Contra Max Weber

by on December 2, 2009 at 7:39 am in Economics, History, Religion | Permalink

Davide Cantoni (who by the way is on the job market, from Harvard) reports:

Many theories, most famously Max Weber's essay on the 'Protestant ethic,' have hypothesized that Protestantism should have favored economic development. With their considerable religious heterogeneity and stability of denominational affiliations until the 19th century, the German Lands of the Holy Roman Empire present an ideal testing ground for this hypothesis. Using population figures in a dataset comprising 276 cities in the years 1300-1900, I find no effects of Protestantism on economic growth. The finding is robust to the inclusion of a variety of controls, and does not appear to depend on data selection or small sample size. In addition, Protestantism has no effect when interacted with other likely determinants of economic development. I also analyze the endogeneity of religious choice; instrumental variables estimates of the effects of Protestantism are similar to the OLS results.

The full paper, and other work by Cantoni, is here.  I believe this is the most thorough statistical test of the Weberian hypothesis to date.

Candadai Tirumalai December 2, 2009 at 9:13 am

I believe the southern part of Germany is
Catholic as well as economically progressive.
Weberians might argue that that is the effect
of Protestant influence in other parts of
Germany. Italy is largely Catholic, and yet,
I believe, the northern part is more
industrialized and prosperous than the south.
Catholic Ireland has emerged as a Celtic Tiger.
Still, as a non-economist I would not discount
the Weber thesis.

anonymous December 2, 2009 at 9:33 am

Good idea – ignore the evidence and rely on gut feelings – I like it!

Ed December 2, 2009 at 10:50 am

Wasn’t a majority of Catholic Europe directly or indirectly under the control of the Spanish Hapsburgs for almost two centuries after the Reformation? Wouldn’t that be a better explanation of their poorer economic performance?

Todd Fletcher December 2, 2009 at 11:11 am

Venice managed pretty well without a Protestant work ethic.

Slugger December 2, 2009 at 12:07 pm

I am perfectly aware of the fact that the culture that I belong to is the best, most virtuous society ever. However, sometimes I get the feeling that analyses like Weber’s are a bit post hoc. Maybe if measles had been indigenous to the Americas instead of Europe we would all be speaking Aztec now, and Martin Luther would be an obscure figure in a extinct culture. Then people would be writing books explaining that veneration of Huitzilopchtli is the fount of all wisdom.

Ed December 2, 2009 at 12:38 pm

“I am perfectly aware of the fact that the culture that I belong to is the best, most virtuous society ever. However, sometimes I get the feeling that analyses like Weber’s are a bit post hoc. Maybe if measles had been indigenous to the Americas instead of Europe we would all be speaking Aztec now, and Martin Luther would be an obscure figure in a extinct culture. Then people would be writing books explaining that veneration of Huitzilopchtli is the fount of all wisdom.”

One difference I see between 19th century and early and mid 20th century historians, and historians today, is the former put a much greater emphasis on “software”. Historical outcomes were determined by having a particular ideology, religion, culture, etc. The trend now is to put more emphasis on “hardware”, such as demographic or economic factors, or random events.

Kochevnik December 2, 2009 at 3:18 pm

As Robert Kaplan pointed out, perhaps the best refutation of the Protestant work ethic theory. 17th Century Transylvania was a Calvinist state (many of the Germans and Hungarians in romania are still Calvinist), yet if anything their religious beliefs made them more fatalistic and less entrepeneurial. So it seems more likely that prosperous classes in Western Europe took to Calvinism because they found elements in its teachings that supported their existing virtues, more than Calvinism spurring those entrepeunerial virtues.

But then again, a contrary example doesn’t do much to disprove popular theories in political “science” (the scientific principle being a bit weak there – see Democratic Peace Theory).

TLS December 2, 2009 at 3:33 pm

I think it is a profound misinterpretation of Max Weber to attribute the hypothesis tested by Cantoni to MW. I am sure such an attribution makes a more engaging and better cited paper… but it is not accurate.

The Weberian PWE is more complex, and does not hypothesize any first order causal effects on GDP. Moreover, Weber viewed both Economy and Society as undergoing a complex, multiply-determined evolutionary development. The fact that protestantism may have been a cultural impetus for some element of that evolution does not in any way imply that the resulting change will, in any way, be restricted to protestants.

Sebastian December 2, 2009 at 4:07 pm

I agree with Roger and TLS above – this has little to do with the Weberian argument in the Protestant Ethic – which views capitalism in cultural not just in economic terms, which has an entire chapter on differences withing protestantism (with Lutheranism coming out towards the end of the “pro-capitalist” spectrum) etc.

I actually thought this was a much more interesting exploration of culture and economics:
Benjamin, D. J, J. J Choi, and G. Fisher. “Religious Identity and Economic Behavior.†
http://www.som.yale.edu/faculty/jjc83/religion.pdf

Jonathan December 2, 2009 at 6:24 pm

alpwalker – your Swiss example is a good illustration of the critique that I mentioned, that Calvinists, being denied certain economic privileges (though I don’t recall what those were exactly in Britain), and it was due to this circumstance, not their theology, that they turned to new entrepreneurial activities….

roland December 2, 2009 at 7:26 pm

Agree very much with tls and others. Weber as I recall was quite coy in specifying relationships–x has “an elective affinity” with y. More interesting is that regardless of empirical claims one way or another, his argument has continued to cast a significant intellectual shadow. Why?

Bill December 2, 2009 at 7:43 pm

The Pope blessed the study.

Jason H. December 2, 2009 at 11:08 pm

Economists generally misread Weber (the most vulgar demonstration of this I have seen is in the work of Deepak Lal). I’m thankful that Sebastian, Roger, and TLC nail it right on the head and don’t let this common mistake go by.

I bet Mr. Cantoni does brilliant proofs but he obviously hasn’t read Weber with any care.

pensans December 3, 2009 at 12:44 am

The Lutheranism of Germany and the Calvinism that Weber mainly had in mind vary greatly.

Similar divisions exists within various traditions of Roman Catholicism. The Gallicanist political theology of Roman Catholic France varied greatly from the political theology of Roman Catholic Italy.

Nylund December 3, 2009 at 12:57 pm

I’m a grad student only just now learning about various Panel Data models. I was curious to know if his model for time-varying city specific effects would properly capture things like the Black Plague or the “mini ice age” that effected Europe (and more so, Northern Europe) during this time frame. It seems to me that these could have pretty dramatic effects on city population size (his proxy for economic activity), yet there is no mention of them in the paper.

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