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The Euro Crisis and the Protestant Work Ethic

The ongoing euro crisis has me thinking that maybe Europe has done something wrong. More importantly, it has me wondering if the United States is on the verge of making the same mistakes.
It’s difficult to deny that the American Dream is changing—it no longer conjures up the vision of starting a business, getting hitched, having two or three kids and signing up for usher duty at the local church. Instead, today’s American Dream is a mixed bag of values, priorities and lifestyles.
People simply do not want the same things they wanted 50 years ago. While this change is not inherently wrong in itself, scholars and theorists have diagnosed the associated decline in the American work ethic and found that it’s having negative effects on the social and economic makeup of our country. Free enterprise depends upon a society that encourages a strong work ethic. The two share a robust, symbiotic relationship—remove one from the formula and the other will be significantly weakened.
Consider this: According to Charles Murray in “Coming Apart,” the 2006 General Social Survey report found that men today are increasingly less interested in personally meaningful work and are on the hunt for jobs with the fewest number of working hours per week. In addition, the number of individuals who have appealed to be placed on a “disabled for work” list has risen by eight percent over the past 40 years, even as many of the previously “back breaking” jobs are now able to be done from the air-conditioned cockpit of a Bobcat. America is losing its work ethic.
In 1905, Max Weber, a founding father of social theory, published “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” a two-part thesis which stressed the importance of “vigorous discipline” and the selection of “vocation as a duty and virtue.” He observed that those of his contemporaries who succeeded in business were almost exclusively Protestant, a tradition of belief which, at the time, reinforced the virtues of duty, “devotion to labor,” and the rejection of short term gratification. The result, Weber found, was an efficient capitalist who strove for excellence, frugality and long-term ends.
This is not an argument for the conversion of all Americans to the Protestant tradition. I am, instead, appealing for a return to the social virtue of industriousness, to a strong work ethic.
In a 2003 New York Times article, Oxford scholar (and possible clairvoyant) Niall Ferguson stated that Europe is witnessing “the simultaneous decline of both Protestantism and its unique work ethic.” The result of which, he continued, has “grim implications for the future of the European Union.” Almost a decade later, it looks like he was on to something.
Obviously, there are more dynamics involved in the current European financial emergency than simply a lack of work ethic. However, we would be naïve to ignore the correlation. As we watch the euro crisis from across the pond, Americans have the opportunity for a little self-reflection. How important is it that we foster social norms of industriousness?
Whatever your personal qualms are with Weberian theory (I have a few of my own), it is important to recognize the meat of Weber’s argument: Capitalism flourishes in a system which promotes hard work and delayed gratification. In the mind of Weber, the ends of capitalism have very little to do with the accumulation of personal wealth.
Rather, he describes the principle feature of modern capitalism as “the acquisition of more and more money, combined with the strict avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment.” In other words, the accumulation and possession of wealth was divorced from instant indulgence and evolved into a form of discipline. Weber found that the Protestant capitalist was not only happier, but also made more money. These observations led him to conclude that the modern spirit of capitalism was built upon a system of belief which encouraged a strong work ethic and long term goals.
The European model of social democracy provides short-term solutions to bigger problems. It fosters indifference, a sense of entitlement, and laziness—all of which have harmful effects on society and economy. A strong economy and community is built, as AEI’s Charles Murray stresses, upon an underlying, societal assumption that “life is to be spent getting ahead through hard work, thereby making life better for oneself and one’s children.” The financial situation in Europe reminds us that a strong free market continues to depend upon that Protestant ethic.