Christianity: Wellspring of American Success?

Many authors attribute to Christianity the great success of capitalist ideas; many modern American evangelical Christians lay great stress on the link between the two. However, when reading Deirdre McCloskey’s writings, I have been led to consider that many of the things normally named as the wellspring of that great 17th and 18th century flowering were not always associated with such growth. Property rights, for example, were well protected in ancient China for thousands of years. So it is also with Christianity; a very large part of the world was known as “Christendom” for a very long time, but not all parts of that world flourished equally. Two nations – the Netherlands and England – did indeed flourish, but were surrounded by other Christian nations which lagged. The United States later surpassed them both. It is a long and complex story, but it is very hard to say that Christianity should “work” in some cultures and not in others, without looking more deeply into those cultural differences. This is particularly the case when Christianity led to no such flourishing for the first 1600 years of its existence; mankind everywhere in every era stagnated at the equivalent of $3 per day in 2012 dollars.

One of the key cultural differences seems to be that the businessman, the entrepreneur, were respected on a level with the adulation normally given only to priests, politicians, and warriors. There is a very long tradition of disrespect for so-called “middlemen” in economics, who allegedly “contribute nothing” – would-be pundits focus on the labor-intensive part of production, but don’t realize that bringing goods to a retail customer is a long and complex process which does not drive itself. Inventors and engineers must create ideas; manufacturers must implement those ideas; along the way, a great deal of trial and error winnows out the bad and keeps the good. Inputs must be gathered; inventory must be kept; workers must be hired; goods must be marketed and distributed and sold. The people who do all these things should not be expected to do them for free; they add value to the product, just as does the person who physically touches the product, but in a different manner. Were it not for retailers and wholesalers, for example, you would need to keep a much larger inventory in your home, and would spend much more time placing orders with individual producers; you’d have less time to get on with the rest of your life. This recognition was novel; it was this new respect for the bourgeoisie which acted as a catalyst and enabled productivity and living standards to multiply an unprecedented hundredfold in six generations. A similar process is now happening in two nations – Communist China and India – neither of which is notably a Christian nation. China sums it up by saying “It is good to be rich”, which does not quite recognize the moral difference between honest consensual acts of capitalism and politically-subsidized activities, but it at least no longer bans the former.

There may well be virtues unique to Christianity, and this note does not dispute those, but causing human well-being on earth to improve in such a historically unprecedented manner is not chief among them, unless that clever plan were deeply hidden for 1600 years.

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