How important is Christianity for free markets and economic liberty?
In Max Weber’s first and most famous book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, written around 1904-1905, Weber argued that Protestantism, specifically Calvinist (or really Puritan) Protestantism, gave rise to the ethic and spirit that so defines western capitalism. Although Weber did not argue that Calvinist or Puritan theologians themselves articulated and fostered this ethic, he did suggest that the ethic was an unintended consequence of Puritan doctrines like predestination, vocation, the moral law, and the glory of God.
Numerous scholars have demonstrated the many flaws in Weber’s argument. Once one looks at the particulars, comparing various countries in Europe with one another, comparing Catholics with Protestants in particular countries like the Netherlands, or even comparing pre-Reformation expressions of a free market ethic with post-Reformation expressions, the thesis quickly breaks down.
But at a Liberty and Markets lecture sponsored by the Acton Institute and Liberty Fund Samuel Gregg made the case that while Max Weber got his particular story wrong, he was right to emphasize that capitalism is not simply an economic phenomena. It is not simply about production and exchange, nor can it be reduced to a set of institutions that foster free production and exchange. Capitalism involves a whole set of values and commitments that bring it into close connection with religion.
Gregg questioned whether direct lines can be drawn from religion to modern free market capitalism, but he did stress the way in which late medieval theologians began to articulate various commitments regarding liberty and property, commitments that grew more pervasive as western Europe urbanized and trade networks grew. Although medieval guilds tended to create “closed shops,” seeking fixed prices and wages while fostering negative attitudes towards independent entrepreneurs, they sometimes received significant criticism from bishops and city officials who suggested they were infringing upon the common welfare, against natural justice and the natural law.
Already in the 13th Century therefore, Gregg argues, medieval Christians were articulating clear commitments to personal security and freedom from economic domination, emphasizing equality before the law and the functional importance of private property in a fallen world. Here, he suggested, is evidence of the roots of a capitalist ethic much earlier than the Reformation.
Gregg’s lecture is a helpful reminder. Although we moderns like to separate life into various compartments or spheres (politics, economics, religion, etc.) matters are never quite so simple. The history and development of free market capitalism, like the political order we Americans so cherish is incomprehensible apart from the long story of Christianity and Christian political theology. That doesn’t mean we should make arrogant or naive arguments about how Christianity produced all of this (let alone how it could all be deduced from Scripture). But it does suggest that we shouldn’t imagine the various strands can neatly be separated either. We do have a history.