All Commentary
Friday, June 1, 1973

The Reformation and Economic Development Today

Dr. Coleson is Professor of Social Science at Spring Arbor College in Michigan. This article is reprinted by permission from the Spring ¹972 volume of Fides et Historia, journal of The Conference on Faith and History, and copyright by them.

Sisyphus in Greek mythology was condemned, as a punishment for his wickedness in this life, to roll a stone from the bottom to the top of a hill. Whenever the stone reached the top it rolled down again. Thus, his task was never ending.

The wickedness of Sisyphus was not a case of politico economic intrigue. But Frederic Bastiat, the eminent French economist, philosopher, and statesman of well over a century ago, dubbed all people sisyphists who, by restrictive measures, tend to make the tasks of life unending.

Let us peek into the nature and extent of present day sisyphists if only to create a desire among ourselves to reread some of the works of the great Bastiat and again to profit by his clarity of thought and simplicity of expression.¹ His fascinating parables could hardly have been more appropriate in his time than in ours.

The progress of human beings from a state of general impoverishment toward one of relative abundance is impeded by a series of obstacles. People who really serve society contribute to the overcoming of these obstacles, thereby creating abundance. Is it not precisely this kind of service whereby we may judge whether a business or a labor union or a government policy or official is social or antisocial?

People who perpetuate obstacles in order to maintain conditions of scarcity in their own line of pro. In 1943 Bengal and Calcutta suffered another ghastly famine, just as they have for millennia. One report stated: “All over the province rice was dear and life was cheap.”¹ The starving collapsed and died in the streets, while the bloated dogs feasted on their corpses and dragged their bones about the city. Certainly the age-old problem of too many people and too little food was aggravated by the fact that there “was a war on” just beyond their borders in Burma, the Japanese invasion of Southeast Asia. However, the chronic problem of human need in India which had become acute in this hour of crisis provided a startling contrast with another nation also on the doorstep of war, Switzerland, that oasis of peace and prosperity in the midst of a devastated and impoverished Europe. It is customary to imagine that India must have many times more people per unit of area than almost any other country on earth but, according to the 1946 edition of Goode’s Atlas, Switzerland in that year had about 268 people per square mile and India a mere 215.2

An even more startling contrast grows out of a comparison between West Germany and India over the last quarter century. By May of 1945 Germany had been utterly defeated in a total war —”unconditional surrender” — and her cities were deserts of ashes and rubble. Germany was no doubt poorer than India in the spring of 1945 and had twice the population density, 433 per square mile. Yet the Germans rather quickly recovered — the startling “Economic Miracle” — and India has remained poor. Unless one insists that “East is East and West is West” and hence no comparisons or explanations are possible, he is haunted by the question why some starve and others prosper, or at least survive, in the midst of adversity.

Conquering Starvation — A Recent Accomplishment

Actually, the startling difference in living standards between the “haves” and “have-nots” is a rather recent phenomenon. Europe once had its famines, and bad ones too. According to one authority, the British Isles had 201 famines between A. D. 10 and 1846.3 A recent writer has even suggested that in certain French parishes which he studied in detail, the death rate was proportional to the price of grain back nearly three centuries ago.4 Yet, there have been no great famines in the West since the Irish Potato Famine except in Russia in the 1920′s and 30′s and during the wars. Even in the midst of the Great Depression the “Arkies” and the “Okies” did not leave a trail of bones from the “Dust Bowl” to California as might have happened in some parts of the world even today.

Still, the tide has turned in the favor of the Western World quite recently. In 1770 a bushel of wheat cost a British laborer the equivalent of five days’ pay. It came as a surprise to me to learn in West Africa a few years ago that a bushel of rice cost the natives about a week’s wages. They were still at the stage my ancestors were two centuries ago. The Africans also have a “hungry season,” that time of short rations after the seed is planted and before the new crop is ready for harvest. When the Psalmist speaks of the sower going forth weeping, “bearing precious seed” (Psalms 126:6), it is so much rhetoric to us, but still harsh reality to multiplied millions around the earth; these people are quite literally planting what they need for supper. For some reason, the economies of the West have been able, at least temporarily, to supply the masses with an unbelievably high standard of living as compared with the rest of the world and our own ancestors too. One of the most urgent tasks today is to try to understand why this has happened and whether prosperity can be exported to the “have-nots” around the world. This needs to be done for humanitarian reasons as well as for self-protection.

The Weber Thesis of Western Development

Among the theories which have been suggested to explain the recent good fortune of Western man, probably none has attained the popularity of the so-called “Weber thesis.” As everyone knows, Weber considered Western progress to be a sort of economic byproduct of the Reformation, particularly the teachings of John Calvin. While I have been deeply interested in this problem for a long time, perhaps in part as a result of having lived in a bush village in a daub and wattle house with a thatched roof, surrounded by abject poverty, and also in part as a result of having done an economic development study for my doctorate, I must confess that part of the Weber controversy annoys me.

While I have read a considerable amount on both sides of the question, I must admit that I do not care if Weber dotted all his “i’s” and crossed all his “t’s” correctly or not. Nor am I concerned if it can be proven that Roman Catholics also exhibited those economic virtues and followed those policies which are supposed to be uniquely Calvinist. I am not even deeply disturbed if some unkind writer suggests that the Reformers became popular preachers because they told the people to do what they had been doing and would continue to do, with or without ecclesiastical sanction. I am deeply concerned with keeping our facts straight, to the extent that we are able, because I do feel that history has real value as a guide in decision-making today. I have felt, however, that the investment in the Weber controversy has passed the point of diminishing returns, as the economist would say, some while ago.

The Conditions of Progress

The need is to proceed to the larger question of what conditions are necessary for prosperity and what, if anything, religion has to contribute toward making progress possible. While there has been a strong reaction against Western materialism, if one takes the loud protests of the recent past at all seriously, still there is value in studying how to promote prosperity — if eating is better than going hungry. The fact that Americans in their blindness and greed have overdone a “good thing” too often, does not prove that the opposite extreme is any better. Furthermore, it seems to me that the Reformers could provide wisdom that would help Christians regain a sane point of view in the midst of affluence and global need, if they will but listen.

Those who have visited the backward areas, where beggars pursue the tourist relentlessly and where multitudes are perpetually on the verge of starvation, quickly learn that things are quite different from the way they are back home. One of the most obvious differences is the attitude toward work. This is more than natural laziness or the apathy that comes from malnutrition and a superabundance of body parasites. The aversion to work is deeply ingrained in the native culture and is most difficult to dislodge. Consequently, modern attempts at economic development often intensify problems. For instance, an educational report of the British Colonial Office a few years ago quoted an “enlightened” chief as saying: “If universal primary education were introduced at once, Sierra Leone would be dead in a year — we would starve.”6 Even a modicum of book learning takes the recipient thereof out of the laboring class without qualifying him for any type of professional work.

Closely related to the antipathy toward work which is tied to status is the familiar guild or union pressure on workmen to do less than their best. Weber mentions this as the principal cause of the persecution of Methodist laborers a couple of centuries ago.7 One can concede that employers have driven their workers shamefully when they had them at their mercy without condoning peer pressure for inefficiency, evidently common then and now.

Slow Accumulation of Tools

Anyone familiar with the history of the Industrial Revolution knows the long and seemingly hopeless struggle to perfect better tools in the face of bitter worker opposition. Evidently the Western nations came quite close to remaining in their poverty and wretchedness even as large numbers in the backward areas still are today. When I view the hungry multitudes across the world today, do I say that “but for the grace of God, there go I”? Needless to say, the “have-nots” could use some of the Western attitude toward work, whether it is Calvinist, Catholic or cultural in origin. Of course, the Japanese have a “work ethic” of considerable antiquity, a point Kurt Samuelson makes good use of in his “Critique of Max Weber.”8 Needless to say, this must be without benefit of Calvin.

It is hard for us, coming from the West, to understand how completely “backwardness” is built into some native cultures. J. S. Fenton, an authority on Sierra Leone native law, wrote several years ago how the enterprising individual was repressed and everyone was kept at the same dead level of grinding poverty. Said Fenton:

The enterprise and success of a person causes him to be envied and it is whispered that he must have “boa medicine,” the “medicine” of success, but also a medicine which can injure his neighbors. A noise… is heard from time to time, and perhaps one or two children die. The prospering man is then informed against as possessing boa medicine…. Once he has been called a boa-man he might as well leave the chiefdom….9

It is interesting to note in this connection that Andrei Amalrik, who questions whether the Soviet Union will survive until 1984, remarks that the Russion peasant wants no one living better than he does although “the fact that many live worse is willingly accepted.”10 Whatever the problem of the Russians, the West Africans have another deterrent to capital accumulation: if an enterprising farmer grows an extra bushel of rice to tide his family over the “hungry season,” his relatives will all move in on him when their meager stock of food is depleted. After a few days of feasting, they can then go hungry together. Little wonder that those who hope to accomplish something frequently “get lost” and start over so far from home that their relatives cannot find them. Needless to say, the “haves” frequently do no better than the “have-nots,” once they manage to accumulate a fortune. They usually “consume it upon their own lusts” or hide it in a secret account in a Swiss bank. In the meantime, their nation is starved for capital. In view of the instability of their countries, the urge to live it up—”to eat and drink for tomorrow we die”—or “squirrel it away” in some country they hope they can trust, is understandable but regrettable. It certainly does not make for progress at home. Obviously, what has been called the “Protestant Ethic” would be a great asset to these people.

The Case of Country X

Take some backward country, on the doorstep of the U.S. or halfway around the world, and see what could be done to promote prosperity. Nation X is incredibly poor. It may be a “beggar sitting on a bench of gold” or just a beggar squatting in the dust; the resource base, while helpful, seems not to insure prosperity. Switzerland has little and has done well; many other countries seem to have great potential, but remain poor and backward. In country X the average annual income is less than a hundred dollars — not a hundred a week but for a full year. The people are poor beyond our imagination, they are malnourished, and their health services are exceedingly meager. The country has stagnated and will no doubt continue to remain so.

Now, suppose some great prophet should arise and capture the hearts and loyalties of the people. Suppose in addition to getting them to repent of their sins and live a life of moral rectitude, that he should convince them that they should do a good day’s work, whether anyone was watching or not (because, of course, God sees everywhere and He will not excuse the slothful worker). Suppose men of means within the country began to feel responsible for the proper use of their material blessings (Christian stewardship) and began investing wisely and well in business ventures at home rather than squandering their money or exporting their wealth to places that do not really need it. Suppose the government became more stable, and honest too, so men could begin to count on tomorrow and even decades hence.

A Climate of Growth

Now, if I had a million dollars, I would go and invest it in X as would a host of others. If the foreign investors were Christian or even had good sense, they would try to do the right thing by the people, knowing that while one can get by with exploitation in the short run, that in the long run the policy is self-defeating. Also if Americans just happened to want to do something to help them and themselves, they might let their bargain goods into the U.S. and sell them machine tools. With such a combination — a diligent and honest people, a responsible business community and government, a ready foreign market close at hand and abundant capital — progress would be explosive, another economic miracle.

Actually, of course, X is not like this and, barring a miracle of grace, it will not become so. The mass of the people are lazy thieves, the government is run by a bunch of thugs and whatever business exists there is out to “get” everyone else before others get them. Weber was right: capitalists did not invent greed, but tamed this destructive impulse.¹¹ No foreigner in his right mind would invest there because the government would nationalize his business as soon as it became profitable.

It is a tragedy that international investment has become such a problem in the modern era. A recent writer, much frustrated with the poverty and malnutrition so prevalent over too much of the earth today, complained that the wealthy nations were only investing $6 billion a year in the development of their poor neighbors while they should be putting in at least $15 billion.¹2 According to Richard Nixon, writing more than a dozen years ago, the United States would have invested $30 billion abroad in 1958 instead of the trifling $4 billion we did lend, if we had been investing at the rate proportionately that the British did in 1910.¹3 As long as the British invested wisely, this was a revolving fund that could continue over the years. Think what a similar American program could do today to hasten economic development across the earth and create jobs at home too.

Back to the Moral Problem

Unfortunately, there are few decent places in the world to invest anymore — which brings us right back to the moral question again. If we could just get the man straightened out—his morals, his thinking and his institutions—progress would be possible. Piety is no substitute for technology, but we can handle the engineering details today if the moral conditions are favorable. This has always been an important factor. It is well to remember that Calvin and the reformers were not promoting economic development schemes. They sought first the Kingdom, and the economic fringe benefits were added unto them.

Perhaps the most hotly debated subject in Christian circles today in this country is whether capitalism or the welfare state is the embodiment of virtue, the ethical and moral system. The controversy has produced a sizable and growing literature. It is interesting to note in this connection that some writers trace Christian socialism,14 not capitalism, back to John Calvin, which alters the Weber thesis considerably. Of course, Calvin is accused of promoting both democracy and totalitarianism also.” Perhaps he did not consciously promote any of these systems.

With all due respect to Calvin, a more important question is what the Bible teaches. It seems to me that the Word of God does not specifically endorse any human system or give a “blueprint” for any political arrangement, but it does lay down fundamental principles by which men and nations will be judged. These God-given principles necessarily have far-reaching social, political, and economic implications. But with Emil Brunner I would insist that all we can hope for is the “best makeshift” by which we may attempt to approximate the Christian ideal.”

Let us explore one of these “makeshifts.” An Austrian writer who classifies himself as a socialist, Karl Polanyi, praises the nineteenth century with its “Hundred Years’ Peace” in Europe (18151914).¹º7 He then tells us that the civilization of that era was based on the balance of power, the gold standard, the market economy, and limited government. After telling us that these arrangements produced a century of peace, “a phenomenon unheard of in the annals of Western civilization” and also “an unheard of material welfare,” he concludes that the “self adjusting market… would have physically destroyed man and transformed his surroundings into a wilderness.”

It is unfortunate that a “makeshift” so attractive in the short run should have such dire long-range consequences. Perhaps a second look is needed. Obviously, Polanyi is describing anarchy, a system without rational or moral checks on human excesses — not Calvin or even Adam Smith, but Darwin and the “survival of the fittest.” It is possible to assume that accounting is epistemology (what is profitable is good), but the Reformers did not hold this view nor did the founders of economics. In 1765 Blackstone wrote that the laws of men should conform to that Higher Law, “dictated by God Himself;”18 and in 1776 Adam Smith concluded that just as long as a man “does not violate the laws of justice, [he] is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest in his own way….”19 This means, for example, that I have a God-given right to grow all the wheat, corn and cows I can on my farm but not poppies for opium.

Mistaken Practices

I would not care to try to defend the American Farm Program of the last generation before the Judge of all the earth. Would you? L. Dudley Stamp, a distinguished British land use expert who delivered a series of lectures at Indiana University several years ago, chided Americans on their low agricultural productivity and suggested that the world could support ten billion people or about three times the present total, if we just did as well as we now know.20 Another Englishman, Colin Clark, places the capacity of the earth at twenty-eight billion, assuming present technology and the efficiency of the people of the Netherlands.21 If everyone did half as well as the Dutch or even a quarter, it should be possible to feed earth’s peoples and still stabilize populations short of disaster. Of course, both are assuming full production and open markets, a policy quite familiar to the Victorians but well-nigh forgotten today.

While I would not care to attempt to defend all the old capitalists did either, they did a few things right, as the following quotation from the Spectator, published in 1882, suggests:

Britain as a whole was never more tranquil and happy. No class is at war with society or the government; there is no disaffection anywhere, the Treasury is fairly full, the accumulations of capital are vast.22

Just as an interesting experiment, substitute “today” and “the U.S.A.” for “1882” and “Britain” in the above quotation. Perhaps the capitalist “makeshift” was not so bad after all.



¹ John Frederick Muehl, “Famine Is Like This,” Reader’s Digest (April, 1946), pp. 1921.

2 J. Paul Goode, School Atlas (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1946), p. 175.

3 Warren S. Thompson, Population Problems (New York: McGrawHill, 1942), p. 51.

4 E. A. Wrigley, Population and History (New York: McGrawHill, 1969), p. 66.

5 John Chamberlain, The Roots of Capitalism (Princeton: D. Van Nostrand Company, 1959), p. 123.

6 African Education: A Study of Educational Policy and Practice in British Tropical Africa, the Nuffield Foundation and the Colonial Office (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953), p. 24.

7 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (New York: Scribner’s, 1958), p. 63.

8 Kurt Samuelson, Religion and Economic Action (New York: Harper and Row, 1961), p. vii.

9 J. S. Fenton, Outline of Sierra Leone Native Law (Freetown: Government Printer, 1933), p. 17.

10 Andrei Amalrik, Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), p. 81.

¹¹ Weber, pp. 17, 5657.

12 Jose de Castro, The Black Book of Hunger (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), p. 49.

13 Richard M. Nixon, The Challenges We Face (New York: McGrawHill, 1960), p. 73.

14 Robert W. Green, ed., Protestantism and Capitalism (Boston: D. C. Heath, 1959), pp. 26, 44.

¹5 Robert M. Kingdon and Robert D. Linder, eds., Calvin and Calvinism: Sources of Democracy? (Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1970), pp. 115.

16 Emil Brunner, Christianity and Civilization (London: Nisbet and Company, 1949), II, 95.

17 Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1944), PP. 35.

18 William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England (Philadelphia: Rees Welsh and Company, Lewis’ edition, 1902), I, 31.

¹9 Adam Smith, The Wealth of Na tio2ns(M Dudley Library Edition), p. 651.

20 L. Stamp, Land for Tomorrow (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1952), pp. 214219.

2¹ Arthur McCormack, ed., Christian Responsibility and World Poverty (London: Burns and Oats, 1963), p. 135.

22 Albert H. Hobbs, “Welfarism and Orwell’s Reversal,” Intercollegiate Review (Spring, 1970), p. 107.