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    Max Weber Revisited

    Robert H. Nelson

    1. Introduction

    When even the most extraordinary of events have become familiar, it iseasy to lose sight of their true momentous quality. In the past 200 years,extraordinary is an understatement for the basic change in the humanmaterial condition on earth. An average person today in the developedparts of the world lives better in most material respects than a royal fam-ily of 300 or 400 years ago. Extending a life through quadruple by-passheart surgery, flying from New York to London in six hours, holding adirect telephone conversation from Washington to Beijing, routinelyeating a diverse diet of foods from all around the world, seeing eventsunfold in real time throughout the world by television all these andmany other familiar items of our existence today would have been re-garded as virtual miracles in the not-so-distant past.

    The turning point was 1800. Economic historian Gregory Clark re-ports that there was no large improvement in the living standards of thegreat majority of the people living in England until 1800. Indeed, forthe world as a whole the average person in 1800 was no betteroff than the average person of 100,000 BC. Life expectancy was 30to 35 years, no higher in 1800 than for hunter gatherers. It was notuntil the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that there occurred thefirst break of human society from the constraints of nature, the firstbreak of the human economy from the natural economy the mo-ment when very large numbers of people first overcame the state of ma-terial deprivation that had always previously characterized human ex-istence for the great majority.1

    There is no more important historical question than the following:how and why did this happen? The central events are familiar enough.Signs of a rapidly growing material productivity first appeared in Hol-

    1 Gregory Clark, A farewell to alms: A brief economic history of the world (Princeton,NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), pp. 195, 1, 33.

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    land in the seventeenth century. The leading edge of economic changeshifted to England in the eighteenth century, setting the stage there forthe industrial revolution in the nineteenth century. By the beginning ofthe twentieth century it was the United States that was leading the wayinto the new economic world. After World War II, the nations of theEuropean Union came to rival the United States economically. In Asiaat the same time, Japan was the first to join the new economic world.By the end of the century, China and India along with a numberof other smaller Asian nations were following in this path.

    Seen over the perspective of 200 years, all this is nothing short ofastonishing. Although his writings helped to set the stage for the neweconomic world, Adam Smith had little inkling of the events tocome his world was the late eighteenth century before the real eco-nomic takeoff began. Karl Marx was the first great economist (greatin historical impact, if not always analytical insight) who both saw clear-ly the extraordinary material advances taking place in the nineteenthcentury and attempted to offer a systematic explanation. While he of-fered many accurate observations, and newly focused attention onsome critical issues, his theory of economic history was in the end a fail-ure. The success of Marxism was instead as a new category of seculareconomic religion drawing on apocalyptic and other familiar themesof Christianity, thus establishing a powerful religious resonance in west-ern civilization that attracted many millions of faithful.2 As the distin-guished American theologian Paul Tillich once said, Marx was themost successful of all theologians since the [Protestant] Reformation.3

    After Marx, the next great economist to address directly the causesof the material transformation of the human condition was Max Weber(18641920). Although Weber is now regarded mainly as a sociologist,he was part of the German school of economic history and his firstchaired professorship was in economics. Webers treatise on The Protes-tant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism appeared in two articles in 190405(followed by a modestly revised edition in 1920).4 Weber assumed, rea-sonably enough, that a significant part of the explanation must lie in the

    2 See Robert H. Nelson, Economics as religion: From Samuelson to Chicago and be-yond (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001).

    3 Paul Tillich, A history of Christian thought: From its Judaic and Hellenistic origins toexistentialism (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967), p. 476.

    4 Max Weber, The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons(New York: Charles Scribners, 1958). This translation is based on Webers1920 revision.

    Robert H. Nelson158

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    events of preceding centuries that set the stage. Following Marx, Weberframed his treatise as an explanation for the rise of capitalism (al-though Marx himself had seldom used this precise term).

    Rather than the rise of capitalism, however, a broader and more ac-curate term is new economic world to think of the material trans-formation of the nineteenth and twentieth century as merely a matter ofthe accumulation of capital and of the interactions of capitalists andworkers (and other economic classes in earlier historic eras) is muchtoo limiting. The full workings of an economy cannot be understoodoutside the full institutional framework including even the religiousside of life in which it functions. As Weber argued, the ideas in theminds of human beings are a large economic parameter (to usesome contemporary economic jargon). Indeed, strictly speaking, thereis no economic order but only a social order that may include avery large economic dimension. A full understanding of even narrowlyeconomic outcomes can not be achieved outside the consideration oflaw, politics, technology, psychology, philosophy, religion, and otherelements of society (however great the challenge that this may pose tothe current disciplinary boundaries of the academy).

    Yet, as a matter of historical fact, Weber did frame his treatise as ananalysis of capitalism. It may have been because he was conforming inthis respect to the intellectual trends of the late nineteenth and earlytwentieth century, a period when a total economic determinism oftendominated intellectual discourse. If Weber hoped to receive serious at-tention for his work, it would be important to frame his efforts in thiscontext, offering an improvement on (but not an outright rejectionof) the Marxist understanding. While not going as far as Marx, Weberdid in fact accept (reasonably enough) the partial validity of an economicdeterminism. It was certainly true that economic facts could significantlyinfluence the intellectual and political events of the times. However,unlike Marx and many other total economic determinists, Weber sawthat ideas could also significantly influence economic events. Indeed,as it seemed to Weber, religious ideas rivaled any other explanatory fac-tors. The continuing interest in Webers writings reflects the fact that hegave an atypical answer that now seems prescient for his time. Wil-liam Schweiker, professor of theological ethics at the Divinity School ofthe University of Chicago, summarized the thinking as of 2009: For

    Max Weber Revisited 159

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    many reasons, Protestants helped to advance modern democratic po-litical forms as well as the spread of capitalist economies.5

    Weber, in short, was analyzing a much broader question than thespecific behavior of capitalists and workers. Writing at the beginningof the twentieth century, he was saying that the astonishing materialtransformation of the nineteenth century and continuing throughthe twentieth century, although Weber of course could not know ofthat had been caused in significant part by an earlier basic change inthe way the people of Europe or at least the Protestant parts of Europe viewed the world. The rise of the new economic world was in signif-icant part a story in the history of religion.

    2. Protestantism and Economic Winners

    Webers initial interest in the economic importance of Protestantismwas stimulated by his observation that in the Germany of his times as well as other European countries there was a disproportionate num-ber of Protestants among the most economically successful. As he de-scribed the question to be explored in The Protestant Ethic and the Spiritof Capitalis