June 8, 2003


Why America Outpaces Europe (Clue: The God Factor) (NIALL FERGUSON, June 8, 2003, NY Times)
It was almost a century ago that the German sociologist Max Weber published his influential essay The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In it, Weber argued that modern capitalism was "born from the spirit of Christian asceticism" in its specifically Protestant form--in other words, there was a link between the self-denying ethos of the Protestant sects and the behavior patterns associated with capitalism, above all hard work.

Many scholars have built careers out of criticizing Weber's thesis. Yet the experience of Western Europe in the past quarter-century offers an unexpected confirmation of it. To put it bluntly, we are witnessing the decline and fall of the Protestant work ethic in Europe. This represents the stunning triumph of secularization in Western Europe--the simultaneous decline of both Protestantism and its unique work ethic.

Just as Weber's 1904 visit to the United States convinced him that his thesis was right, anyone visiting New York today would have a similar experience. For in the pious, industrious United States, the Protestant work ethic is alive and well. Its death is a peculiarly European phenomenon--and has grim implications for the future of the European Union on the eve of its eastward expansion, perhaps most economically disastrous for the "new" Europe.

Many economists have missed this vindication of Weber because they are focused on measures of productivity, like output per hour worked. On that basis, the Western European economies have spent most of the past half-century spectacularly catching up with the United States.

But what the productivity numbers don't reveal is the dramatic divergence over two decades between the amount of time Americans work and the amount of time Western Europeans work. By American standards, Western Europeans are astonishingly idle. [...]

Why have West Europeans opted for shorter working days, weeks, months, years and lives? This is where Weber's thesis comes up trumps: the countries where the least work is done in Europe turn out to be those that were once predominantly Protestant. While the overwhelmingly Catholic French and Italians work about 15 to 20 percent fewer hours a year than Americans, the more Protestant Germans and Dutch and the wholly Protestant Norwegians work 25 to 30 percent less.

What clinches the Weber thesis is that Northern Europe's declines in working hours coincide almost exactly with steep declines in religious observance. In the Netherlands, Britain, Germany, Sweden and Denmark, less than 10 percent of the population now attend church at least once a month, a dramatic decline since the 1960's. (Only in Catholic Italy and Ireland do more than a third of the population go to church on a monthly basis.) In the recent Gallup Millennium Survey of religious attitudes, 49 percent of Danes, 52 percent of Norwegians and 55 percent of Swedes said God did not matter to them. In North America, by comparison, 82 percent of respondents said God was "very important."

So the decline of work in Northern Europe has occurred more or less simultaneously with the decline of Protestantism. Quod erat demonstrandum indeed!

The most interesting aspect of this essay--which, as beloved Boston biologist blogger Brother Murtaugh ruefully but generously admits, merely confirms most of our prejudices--may be that even Niall Ferguson, one of the best young conservative historians in Britain, finds the confirmation of Weber's thesis "unexpected". There are plenty of reasons for folks to support secularization, chief among them that by draining people's lives of any meaning it tends to reduce tensions in society. But it would seem impossible for any reasonable observer who is not blinded by ideology to argue at this late date in the West that secularization is not at heart a form of euthanasia, the mark of a culture that's decided to terminate itself bloodlessly rather than thrive rambunctiously.

World Values Survey Posted by Orrin Judd at June 8, 2003 6:12 PM
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