Skip to comments.Calvinism and Capitalism
Posted on 03/03/2009 6:09:51 AM PST by Alex Murphy
Thanks to Max Weber, Protestantism (the Puritan work-ethic) has been closely tied to the historical development of utilitarian and neoclassical economics. The emergence of capitalism simultaneous to the expansion of the Reformation tradition has led many to see an innate cause-and-effect. Certain events in the Reformation mythology are recast in a strangely capitalistic or individualistic light: Luthers quasi-apocryphal Here I Stand speech becomes a seminal moment for modern individualism; Calvins stance on usury becomes the theological justification for all of capitalistic theory.
This Weberian thesis is not quite so popular as it used to be, although many Protestants seem very willing to embrace it. But in his 1926 work, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, R.H. Tawney suggests that the correlation is not quite so simple:
Strangely enough, Tawney has unlikely allies in Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard (although the Austrians prefer the idea that capitalism caused Calvinism to become the bourgeois-commercialist economic force that Weber saw it to be).
What is sometimes suggested, however, is not merely a coincidence of religious and economic movements, but a logical connection between changes in economic organization and changes in religious doctrines. It is implied that the bad social practice of the age was the inevitable expression of its religious innovations, and that, if the reformers did not explicitly teach a conscienceless individualism, individualism was, at least, the natural corollary of their teaching. In the eighteenth century, which had as little love for the commercial restriction of the ages of monkish superstition as for their political theory, that view was advanced as eulogy. In our own day, the wheel seems almost to have come full circle. What was then a matter for congratulation is now often an occasion for criticism. There are writers by whom the Reformation is attacked, as inaugurating a period of unscrupulous commercialism, which had previously been held in check, it is suggested, by the teaching of the Church . If capitalism means the direction of industry by the owners of capital for their own pecuniary gain, and the social relationships which establish themselves between them and the wage-earning proletariat whom they control, then capitalism had existed on a grand scale both in medieval Italy and in medieval Flanders. If by the capitalist spirit is meant the temper which is prepared to sacrifice all moral scruples to the pursuit of profit, it had been only too familiar to the saints and sages of the Middle Ages . It was predominantly Catholic cities which were the commercial capitals of Europe, and Catholic bankers who were its leading financiers (pp. 83-84).