Thursday, June 08, 2006

Weber's Protestant Ethic

David Brooks in On Paradise Drive makes a good argument that in many ways all of middle class America is driven by imagination. This is a Weberian point that culture can drive economy, for Weber argued that indeed the Protestant Ethic is what developed into the America Work Ethic. Sociologists will understand this, others should read The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. I recommend both books.

But we see this ethic elsewhere in American society too, and in a purer form than Brooks finds in modern suburbs. This is evidenced by Dave Ramsey's radio show. Dave Ramsey is a very popular financial advisor for regular people. He sells books, does appearances, has tutorials, and has a daily radio show. His main point is that debt is bad. All of his financial advice is driven by the bible and his own bad experiences with money.

It's pretty straightforward stuff, but it boils down to 1) live on less than you make, 2) save up for expenditures, 3) save your money, 4) most importantly - always avoid credit. If you can follow this advice, you are on your way to wealth. It requires frugality, acrifice, discipline, goal setting behavior. As I said, it is bible inspired (the borrower is slave to the lender), and there is no embarassment or shame for having achieved wealth. This despite those who think the lesson of the New Testament is to give up all your property and hang it with a long haired hippy in sandals. [ FWIW there are places on the web to find long essays on why the bible advocates capitalism - and it's always fun to start an argument about whether Jesus was a communist or a capitalist].

Of course, Weber would recognize this immediately. It is his Protestant Ethic. Live cheap. Save your money. Invest it in your business or your investments. It is all about aesceticism, discipline, work as vocation, and following the bible. Reinvest your profits and you're golden.

So here in the middle of the red states, where we are very near to many evangelical, bible-informed Christians, we find Weber's Protestant Ethic alive and well. This alongside Brooks' illustration of how elements of the same cultural strain can be seen in even the most areligious upper middle class suburbs.

We might say that we see various iterations of the protestant ethic applicable to the working and upper middle classes. Brooks' "History of Imagination" for the upper middle, and Ramsey's Total Money Makeover for working folks.


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