Sunday, January 11, 2004

Did capitalism spring from religion?

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
A Classic of Sociology
by Max Weber

full text:

This short book, originally published in 1904, rests on the following idea: That Protestantism made people feel like they had a moral duty to earn and accumulate as much money as possible, not so that they could have fun spending it later, but so that they could keep it and build it up as a monument to the glory of God. The point is not that Protestantism caused greed-- it didn't-- but that it removed greed as the primary motive for wealth-seeking behavior and replaced it with the motive of wanting to fulfill obligations to a higher power. This sanctification legitimized wealth-seeking in the popular imagination (where before it had been regarded suspiciously) and created a culture filled with the type of godly "ascetic capitalists" typified in the shrewd image of Ben Franklin.

Part of Franklin's autobiography is exhumed, and tends to make him look like a mixed meathead-genius who knew how to accumulate wealth but could appreciate little else. For example, Franklin recommends that, even if there is no business, shopkeepers should work extra hours in order to give creditors a degree of false assurance about whether they will be able to recover on their outstanding loans. His recommendation of this tactic betrays the type of emotional and experiential poverty afflicting men who are so overly rational and future-oriented in their thinking that they can't conceive of anything better to do with their free time than to throw it away on make-work.

Weber thinks that the overt religiosity of capitalism has faded, but that its influence on our economic thinking continues in full force. I think he's right. Consider the new wave of overzealous free-marketers who insist always on using "economic efficiency" as the universal yardstick for deciding every issue. If pressed to explain why efficiency is so important, they mumble something about the greatest good for the greatest number and excuse themselves from the table. They do not see that, if efficiency is to be maximized, then people in society will have to work maximum hours, making life suck.

These people remind me of the modern-day social reject who stays late at the office pretending to work so that, if a partner happens to notice, the display will function as an (essentially false) advertisement of his dedication and hardworking-ness. "My life sucks now," he says to himself, sniveling and hunching over his keyboard, "but when I finally make partner and retire at the early age of eighty-three, then I will have all the free time I want. Ha, yes-- then I will kick back, sip some lemonade, and finally get around to contemplating why nobody ever really liked me or wanted to get to know me."

Who does not have an uncle like this, who slugs away at a job he professes to hate because "the money's good"? He is the type of person who doesn't know how to have fun, and who will die knowing he wasted the moments of his life by always obsessing about the future.

Buy this book and give it to that dude. I bet his reaction will be kind of funny and ironic.

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