The Protestant ethic as undermined not by modernism but by capitalism itself. The greatest single engine in the destruction of the Protestant ethic was the invention of the instalment plan, or instant credit. – Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism
When I was a young boy my father was a Baptist minister. My sisters and I used to laugh when he would “recycle” his sermons. He would never preach the same sermon to the same congregation mind you, but from time to time when he was asked to be a guest at a different church, rather than write a whole new sermon he would go back into his archives and find something that applied, update it a bit and presto! The only people that had any clue were my sisters, my mother and me.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with recycling sermons. All the great preachers have done it. If you weren’t in the original audience it’s new to you right? Even the great John Wesley (1703-1791) an itinerant preacher who travelled all over England and the New World recycled his sermons. According to most accounts one of Wesley’s most preached sermons was called The Use of Money.
A complete transcript of the sermon is available here –
If you can get past the archaic language, it was the 18th century after all it’s well worth the read.
Wesley makes three points on the Use of Money; Gain all you can, Save all you can, and Give all you can. To me this is the very essence of the protestant work ethic. I touched in this back in February in a post called “How to Get Rich (or at least not go broke)” but it bears some repeating, in a way I guess I’m recycling my message too, just like my dad and John Wesley.
As the first decade of the new millennium draws to a close I’m sad to say the protestant work ethic is dead.
It started in the 60s when big government started offering big plans supported through big taxes that took away the incentive and much of the ability of individuals to give on their own. Big organizations are nowhere near as efficient as individuals at getting support to those who need it. By one account $2.3 trillion has been given through government supported institutional aid to the poorest nations of Africa since 1949 with little measurable increase in per-capita income for individuals over that time. By contrast there is a mounting body of evidence that suggest countries that have shunned aid, or more accurately been shunned by aid, have actually fared better. (William Easterly – The White Man’s Burden)
The damage caused to the protest work ethic by taxpayer support aid has come by removing individuals from the process. The thinking follows that since government is going to take the money from me in the form of taxes anyway why should I give more or get involved? Without direct engagement of the donors however, in this case taxpayers, accountability suffers and corruption takes over, hence the aforementioned $2.3 trillion that has largely gone to waste.
By the mid 80s a new cancer had emerged in the protest work ethic. Easy credit in the form of lower interest rates and multiple credit cards made it possible to finance the purchase of everything from cars to home furnishings, clothing and even everyday items like food. With easy credit the notion of saving and delayed gratification gave way to buy now and pay later. The worst part was (and still is) that society became addicted to the free flow of cash and rather than put the brakes on by raising interest rates, which has the dual effect of discouraging borrowing while encouraging saving, governments kept the rates low. It’s a dirty little secret that government and big business don’t actually want you to save. Saved money is money that is taken out of circulation and not contributing to the economy.
For more on the savings verse the free flow of capital debate check this out this video; The Story of Stuff.
In recent years we have begun to see the last nail in the coffin of the protestant work ethic. The drive to gain all you can, indeed any desire to work for anything, has died. In this era of high taxation, easy credit and billion dollar bail outs, many are asking, “why bother?” Why bother, when the government is going to tax me into the ground and waste my hard earned money on inefficient programs that I don’t want? Why bother when I can finance my life on easy credit and consume all I want, now?
I am calling for nothing less than a complete return to the protestant work ethic. Work hard (gain all you can), resist the temptation to spend on easy credit (save all you can) and support those in need (give all you can). Anglo-Saxon western society, the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia and Canada were built on this. The foundation of our great society is crumbling but it’s not too late to fix it. Government isn’t going to change its policy overnight. Taxes will stay high and interest rates will stay low but if enough of us buck the trend we just might turn this thing around.