unemployment hurts Protestants more and hurts more in Protestant societies. Whilst the results shed new light on the Protestant work ethic debate, the method has wider applicability in the analysis of attitudinal differences.

The connection between work and happiness is much more intense in Protestant countries than in others. Protestants suffer intense hardship from unemployment; the “psychic harm from unemployment is about 40 percent worse for Protestants than for the general population,” according to the authors. This also holds true for non-Protestants living in Protestant countries, where they suffer more from unemployment than their global neighbors.

As the authors put it:

The resulting ‘experienced preferences’ provide strong support for Weber’s original thesis: for both Protestants and Protestant countries, not having a job has substantially larger negative happiness effects than for other religious denominations. This provides a Weber-type channel relating religion to socio-economic outcomes.

In other words, Protestantism may not make you rich, but it sure makes you unhappy when you’re not rich. The old Calvinist doctrine of a livelihood as the source of one’s value, and a sign of God’s favor, wreaks great havoc on people’s lives when that livelihood is gone. What’s more, this is true even when people practice other religions (or none at all) in largely Protestant countries. They experience the same impulses. What this really indicates is just how important Protestantism is to our concept of work—all of our concepts of work.

kapitalismusBut this one paper doesn’t prove that Weber was accurate about everything. A 2009 paper by economist Davide Cantoni, for example, looked scrupulously at economic data from Catholic and Protestant cities in Germany from 1300 to 1900, subjected the information to meticulous multivariate analysis, and discovered that there was no evidence that Protestantism made people richer. So the Dutch paper doesn’t necessarily mean Weber was right, but it does indicate that he was on to something.

As hard workers attempted to prosper in business in order to show that they were God’s chosen ones, over time hard work became the object in itself, particularly in the United States. This is ultimately sort of ironic because, as Tim Kreider wrote in his recent New York Times article condemning busyness, “The Puritans turned work into a virtue, evidently forgetting that God invented it as a punishment.” But there you have it. We work hard because it’s the American way. And it’s the American way because the Puritans did it.

Nick Reding has even argued, in his 2009 book, Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town, that it’s the Protestant work ethic that helps to explain the rise of crystal meth use in America. Because members of the working-class now often have to hold down two jobs to pay the rent and cover expenses for food and transportation, they turn to stimulants to keep going.

I’m not sure that’s really Protestant work ethic—they’re not taking drugs because they really want to prove their worth and they think of fulfilling work as their life purpose; they’re taking meth for mere economic survival—but there’s arguably a connection between Protestant work ethic and the meth cookers, who really are working hard to get rich. Lacking any other solid path to economic success (Walmart? A convenience store?), people in parts of rural America turned to the one industry that would actually allow them to make money, the one thing they knew people would buy from them.

Daniel Luzer
Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_Luzer.

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