Catholicism, Protestantism, and Capitalism

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Editors note: On Aug. Rothbard wrote to Richard C.


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Cornuelle of the Volker Fund, strongly recommending Emil Kauder's reseaches into the Aristotelian background of marginal utility and Austrian economic theory Rothbard Papers. In a memo of February , "Catholicism, Protestantism, and Capitalism," reproduced below, Rothbard set down some thoughts on these matters. Rothbard's letters reveal an early and keen interest in the history of economic thought.

16. Weber on Protestantism and Capitalism

The memos he wrote for the Volker Fund, from the early fifties down to , on a large variety of books and scholarly journals, show off his growing knowledge of the subject. In addition, Rothbard's dissertation director, Professor Joseph Dorfman, was an authority on the history of American economic thought, and Rothbard was very interested, among other matters, in American contributions to the monetary debates of the early 19th century. Rothbard, as much a historian as an economist, was well-placed, not only to assess books for the Volker Fund, but also to grasp and synthesize economic doctrines logically and in historical perspective.

In recent years, a group of scholars most of whom might be called "right-wing Catholics" have set about revising the standard interpretation of the rise of economics and of capitalism, which holds that, the thought, as well as laissez-faire economic policies, which nurtured capitalism, developed as an outgrowth of the casting off of medieval Catholic shackles. The modern spirit of scientific inquiry defeated scholastic dogmatism and enabled growth of a generally individualist and rationalist spirit; casting off of Church authority led to a general individualism in all fields; the Calvinist spirit and ethic, emphasizing the positive value of hard work, thrift, and money-making, led to a flowering of capitalism as compared to the effect of Catholic frowning on money-making; laissez-faire economics grew in the Protestant atmosphere of Britain Adam Smith, etc.

Memorandum on Catholicism, Protestantism, and Capitalism | Mises Institute

There is, however, another side to the coin, and contrasting interpretations, particularly in the fields of political philosophy the effect of natural law, for example and economic thought, have appeared in the last couple of years. Recommended is the critique of Weber by H.

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Robertson and others have pointed out, for example, that capitalism really began flourishing, not in Britain, but in 14 th -century Italian cities, i. In fact, the main point of the Revisionist critique, in all the fields, is continuity — that capitalism, liberalism, rationalism, economic thought, etc.

And that the later developments built on, and in some cases retrogressed from, earlier Catholic views. Here I might add that the labor theory of value has had many bad consequences.

Memorandum on Catholicism, Protestantism, and Capitalism

It, of course, paved the way, quite logically, for Marx. Secondly, its emphasis on "costs determining prices" has encouraged the view that businessmen push up prices or that unions push up prices, rather than governmental inflation of the money supply. Third, its emphasis on "objective, inherent value" in goods led to "scientistic" attempts to measure values, to stabilize them by government manipulation, etc. Most historians have ignored the late scholastics and their influence, at least until recently.

The standard idea is that the scholastics died out with the Middle Ages, and the gap in between was peopled only by the mercantilists. See DeRoover.

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By the time of the latter three, in fact, Kauder claims that the "value paradox" gold vs. I might add that the resultant holistic approach by Smith and Ricardo was subtly socialistic in still a fourth way: it established the fashion of separating Distribution from Production, and of talking only about groups of factors instead of individual factors — labor instead of laborers. Now, Kauder goes on to point out that the Italian-French subjective value, utility theorists were Catholics, while the labor-value theorists: Petty, Locke, and Smith were British Protestants.

Kauder attributes this precisely to the Calvinist emphasis on the divinity of work, as opposed to Catholic thought, which only considered work as a means to making a living. The Scholastics, then, were free to come to the conclusion that the "just price" was essentially the freely competitive price set on the market, whereas the Protestant-influenced British had to say that the fair price is the "natural" price where the "amount of labor exchanged in each good is the same. In fact, Smith and Locke were influenced both by the scholastic stream which they acquired from their philosophic training, and the Calvinist emphasis on the divinity of labor.

It is true that Smith believed that free competition would eventually bring market prices around to the "just price," but it is evident that a danger has been introduced — a danger that Marx fully exploited and, in fact, that lingers on in the imperfect competition theories, which are akin to emphasis on some juster world where the "natural" or "optimum" prices reign. Thomists, on the other hand, always centered their economic studies on the consumer as the Aristotelian "final cause" in the economic system, and the ends of the consumer are "moderate pleasure-seeking.

He does point out, however, the importance of his strict Evangelical background for Alfred Marshall. Perhaps this is why Marshall resisted utility theory, and insisted on retaining much of Ricardian cost-theory, which even yet persists as a result. I would like to add further comment, however. Just as the state should stick to lighting the lamps, cleaning the streets, defending the realm internally and externally and seeing contracts are honoured, so churches should stick to religion, i. To change the subject somewhat: Fanfani sticks to his topics - trade, manufactures, banking and the growth of capitalist forms.

He devotes much time to the operations within what is a feudal system, or quasi-feudal system, where most people live on the land in villages and small towns where scarcity - or, for many, starvation - was just around the corner, and a great deal of the land was held by the aristocracy, large landowners and the church. Serfdom was common, landless labourers or tenant farmers were most numerous.

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Capitalism and religion: Protestant work ethic fosters entrepreneurship in Switzerland

Disease and war helped keep population growth to a very gradual rate of increase. So there was no compelling reason for rapid economic growth. But the medical revolution changed all that. As diseases were progressively stamped out, as the need for clean water and sewage was recognised, mortality and morbidity rates fell, and populations started to soar. The battle for bread would become Hobbesian.


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The solution for much of Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries was mass migration on a scale the West hadn't experienced since the "barbarian" invasions in Roman times, spurred by similar concerns: shortage of arable land, shortage of food. Most fortunately, the New World was there as a destination for people from the poorer societies or the poorer parts thereof.

Doomed societies So, the smallish organic societies and city-states of the medieval period were probably doomed to give way to much larger and very different entities. But there are people who have read into Fanfani's historical account possible models for remaking contemporary society or at least parts thereof.

Realistic models could be the reconnection of religion with man in society and the reintroduction of moral norms into spheres from where they have long been banished - banished in the names of Reason, Individualism, Growth, Progress, Science as a cure-all and as the Great Explainer.


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Fanfani, for one, might say that the basic existential challenges facing man have not changed since the Fall. Nor have his emotional resources, which include his appetites.

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His reasoning capacities are turning out to be distinctly finite, and far from approaching the secular versions of omniscience and omnipotence, that Reason is only too easily brushed aside, devalued or perverted. And out of this mismanagement, this mismatch between Man's various propensities, issue his faults, his vices, his neuroses and his despair. He needs all the help he can get, but he should not look to capitalism, nor its spirit, for aid. If a system relies on Man's greed and covetousness, on envy, on slavery to fashion i.

Capitalism has survived - obviously - but in forms hardly recognised by Marx or even Fanfani. Our author notes the appearance of the joint-stock company. It seems that the shareholders are the owners - but after a while, they are observed to be as cut off from the decision-making as are the employees and the consumers. Managers and CEOs take the decisions, while major shareholders increasingly become the banks, mutual funds and overseas companies and magnates.

No one deals face-to-face anymore, and accountability goes out the window: only to be periodically jerked back by a reluctant state or enraged shareholders. But only when major scandals or a collapse in profits has occurred. Profit, in the form of self-aggrandisement or group-aggrandisement, is the beacon in what is otherwise a mist of anonymity.