The process of economic development is the process by which closed societies are broken open, reestablished upon new foundations built upon freedom on the one hand and accountability on the other. Historically, this was not a mechanical process; nor was it planned. To use Hayek’s phrasing, it is the product of human action, not of human design. It is the process by which increasing freedom is enjoyed by the individual, who comes out from under the shelter of protective community, but who thereby incurs the responsibility of action, and the responsibility of having to provide for dependents and self. This burden of responsibility is ever the accompaniment of freedom.
The more these institutions and this social order gains ground, the greater the burden which comes to rest on the individual. And this is a source of discontent, leading even to the desire to turn back the clock and return to the comfort zone of greater security at the expense of freedom. And might not the ultimate result of this kind of freedom/security tradeoff be that the mere fear of the unknown keeps, and has kept, the greater part of humanity in a kind of self-inflicted bondage?
The empirical fact is that the society in which the freedom of the individual is central is the exception rather than the rule in history. It is the product of a long process of civilization, not a mechanical one at all, but one in which spiritual factors have played a primary role. In fact, Western civilization has engendered the society of freedom, a civilization which is, or at least always was, Christian, with a specific kind of Christianity – Latin – at that.
This is no coincidence. It means that Western civilization is uniquely the heir of Rome, and thus of Roman law, the primordial manifestation of common-law institutions in history. (1) Western Christianity is uniquely stamped by this Roman origin, especially with its emphasis on law. This has led to what is known as judicial theology, whereby the transactional concepts of debt and settlement receive religious sanction and import. It has also led to the emphasis on the rule of law and to the establishment of principles of constitutional government whereby impersonal bonds of subjection to law – Montesquieu’s virtue – replace personal bonds of subordination, lordship and subjection. It has led to forms of religious expression in which the congregation, rather than the hierarchy, became the central focus, and popular action and initiative become emphasized as the pillars of church establishment and growth over against authoritative institutions.
This kind of religious expression is today spreading across the world, just as are the institutions of the common law and of capitalism. In fact, they go in tandem. For in this uniquely Western form of religious expression, commonly known as evangelicalism, are captured the essential spiritual elements required to maintain those capitalist institutions. Without them, those institutions lack the spiritual basis they need to be sustained. For specific spiritual foundations are necessary in order to maintain the level of Montesquieu-type virtue needed to bear the burden of freedom.
We are now entering the thickets of scholarly debate which have sprung up about the so-called “Weber Thesis” of the German historian and philosopher Max Weber (1864-1920). In his journal article Die Protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism), published in 1907, Weber proposed this thesis more or less to the effect that Protestantism produced capitalism. The details have been debated ever since, and the conclusion has been disputed, mainly to argue that Catholicism has had just as much to do with rise of capitalism as has Protestantism. Be that as it may, the main thrust of the argument is by and large accepted, that Western Christianity in general, if not Protestantism in particular, had a lot to do with the rise of capitalism.
This is a complicated issue, of course, but I would like to concentrate on something that makes clear the relationship between Christianity and capitalism, and why the Christian church, specifically in its evangelical form, is necessary to the survival of capitalism.
Evangelicalism is an expression of what Walzer has called “the revolution of the saints.” (2) Walzer’s depiction of the Puritans as alienated curmudgeons, rendered capable of any action by their grim world-view of predestination and a despotic God, is most certainly overdrawn. But the kernel is correct: the Puritans, along with other Protestant “sects” of the period of the Reformation, were revolting against traditional bonds in the name of spiritual freedom. They wished to establish the church upon principles of true spirituality, whereby faith and the Bible took pride of place, not hierarchy and blind authority. This led to repeated clashes with the existing order; it also, together with the ethical imperative brought about by biblical religion, led to a focus on productive activity and commercial probity, to a faith in the providence of God even in the things of this life, which dovetailed nicely with the push toward a capitalist order of economic advance.
Weber noted that “above all the collective forms of Western and Eastern European ascetic Protestantism and sectarianism: Zwinglians, Calvinists, Reformed, Baptists, Mennonites, Quakers, Reformed and, in lesser degree, Lutheran Pietists, Methodists, as well as the Russian schismatics and heretics, above all the rational pietistic sects, indeed in extremely various manner, yet absolutely, were linked most closely to economically rational and – where such was possible economically – capitalistic developments” (p. 292). (3)
The link was clear between what Weber called Gemeindereligiosität (congregation religiosity) and a self-reliant enterprising spirit. City life, in which this enterprising spirit was embodied, was likewise the seat of this “rational-ethical” spiritual life.
In the past the city was the seat of piety …. In fact, early Christian religion is city-oriented religion, and the significance of Christianity increases, under otherwise similar circumstances, with the size of the city, as Harnack convincingly demonstrated. And in the Middle Ages, religiosity which was faithful to the church as well as that which was sectarian developed entirely specifically in the soil of the cities. It is entirely unlikely that an organized congregation religiosity, as was the early Christian, would have been able to develop as it did apart from a city-oriented, which is to say, “city-oriented” in the Western sense of the word, community life .… Even the specific qualities of Christianity as ethical religion of redemption and personal piety found its genuine breeding ground in the soil of the city, and there ever and again sent up new shoots, in contrast to the ritualistic, magical, or formalistic reinterpretation which was favored by the preponderance of the feudal powers (pp. 287-288).
Furthermore, “rational-ethical congregation religiosity” went in convoy with the development of rational capitalist enterprise, and indeed seemed to produce it in some manner: “the new formation of capital, more precisely stated: of continuous, production-oriented money-holding, realized in rational manner – for the generation of profit – and specifically industrial – thus, capital specifically realized in the modern way – is linked in the most noteworthy manner and frequency with the rational ethical congregation religiosity of those classes” (p. 292).
Weber further noted that this form of religion, together with its specific economic orientation, developed in place of, and to a degree in opposition to, blood relation, especially in its more intensive, clannish forms. “The fact that congregation religiosity and middling to small city citizenry were wont to be closely connected, especially in the West, had its natural basis initially in the relative receding of blood relations, in particular the clan, within the Western city. The individual found a substitute for this in freely created religious communities, in addition to vocational relations, which in the West, as everywhere else, had cultic significance, although that significance was no longer tabooistic” (p. 293).
Modern evangelicalism in the developing world is of a similar nature. It calls upon its adherents to give up traditional mores and blind authority in favor of self-chosen goals, self-reliance, trust in Providence, and free association in pursuit of specific goals, first and foremost the goal of a corporate spiritual life, the church as Body of Christ. This drive has a deleterious effect on traditional arrangements and leads to the fundamental reordering of social life. But it also fills the vacuum brought about when traditional arrangements have been thrown into confusion by the new economic forces of globalization and urbanization. Where these forces are having their greatest effect, there also is evangelicalism growing most forcefully and having its greatest effect.
Such a spiritual movement is necessary to the continued success of this common-law project of economic development in the developing world. For the baseline condition of man is not freedom but subjection, this being the result of the quest for security. Fear leads to the quest for security, which leads to subjection. This “failure of nerve” is constantly assailing man in his condition of freedom, with its concomitant responsibility and burden of credit/debt relations, of the continuing need to engage and settle obligations. The life of freedom is the life of risk; the pluralist social order which is the expression of freedom is maintained by the continued capacity to bear risk, to take the responsibility for an uncertain future by continuing with the engagement of credit and debt obligations. This is what holds the communitarian monolith at bay. The walls of liberty are held up by the capacity to encumber, to obligate and be obligated, to stand surety for an uncertain future. Those walls collapse when that capacity recedes, when society gives way to the desire for security, and the quest for community becomes an overpowering desire for certainty and the abandonment of self-reliance.
This is evident in the developed world, where one may track the corresponding trends of declining spirituality and increased reliance upon government as ersatz community. There one sees clearly the increasing disposition to undermine if not overthrow the institutions of private law which make possible the society of freedom; the discouragement of risk by the punishment of reward, in favor of dependence on government and the divorce of sustenance from responsibility. This trend fits nicely with a blasé attitude toward religion, and in fact seems to demand such an attitude.
Behind the drift toward religious indifference is a shift in soteriology. This is a subject not many know anything about, but should, because, whether they know it or not, everyone is occupied with it their entire lives. Soteriology has to do with salvation: what it is, how is attained, who attains it, who, or what, brings it about. If evangelicalism has a blind spot, it is that it tends to view soteriology in individualistic terms; it views the mandate of the church – “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 28:19, KJV) – as the mandate to save souls, rather than societies, even though it is nations (εθνη) which the church is called to address. Be that as it may, there is a connection here to be laid bare, between capitalism – and anti-capitalism – and soteriology.
For salvation is not to be seen in those individualistic, purely other-worldly terms. And people have come to realize that salvation which is only other-worldly has little to say to their present situation, and therefore may safely be ignored, or at least compartmentalized. Solutions to the real-world problems people face – those, and those who purport to provide them, are what command attention.
The capitalist order, then, is one in which people are constantly faced with the imperative to bear risk, make decisions, take responsibility. This is a burden which goes along with the very real burden of debt, of obligation, which form part and parcel of the jural relations of property and contract. They are all various aspects of the same thing: freedom in civil society.
What sustains this ability to bear the burden of civic freedom is spiritual freedom – freedom from cosmic guilt, a guilt brought on by the conscious or sub-conscious awareness of, for want of a better word, sin. Mankind owes a debt to God for having offended Him – this is something all religions agree upon, even if their God be not of personal variety, for in that case it is not punishment which is in the offing but mere annihilation, at any rate settlement of some sort. The extinguishment of obligation is something for which mankind longs, and it is rooted in this primordial dissonance, which is ever demanding of resolution.
Primitive religions have sought to attain this resolution through various rituals and customs of atonement. Obligation is something to be avoided at all costs, replaced with reciprocity and command-and-control, for in the latter, there is no residual claim to be settled. The quest for atonement – once and for all settlement of obligation – is endemic to religions of all stripes, but the odd thing is that they never attain to such. “For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4, KJV). The entire social order is geared toward attaining this unattainable goal, either by punishing infractions in an inhumane way, or by sacrifice of the innocent victim, or by scapegoating, but also by minimizing the behavior leading to the buildup of credit and debt in the first place. This is what lies behind the universally exhibited phenomenon of envy. (4) It is not so much that one has done better than someone else which is at issue with envy, but rather that, in having done so, one amasses a credit/debt burden which extends to others, one has obligated others to oneself, one brings the resentment of the debtor – be he a debtor only potentially – upon one’s head, and the evil eye makes its appearance.
Jural relations of obligation, of owing and being owed, cannot be sustained in an atmosphere of dread regarding obligation, settlement, and the “day of decision.” Ultimately, the security offered by monolithic community is the escape from obligation and its burdens. The monolithic community therefore strives to obliterate the jural relations which maintain the regime of obligation, and to attain the effacement of cosmic obligation through strategies of atonement.
But the Christian religion is free of this quest, for the church believes it has already attained atonement, not through her own efforts, but through the atoning work of Christ. That atonement having been achieved, the Christian is free to allow a regime of obligation to grow and develop, for he need not fear obligation: he will repay what he owes, for ultimately he knows that the only debt he cannot discharge is the debt to love his neighbor. (5)
Therefore the growth and influence of a vibrant church steeped in the true principle of “der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen” (The Freedom of a Christian Person), the title of one of Martin Luther’s major works, is as important to the success of the “lifting of the bell jar” as are all the efforts of secular reform of legal systems, fiscal regimes, monetary policy, and the like. Perhaps such efforts as the World Christian Database (6), tracking the growth and activity of the various Christian denominations world-wide, should be added to indices of property rights and tax regimes in order to gain a truly comprehensive overview on the intertwined prospects for freedom, Christian and economic, in the world.
[From chapter 6, “Collapsing Walls,” of Investing in the New Normal: Beyond the Keynesian Endpoint (Aalten: WordBridge, 2010).]
3. This, and the following, citations are of my own translation from the original German edition of Economy and Society, and therefore do not derive from the extant English translation thereof. The specific edition used is Grundriss der Sozialökonomik. III. Abteilung. Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft. Bearbeitet von Max Weber (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, [1921-] 1922).
5. This is the sense of Romans 13:8, as is also evident from the translation in the New International Version of 1984: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law.” Johnson comments thusly on this verse: “Not only pay all tribute due, but all that is due every man. Every obligation must be discharged. The church member, who makes debts and does not meet them, violates this command.” B.W. Johnson, The People’s New Testament (St. Louis: Christian Publishing Company, 1891). Charles Hodge’s commentary leaves no doubt regarding the interpretation of this verse: “That is, acquit yourselves of all obligations, except love, which is a debt which must remain ever due. This is the common, and, considering the context which abounds with commands, the most natural interpretation of this passage. The idea which a cursory reader might be disposed to attach to these words, in considering them as a direction not to contract pecuniary debts, is not properly expressed by them; although the prohibition, in its spirit, includes the incurring of such obligations when we have not the certain prospect of discharging them. The command, however, is, ‘Acquit yourselves of all obligations, tribute, custom, fear, honour, or whatever else you may owe, but remember that the debt of love is still unpaid, and always must remain so, for love includes all duty, since he that loves another fulfils the law.'”A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (London: The Religious Tract Society, 1838), p. 383.