Work Ethic: Denomination, Region, Ethnicity

The Protestant Work Ethic Is Real
Thanks to a recent paper in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, we finally have some answers for why Americans work so hard.
by Daniel Luzer

The connection between work and happiness is much more intense in Protestant countries than in others. Protestants suffer intense hardship from unemployment; the “psychic harm from unemployment is about 40 percent worse for Protestants than for the general population,” according to the authors. This also holds true for non-Protestants living in Protestant countries, where they suffer more from unemployment than their global neighbors.

As the authors put it:

The resulting ‘experienced preferences’ provide strong support for Weber’s original thesis: for both Protestants and Protestant countries, not having a job has substantially larger negative happiness effects than for other religious denominations. This provides a Weber-type channel relating religion to socio-economic outcomes.

In other words, Protestantism may not make you rich, but it sure makes you unhappy when you’re not rich. The old Calvinist doctrine of a livelihood as the source of one’s value, and a sign of God’s favor, wreaks great havoc on people’s lives when that livelihood is gone. What’s more, this is true even when people practice other religions (or none at all) in largely Protestant countries. They experience the same impulses. What this really indicates is just how important Protestantism is to our concept of work—all of our concepts of work.

But this one paper doesn’t prove that Weber was accurate about everything. A 2009 paper by economist Davide Cantoni, for example, looked scrupulously at economic data from Catholic and Protestant cities in Germany from 1300 to 1900, subjected the information to meticulous multivariate analysis, and discovered that there was no evidence that Protestantism made people richer. So the Dutch paper doesn’t necessarily mean Weber was right, but it does indicate that he was on to something.

As hard workers attempted to prosper in business in order to show that they were God’s chosen ones, over time hard work became the object in itself, particularly in the United States. This is ultimately sort of ironic because, as Tim Kreider wrote in his recent New York Times article condemning busyness, “The Puritans turned work into a virtue, evidently forgetting that God invented it as a punishment.” But there you have it. We work hard because it’s the American way. And it’s the American way because the Puritans did it.

Nice data and commentary.

It reminds me of some differences between Catholic and Protestant countries. Catholic countries tend to emphasize kinship and taking care of one’s own. This may not mean working less hard, rather working for other purposes, specifically less individualistic purposes. I remember seeing mention (I think in hbd chick’s blog) that countries in southern Europe have fewer homeless people because family will take in their unemployed kin. Northern Europe supposedly has higher rates of homeless. It is a lot harder to be homeless in the North than in the South. The dark side of Protestant work ethic is severe punishment of the unemployed and poor; this is what is called capitalist realism — with individualism comes the attitude of blaming the individual.

I see similar differences in the US, but it played out with different Christian denominations. In America, the earliest division was between Anglicanism in the South and religious dissenters in the North. The Puritans of course included Calvinists and the Quakers were influenced by Calvinism. Oddly, though, the Calvinist vs non-Calvinist was reversed in terms of the hardworking German immigrants who were largely non-Calvinist and the perceived lazy Scots-Irish who were largely Calvinist. There is a great passage from American Nations by Colin Woodard which I notice is quoted in full by Hunter Wallace in the Occidental Dissent blog, but here is the relevant section:

Nineteenth-century visitors ofter remarked on the difference between the areas north and south of the old National Road, an early highway that bisected Ohio and which is now called U.S. 40. North of the road, houses were said to be substantial and well maintained, with well-fed livestock outside and literate, well-schooled inhabitants within. Village greens, white church steeples, town hall belfries, and green-shuttered houses were the norm. South of the road, farm buildings were unpainted, the people were poorer and less educated, and the better homes were built with brick in Greco-Roman style. “As you travel north across Ohio,” Ohio State Univeresity dean Harlan Hatcher wrote in 1945, “you feel that you have been transported from Virginia to Connecticut.” 

Why didn’t those Calvinist Scots-Irish embrace the standard pro-capitalist work ethic? The North, especially the Northeast, has always had a more capitalist tradition and the South was in the past quite wary of capitalism along with the industrialization and wage labor that went with it. This difference fed into the rhetoric behind the secession conflict, and some see this as a reason for the continued impoverishment of the rural South where the Scots-Irish settled in the greatest concentration.

It should be pointed out that the Catholic angle has a far different place in American society. It doesn’t fit into the pattern of southern concentration as found in Europe.

In most northern rural farming states (in the furthest western regions of the Midwest), Catholic churches are everywhere because many of those farmers and descendants of farmers are Catholics. There has always been a conflict between the agrarian lifestyle and industrialized capitalism. It isn’t a conflict of work ethic as those Midwestern farmers have more than enough work ethic, but it is a difference between wanting to work for oneself (and for one’s family) rather than work for a boss. Working class Catholics, whether as farmers or laborers, have often fought against the power of the capitalist elite. This might be why areas of high Catholic membership largely coincides with areas of high labor union membership.

This is one of the reasons that the Midwest wasn’t always a clear ally of New England. That said, it wasn’t really a conflict between Catholics and Protestants for Catholics were also concentrated in the Northeast. It makes one wonder, with all those Northern Catholics, why the North became so dominated by capitalism. Maybe it’s a Protestant, specifically Calvinist, founding effect that preceded the large number of later Catholic immigrants. Likewise, even after Calvinism having spread throughout the South, maybe there still is the lasting founding effect of anti-Calvinist Anglicanism.