When I gave away many of my old books a year ago, I kept my college copy of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Now Tyler Cowen cites a paper by Davide Cantoni demonstrating that Protestantism had nothing to do with economic development. (Cantoni also co-authored a paper with Simon and others on the impact of the French Revolution — via the Napoleonic conquests — on economic development.) He uses the “natural experiment” created by the division of the Holy Roman Empire (very roughly, modern-day Germany and Austria) into Protestant and Catholic states.
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.
By James Kwak