By Prof.Deirdre McCloskey/Reason .com
Max Weber, the north German economist, proud reserve officer in the Kaiser’s army, literal dueler with academic opponents, and co-founder of modern sociology, sits on every college reading list for his 1905 book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.
If you didn’t read it in college, it’s time to turn off the TV, Google it, and do so. It’s a stunning performance, one of my top 100 nonfiction books of the 20th century. The book is brilliant, readable, short. (By the way, henceforth you should exhibit your sophistication by pronouncing his name correctly. It’s “VAY-ber,” not like the “WEB-er” hamburger grill you’ve just put away for the year. You get extra points for saying “Max” in echt deutsch: “Maahx,” not like “Mad Max.”)
Others of the stunning 100 include Joseph Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942), John Maynard Keynes’ The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936), Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949), and Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (1983). If you don’t know such books, you don’t know much, and you really need to get going.
But that a book is “great” does not mean it is correct, or is to be taken as good history or good economics or good theology. Marx’s Das Kapital is indubitably a great book, one of the very greatest of the 19th century, as I say to annoyed friends of libertarian or conservative bent. But then I say to my left-wing friends, annoying them too, that Marx was wrong on almost every point of economics, history, and politics. Which is why I haven’t got any friends.
So what’s wrong with Weber’s argument? First we need the argument. (Reading this summary is not an excuse for skipping the actual book.) Weber thinks that there is such a thing as, to use the Marxist word, modern “capitalism,” originating in the 16th century. By capitalism he means, as the name implies, the focused accumulation of capital in masses. The focused accumulation, he says, depends on ample saving and hard work, characteristic of the Protestant north Germans as against the lazy, Catholic Bavarians.
How to get the ample saving and hard work? Spirit, Geist, runs things, he says (and I do too). He claims that the doctrine of salvation put forward by John Calvin emerged as the new spirit’s engine. People saved and worked because they wanted to prove to themselves that they were in fact among the few “elect,” predestined since the beginning by an omniscient God to be saved from hell’s fire.
It is a theory about psychology, applicable Weber claimed even to the world-enjoying descendants of Calvinists, such as our own Benjamin Franklin. Weber took the comical speech Franklin wrote for Poor Richard’s Almanac in the person of wise Father Abraham—”Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise”—to be exactly what Franklin believed. No one lacking a sense of humor should venture on interpreting Franklin. (Weber’s nephew said once that a sense of humor was the main characteristic lacking in his beloved Uncle Max.)
Weber’s theory continues to acquire converts, namely, anyone who reads the book without considerable knowledge of theology, economics, or history. The union of a spiritual spark with materialist kindling utterly charms the first reader. But almost everyone who has looked seriously into the evidence behind Weber’s theory finds it lacking.
For an economic example, it is not true that accumulation caused the modern Great Enrichment. In the absence of innovation, as Keynes pointed out, mere accumulation would swiftly reach diminishing returns. It could hardly, therefore, explain an enrichment since 1800 in places like Germany and the U.S. and Japan of 3,000 percent in the goods and services made and earned by the poorest among us.
Market-tested betterments, not the mere investment for exploiting them, explain our riches. Electricity. Autos, soon self-driving. Large living quarters. Doubled life expectancy. Better education in great books.
Now Weber was a very learned and intelligent scholar. After all, he gave us the true definition of a government, namely, a monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory. It is a definition as full and accurate as it is sadistically useful for torturing our mild social democratic friends in Sweden or Massachusetts, who like to believe that the government is a festival of kindly collectivism, sort of like a loving family.
Weber wisely understood as well that greed was not invented in the 16th century, which is a persistent if silly theory about markets. He wrote in The Protestant Ethic that “it should be taught in the kindergarten of cultural history that this naive idea [about] capitalism must be given up once and for all.” Greed “has been common to all sorts and conditions of men at all times and in all countries of the earth.”
And Weber was spot on in saying that “spirit” runs the show. But oddly for the founder of modern sociology, he located the spirit in individual, terrified, Calvinist psychology, not out in society. The psychological hypothesis has been taken up, not very successfully, in studies of individual entrepreneurship.
What actually changed between the age of Shakespeare and the age of Jane Austen was not individual psychology but a spirit of social approval for capitalist acts among consenting adults. Entrepreneurship at the psychological level probably exists in all human groups—in, say, one in 10 or so of the people. Look at your acquaintance who fearlessly opened a new hairdressing salon, or your college classmate who jumped on the improvement of the internet. You can make a case, as George Gilder does in his 2009 book The Israel Test, that the Jews of Eastern Europe are often unusually good at initiating trade-tested betterments. Could be. Looks like it, and for the benefit of us all, as against the lush growth of anti-Semitism these days. But in the coming world we will enjoy the benefits brought by scores of such unusually entrepreneurial groups, in Africa and Asia and Latin America. It’s not psychology. It’s sociology and law.
So Weber was mistaken. But his is still a great book. Culture, wrote the Victorian critic Matthew Arnold, “is a study of perfection [which] seeks to do away with classes; to make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere.” Even the best may be found after a while to be mistaken.
Hobbes’ Leviathan is mistaken, claiming centrally that “Covenants, without the sword, are but words, and of no strength to secure a man.” Wrong, wrong, wrong. Geist expressed in words does indeed bind and secure people. But Michael Oakeshott properly classed Leviathan as the greatest (and “perhaps the only”) work of English political philosophy.
Another Victorian, a witty atheist, used to suggest that every church door have a large sign declaring “Important if true.” The Protestant Ethic is important though false, an instance of imperfect perfection.
(Deirdre McCloskey is emerita professor of economics, history, English, and communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the author most recently of Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World)
(The featured image at the top is that of Max Weber)