Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Capitalism on the Rocks

A century or so ago sociologist Max Weber declared that the Protestant work ethic was the underpinning of capitalism. You cannot have a thriving capitalist culture unless wealth and worldly success are signs of virtue.

The work ethic has been under attack for as long as it has existed. Recently, pop philosopher Alain de Botton entered the fray. In a new book de Botton says that work is merely a distraction that serves to keep us from the serious business of thinking about death.

Hopefully, this was not intended to be a comforting thought for those who are out of work.

Perhaps despite itself, the book does raise an important question: Have we have lost the work ethic?

Is capitalism on the rocks, not because markets do not function, but because we did not place enough value on work, and did not understand that market participants must conduct their affairs ethically.

In a celebrity-addled culture people believe that there is little correlation between the amount of work you do and the amount of wealth you accumulate.

Even in the financial services industry it became customary for people to gain bonuses that were incommensurate with the work that they had expended or the value that they had added to the economy.

Moreover, the celebrity culture valued extravagant expenditures. Luxuriating in a life of idle pleasures might have been something of a preparation for Heaven, but it did not affirm the value of work.

A celebrity culture does not value work; it values leisure. If you believe that you should be spending this life preparing for the next life then you would do better to excel at leisure than at work. No one works in Heaven.

De Botton's idea derives from the Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius. The latter believed that the best you could do with your life was to contemplate death. By implication, work was for peasants and slaves.

Of course, if death is mere nothingness, you cannot spend too much time thinking about it.

For Christianity the present life is merely a prelude to a more glorious afterlife.

Being in Christian Heaven meant basking in God's glory, which seems to resemble sunbathing. Surely, it was more like contemplation than work.

Pre-Reformation Christianity held that those who participate too fully in the commerce of everyday life are not preparing themselves for the better days to come.

According to the Church the path to Heaven was opened by sacraments administered by the Church itself. Evidently, this gave the Roman Church enormous authority. Just as clearly, the Protestant reformation wanted to undermine that authority.

Among the first reformers John Calvin believed that your place in Heaven was determined solely by God and was known to God before you were born. Surely, he wanted people to evince faith in God, but he did not see Church sacraments as essential to salvation.

Calvin also believed that the clearest outward sign of eventual redemption was worldly success. Centuries later Deng Xiaoping would set off a capitalist revolution in China with the slogan: It is good to be rich.

For Protestantism work became something of an extra-ecclesiastical sacrament. The work ethic saw earning money as a good thing. You did not have to feel guilty about being rich and you did not have to do penance by giving charity to the Church and the poor. In fact, the Protestant work ethic held that charitable giving encouraged idleness and sloth.

The work ethic obviously challenged the European cultural order. It held that it was better to earn a living by building a business than by inheriting a fortune. It rejected a social order where an idle and decadent aristocracy lived off of the work of others, be they servants or slaves.

But if the Protestant work ethic was the cultural impetus behind the development of Western capitalism, have we now lost it? Did we become too obsessed with accumulating quantities of wealth that were incommensurate with the amount of work we had put it, too easily seduced by the notion that we could best prepare for the afterlife by perfecting our skill at vacation?

And if we did, and if the market is exacting a steep price for our self-indulgence, where do we go to get the work ethic back?

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