The “Protestant Ethic” versus The Gospels

Niall Ferguson has a very curious essay in today’s New York Times. He asserts two things that are clearly true — that Americans typically take their religion far more seriously than Europeans do, and that Americans are also more committed to paid work, with longer workweeks and longer worklives — and claims that the two observations prove that Max Weber was right about the Protestant ethic.

The main point of the essay is political rather than religious: Ferguson fears that the European Union will impose what he calls its “secularized sloth” on the Eastern European countries who are lining up to join it. Ferguson seems a little confused in his treatment of Catholicism, and I doubt that Weber would think that the article adequately restates his thesis, but let those details pass.

To me, the striking thing about the article is Ferguson’s strongly-expressed but apparently unexamined preference for overwork as a way of life and his apparent unawareness of the irony involved in claiming a Christian religious sanction for a commitment to relentless getting and spending.

By ordinary economic logic, the richer we get the more we ought to be willing, at the margin, to trade off material goods for the leisure in which to enjoy them. That Americans have actually been lengthening their work years over the past couple of decades is doubtless true, but it ought to be regarded as puzzling rather than praiseworthy. We ought to be examining our social system to figure out why it doesn’t offer more opportunities to earn a little less and have a little more time off, and why so many people in the richest country in the world feel so stretched financially that they neglect their health (for example by undersleeping and underexcercising), their friendships, and their families to pile up the dough. It isn’t just that the workweek has extended; commuting times, too, have grown.

Why? Why aren’t Americans taking more of their increased wealth as leisure rather than consumer goods? Robert Frank has some thoughts on these topics that seem to me convincing, both in Luxury Fever and in the book on “Winner-take-all” economics he wrote with Phil Cook, but I’m insisting here on the questions rather than on any particular answers.

Put aside for the moment about the problems of children whose parents aren’t (still) married. Just how pleased are we supposed to be that an upper-middle-class child of today in an intact family gets substantially fewer parental hours devoted to his or her upbringing than would have been true a generation ago? The entry of women into the professional workplace was, in my view, a great social accomplishment, but wouldn’t we be better off as a country if both the earners in two-earner families with kids felt able to work fewer hours and spend more hours doing the job of parent?

Ferguson can barely control his rage at the thought that the horrid, horrid “Old European” European Union is threatening to deprive the innocent (though now, Ferguson reports, Godless) Czechs of the glorious opportunity to put in 2000 hours a year at the office. That will, he explains, mean that the US will continue to have a higher GDP per capita than Europe, despite the fact that Western European productivity is as high as, or higher than, ours. He seems to think this is self-evidently A Bad Thing, though he doesn’t bother to explain why.

Nor does Ferguson ever reflect on what a certain rabbi from Nazareth might think about all of this. But it’s not really very hard to figure out; the Sermon on the Mount is memorably eloquent: “Lay not up treasure here on earth … you cannot serve God and Mammon … Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them…And why take ye thought for raiment? Behold the lilies of the field: they toil not, neither do they spin, and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these …”

Jesus, as quoted in the Gospels, is sometimes obscure, but his position on the Protestant Ethic couldn’t be clearer. He was against it.

Now I’m not very religious, and the religion I mostly don’t practice isn’t Christianity. So I’m not committed to the idea that what Jesus said is the way people ought to behave. And of course there are lots of things about institutional Christianity that are hard to square with the Gospels; there’s no contradiction between the textual claim that the Sermon on the Mount is hostile to accumulation and Weber’s sociological claim that some aspects of Protestantism were favorable to economic growth.

But isn’t it rather strange to claim as an argument in favor of Christian religiosity that it encourages people to sacrifice their children to Mammon?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: