Worldview, Values and the World Economy

Dec 10th, 2011 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

Over 100 years ago, a path breaking book by the famed sociologist Max Weber was published:  The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.  Among other things, Weber made a profoundly important argument about the connection between religion and economics.  Where Karl Marx loathed religion as the opiate of the people, Weber maintained that the Protestant faith actually was the origin for the development of the capitalist system.  In summary, Weber argued that the Calvinist doctrine of election produced believers who sought to demonstrate their elect status by engaging in commerce and accumulation of material goods.  Therefore, Protestantism created a work ethic and a system of social trust so necessary for capital formation and commerce.  Obviously provocative and controversial, the Weber thesis remains relevant.  Weber identified the importance of religious and theological values to worldview building and human behavior.  A civilization?s worldview determines its values and, therefore, to some extent, explains human behavior.  Europe today continues to use phrases such as ?human rights and human dignity,? which are rooted in the Christian values of Western Civilization, but few Europeans know why they continue to believe such values are important.  The ghost of dead religious beliefs haunts Europe?and that is very important.  The Weber thesis is probably too simplistic but it raised an important question?the relationship between religious values and economic behavior.  They are not disconnected or irrelevant.  The connection between the two is incredibly important.

As an illustration of such a connection, I was struck by a recent essay by columnist David Brooks, entitled ?The Spirit of Enterprise.?  Permit me to summarize his argument.  He asks a provocative question??why are nations like Germany and the US rich??  He answers that it is due to habits, values and social capital.  There is a simple ethical formula at work in these nations:  Effort should lead to reward as often as possible.  ?People who work hard and play by the rules should have a fair shot at prosperity.  Money should go to people on the basis of merit and enterprise.  Self-control should be rewarded while laziness and self-indulgence should not.  Community institutions should nurture responsibility and fairness.?  But this ethical construct is being undermined in Europe and in the US:  People view lobbyists diverting money on the basis of connections; traders making millions off short-term manipulations; governments stealing money from future generations to reward voters.  The overall result is a ?crisis of legitimacy,? where social trust shrivels and effort is no longer worth it.  What has happened?  Over the past several decades, nations like Germany and the Netherlands have played by the rules and practiced good governance.  As Brooks says, ?they have lived within their means, undertaking painful reforms, enhanced their competitiveness and reinforced good values.  Now they are being browbeaten for not wanting to bail out nations like Greece, Italy and Spain, which did not do these things, which instead borrowed huge amounts of money that they are choosing not to repay.?  Further, ?They are defending the values, habits and social contract upon which the entire prosperity of the West is based.?  All of this occurring in Europe cannot be taken lightly by the US.  ?The structural problems plaguing [the US] economy remain unaddressed.  As a result, the United States suffers from a horrible crisis of trust that is slowing growth, restricting government action and sending our policies off in strange directions.?  The future for Europe and for the US revolves around how we answer these fundamental questions:  Which values will be rewarded and reinforced?  Will it be effort, productivity and self-discipline?  Or will it be bad governance, now and forever?  How we answer these questions will determine the future of the US.  We cannot ignore them and we cannot pretend they are unimportant.  The worldview, the values and the ethical foundation of America are being undermined in a way we have never seen before.  The very survival of our way of life is now in question.

See Brooks? brilliant essay in the New York Times (2 December 2011). PRINT PDF

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