Friday, 28 March 2014

"In Our Time" versus the Wikis

There was a disappointing edition of the usually interesting In Our Time programme on the radio yesterday. It was an astonishingly uncritical assessment of Max Weber, the guy responsible for the "Protestant work ethic" meme. I didn't object to the experts being Weber fans and I wouldn't expect the arguments against the thesis of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism to be given "equal time" in some display of faux balance. But the counter-arguments are so compelling and straightforward that I'd have expected them to be presented better, however briefly. Between them,Wikipedia and RationalWiki do a better job:
Many scholars, however, have disagreed with specific claims Weber makes in his historical analysis. For example, the economist Joseph Schumpeter argued that capitalism did not begin with the Industrial Revolution but in 14th century Italy. In Milan, Venice and Florence the small city-state governments led to the development of the earliest forms of capitalism. In the 16th century Antwerp was a commercial centre of Europe. Also, the predominantly Calvinist country of Scotland did not enjoy the same economic growth as the Netherlands, England and New England. It has been pointed out that the Netherlands, which had a Calvinist majority, industrialised much later in the 19th century than predominantly Catholic Belgium, which was one of the centres of the Industrial Revolution on the European mainland.

Sascha O. Becker and Ludger Wossman present an alternative hypothesis: That Protestantism per se did not help to bring about the rise of capitalism, but that it was a by-product of the Protestants' encouragement of lay people to read the Bible, which led to a higher demand for printing presses, and ultimately, higher literacy rates that enabled commerce to grow.
If this was just academics arguing about the history of ideas, I'd let it go but, as the RationalWiki summary points out, Weber is unwitting godfather to one of the most pernicious misrepresentations in modern politics:
In economic terms, the concept is not very accurate in the 21st century. One of the largest fallacies of the European debt crisis is that the lazy Greeks supposedly work less than Germans; research says the opposite. 
Rational Wiki's quick summary of the (rhetorically solved, but seriously far from over) Eurozone periphery crisis is well worth reading as a brief antidote to the misleading political rhetoric that usually makes its way into news reports. As an added bonus, the footnotes to the entry cite a hilarious list of "OMG, x is The Next Greece!" articles:
  • Republicans: Obama's Budget Proposal Will Put America On 'A Roadmap To Greece'
  • The Huffington Post Puerto Rico is America’s Greece
  • Reuters 'America's Greece' California dreams of raising taxes
  • CBC Philadelphia Is the Next Greece 
  • Niall Ferguson: The Next Greece? It's The US! 
  • Tories warn Ont. could become the 'Greece of Canada'
  • CTV Is Quebec the next Greece? 
  • NZ, the next Greece? 
  • Croatia - the Next Greece 
  • Is Hungary the Next Greece?
  • Wall Street Journal Is Japan the Next Greece? 
  • Is China the New Greece? 
Makes you wonder whether, if Max Weber was around today, he'd call the Protestant Work Ethic a 'killer app', Niall Ferguson style.