#Occupy the Protestant Work Ethic
Why Attacking Capitalism Just Makes You Look Foolish
By: G. Shane Morris|Published: November 16, 2011 10:44 AM
Topics: Business & Economics, History, Politics & Government, Religion & Society, Technology, Trends, Worldview
A popular image of the “Occupy Wall Street” protesters brandishing signs decrying the greed of corporate America while wearing brand-name clothing, chatting among themselves through wireless phones, and surfing the Web on miniaturized personal computers says it all. My generation is biting the hand that feeds it.
Mercifully, corporations tend to take the obeisance of our credit cards more seriously than the obstinacy of our picket signs. So we’re not likely to starve for consumer goods anytime soon. But while it may seem benign at present, my generation’s covetous impulse to demonize the entrepreneurs, investors and innovators of our society is not only naïve and historically nearsighted. It’s dangerous.
The Teflon Capitalist
To understand why, take a look at the life and work of a man idolized by both right and left. Steve Jobs stood out in so many ways. He revolutionized the entertainment, information and communication industries like few men since Thomas Edison. His company, Apple, raised the global bar for customer service and sheer popularity. And he did it all while dismissing the most sacrosanct conventions of the markets he influenced. What’s more, people loved him for it. As Jeffrey Tucker with the Ludwig von Mises Institute remarked this month, Steve Jobs and Apple seemed virtually immune to the regular thrashings administered by the political left against the bulk of corporations.
“Fast food, chain stores, and sneaker companies are usually subjected to derision and envy-ridden hate in a culture that has too little appreciation for business success,” writes Tucker. “Why is Walmart derided by the literati while Steve Jobs is made exempt from the anticapitalist stoning sessions that pervade the world of political commentary?”
More perplexing still, he points out that Jobs was an unapologetic billionaire who idolized Ayn Rand and whose company “has never given a dime to corporate philanthropic efforts.”
The reason for this mysterious immunity to criticism, according to Tucker, is that Steve Jobs and Apple did what few other corporations have ever had the sensitivity to do: They brought aesthetic beauty to the average consumer.
“Jobs's capitalistic acts are made blessed in this culture because he made his products elegant and made our lives more beautiful. One might say that he democratized beauty and thereby earned for himself and his company a kind of Teflon coating from the green-eyed monster.”
Regardless of what causes this immunity for Apple, Tucker insists that all entrepreneurs—even the ones who make ugly, rude, crass things—deserve the kind of adulation heaped upon the late Mr. Jobs:
“Every time I slip on a pair of shoes, I think of the marvels of entrepreneurship and the division of labor that make my foot comfort possible. I have the same sense for those who make my refrigerator, provide lettuce for my salad, create alarm systems for my home and car, own and run chain stores that sell everything from pet food to paper clips . . .”
As Milton Friedman pointed out years ago, there is not a human being alive who can manufacture so much as a #2 pencil on his own. Without the second-by-second operations of the free market and the voluntary exchange of goods, services and ideas between individuals, our lives would grind to a halt. Demeaning and attacking this process is tantamount to demeaning and attacking the actions which built your home, produced your last meal—and of course—engineered the computer on which you’re reading these words, whether it’s a gleaming Macbook Pro or a steam-powered Commodore from the 1980s. Both are miracles of capitalism, and both are beautiful because their makers crafted them for profit.
Of course, a statement like that raises a frenzy of objections. We’re not supposed to applaud profit. It’s evil. If any axiom besides this and pluralism is drilled more deeply into the consciousness of my generation, I have missed it. The enlightened in our lives have assured us since childhood that the pursuit of profit equals greed, and greed destroys the livelihoods of others and the environment (remember Captain Planet?), not to mention our own happiness.
After such a pervasive primer on the abhorrence of enterprise, we can scarcely marvel as we watch battalions of malcontents invade the Financial District. Among a myriad of dissonant answers, America has gathered that these young “Occupiers” have come to root out the shadowy, capitalist bogeymen they’ve heard about their entire lives, and which they are certain must be the culprits behind the nation’s economic woes.
But it might come as a shock for many of these to learn that the profit motive has almost nothing in common with greed. In fact, modern capitalism springs from a source that reviled self-indulgent living, and demanded hard work for the improvement of society and the glory of God.
Greed vs. Calling
“The impulse to acquisition, pursuit of gain, of money, of the greatest possible amount of money, has in itself nothing to do with capitalism,” wrote Max Weber, one of the most influential socio-political economists of the last century. In his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber argues that mere greed for gain fails to define capitalism:
“This impulse [for gain] exists and has existed among waiters, physicians, coachmen, artists, prostitutes, dishonest officials, soldiers, nobles, crusaders, gamblers, and beggars. One may say that it has been common to all sorts and conditions of men at all times and in all countries of the earth . . . this naïve idea of capitalism must be given up once and for all.”
Weber insisted on a precise definition of capitalism that excluded ideas and practices not unique to the system. He confined capitalism largely to the West, and attributed the economic differences between this civilization and the rest of the world to its embrace of free enterprise. This embrace, in turn, he identified as a fruit of the rise and spread of Protestant Christianity.
For Weber, the doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone that the Reformers proclaimed laid the foundation for modern capitalism by removing the focus of salvation from the sacraments and insisting that the honest work of ordinary tradesmen pleases God as much as the ministrations of a priest. According to Weber, the Reformation helped tear the curtain between secular and sacred, thereby sanctifying the lowliest professions. Instead of viewing earthly labor as a necessary evil that distracted from God, Protestants began to develop the concept of a “calling,” an ordinary task by which the believer could bring glory to God, à la Colossians 3:23.
“This it was which inevitably gave every-day worldly activity a religious significance,” wrote Weber, “and which first created the conception of a calling. . . . [The calling] and it alone is the will of God, and hence every legitimate calling has exactly the same worth in the sight of God.”
Sown by Luther, this idea grew to maturity in the theology of John Calvin, who famously proclaimed that “there is no work, however vile or sordid, that does not glisten before God.” Weber actually draws explicit correlations between the early “Puritan work ethic” and the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, which encouraged Christians to manifest their divine election through personal industry.
Of course, for the majority of the world, the days and ways of Puritanism have disappeared. Yet its legacy partly remains in our free enterprise system. Millions pay no homage the spiritual component of hard work, yet they still participate. And in doing so, they take part in one of the most radically unselfish practices known to history. If that changes, we’re in trouble.
While the Protestant Christians who first engaged in modern free enterprise viewed their work as contributing to both the glory of God and the welfare of their fellow man, precious few vestiges of this sentiment remain. Yet we continue to work—more effectively than ever before in history—for the advantage of others. It looks as if the flame sparked by the Protestant Reformation now sustains itself on an entirely different fuel. But we all still bask in its warmth.
The achievement of modern capitalism lies not in its religious underpinning, but in its practical outworking: the ability to drive selfish men and women to work tirelessly in the service of strangers, and even to risk everything for the chance to offer something new. It transforms men, as Weber phrased it, into “heroic entrepreneurs.”
Adam Smith observed this phenomenon, and in his book The Wealth of Nations, described it in almost theological terms:
“[Man] intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. . . . It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”
In this light, attacking capitalism not only makes no sense, it threatens to topple one of the greatest miracles in human society—the practice of a virtue by those who do not believe in virtue.
Steve Jobs, of course, personified this. He scoffed at the notion of the afterlife and famously exhorted college graduates to be true only to themselves because getting “trapped by dogma” meant “letting the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.” He boldly embraced the maxim of his exemplar, Rand, to “never live for the sake of another man.” Nevertheless, Jobs enshrined himself in history by delivering innovation and beauty to the public in shocking volumes. Whatever values he held inwardly, they likely bore no resemblance to the Protestant virtue of industry for God’s glory. Yet his career bespoke a mind and heart deeply committed to the kind of manifest excellence embodied in the iPod.
And that’s the real magic of economic freedom, better known by that widely derided term capitalism. It richly rewards the many in the process of rewarding the few with riches. It was—and is—the story of Western economics, even for those who no longer embrace its Christian underpinnings.
The anti-capitalism expressing itself through the “Occupy” rallies these last few weeks betrays its own vacuity in relying on social networking websites—paragons of modern capitalism—to decry the vague pariahs of Wall Street. Protestors like to tar corporations as a whole while exempting a few special favorites. But these people don’t understand what they’re talking about. And Christians, who played a key role in the birth of capitalism, would do well to point out to protestors how foolish it looks to condemn these old, heroic virtues—especially while they update Twitter on their iPads.
G. Shane Morris is Web manager for BreakPoint and the Colson Center.
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