I worked in Europe for over nine years. There are many cultural differences between Americans and Europeans, but one very noticeable difference is work ethic. Europeans are highly educated and excellent workers but are typically not workaholics. They value their time away from work and while desiring higher wages like Americans, most balance financial benefits with leisure time. A simplistic view is that Europeans work to live while Americans live to work. Why is there such a work ethic difference between Americans and Europeans? How did this happen since the United States was created by an alliance of western European settlements?
When researching my book, Trading with God, I purposely did not dive deeply into the Protestant ethic, a term created by Max Weber, as it is a complex sociological subject that has aroused much debate since its scholarly inception. I will break this subject into a series of blogs that gives the reader an overview and hopefully, a basic understanding of the formulation of modern capitalism.
Dr. Stephen Kalberg, Professor of Sociology at Boston University, translated from German to English Max Weber’s groundbreaking book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2011). Max Weber (1864-1920) was a Professor of Economics at the Universities of Freiburg and Heidelberg. Weber published his seminal thesis in two parts, the first in 1904 and the second in 1905. He wrote subsequent remarks and rebuttals until his death in 1920 during the flu pandemic. Widely traveled and acclaimed for his scholarship, Weber also experienced bouts of mental illness and incapacity.
Dr. Kalberg, in his introduction to Weber’s writings, supports what I experienced during my European work assignments:
“Today, the United States competes with South Korea for worldwide leadership in number of hours worked per person per year; Europeans, in contrast, work approximately two-thirds as many hours per year as Americans. … We praise the work ethis of our peers and ‘hard workers’ are generally assumed to be people of good character. A salary increase is awarded often to the ‘most dedicated’ employee – a person who works, with pride, not only days but also nights and weekends. … Many people define self-worth according to their success in a profession. A steady orientation to career goals and the disciplined organization of one’s life to that end are praised.” (pages 9-10)
It is important to first understand some basic definitions. The US economy is based on capitalism which “has existed in all the world’s civilizations. It involves the expectation of profit and peaceful opportunities for acquisition. A calculation of earnings in money terms occurs – at the beginning (starting balance) and end of the project (concluding balance), and in respect to the utility of all potential transactions.” (page 417) We read stories in Scripture of Old Testament capitalism during early human civilization and it continues today as the dominate economic system.
Adventure capitalism is a “type of capitalism. … Since the dawn of history, entrepreneurs and speculators have financed wars, piracy, construction projects, shipping, plantations using forced labor, political parties, and mercenaries. These money-making enterprises are of a purely speculative nature and often involve wars and violent activities. Loans of every sort are offered.” (page 416) While “Weber sees adventure capitalism as universal,” he distinguishes it from modern capitalism which “involved the rational organization of free labor, the systematic pursuit of profit, and a spirit of capitalism. Weber concludes that a Protestant ethic played a role in giving rise to this spirit.” (page 420) Modern capitalism was founded upon the rise of Calvinism which later propagated into mainstream American culture.
Prior to the Reformation (1517-1648), there was economic traditionalism. This is “a frame of mind in respect to work. Work is viewed as a necessary evil and only one arena of life, no more important than the arenas of leisure, family, and friends. ‘Traditional needs’ are implied: when fulfilled, then work ceases. This frame of mind stands in opposition to the development of modern capitalism.” (page 418) Western Catholicism of the Middle Ages valued the contemplative professions (priests, monks, bishops, nuns, etc.) above secular professions. “Medieval Catholicism maintained a highly negative image of merchants and businessmen in general. Their perceived lust for gain placed riches above the kingdom of God and thereby endangered the soul, and their exploitation of persons on behalf of economic gain opposed the Christian ethic of brotherhood and group solidarity. … An unequivocal axiom prevailed: … The merchant may conduct himself without sin but cannot be pleasing to God.” (page 24)
Before the Reformation, Christians did not link economic activity with the saving grace of God. The Church taught that prayer, upholding the commandments, confession of sins, and performing prescribed penance would result in their eventual passage into heaven. Confession relieved their sinful burdens, penance mitigated the sinful damage, and priestly forgiveness negated the sinful issue. “Only the ‘religious virtuosi’ – monks and nuns – organized their lives in a methodical-rational manner, yet they remained in monasteries ‘outside the world.’” (page 24) Rational is defined as “a systematic, rigorous, disciplined element to action.” (page 422)
The Reformation disrupted 1500 years of Christian work theology founded upon dualism (sacred over secular) and the Church’s prescribed steps towards gaining salvation. It started with Martin Luther and was theologically systemized by John Calvin.