In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville worried that free, capitalist societies might develop so great a “taste for physical gratification” that citizens would be “carried away and lose all self-restraint.” Avidly seeking personal gain, they could “lose sight of the close connection which exists between the private fortune of each of them and the prosperity of all” and ultimately undermine both democracy and prosperity.
The genius of America in the early 19th century, Tocqueville thought, was that it pursued “productive industry” without a descent into lethal materialism. Behind Americas balancing act, the pioneering French social thinker noted, lay a common set of civic virtues that celebrated not merely hard work but also thrift, integrity, self-reliance and modesty virtues that grew out of the pervasiveness of religion.
Some 75 years later, sociologist Max Weber dubbed the qualities that Tocqueville observed the “Protestant ethic” and considered them the cornerstone of successful capitalism. Like Tocqueville, Weber saw that ethic most fully realized in America, where it pervaded the society. Preached by luminaries like Benjamin Franklin, taught in public schools, embodied in popular novels, repeated in self-improvement books and transmitted to immigrants, that ethic undergirded and promoted Americas economic success.
What would Tocqueville or Weber think of America today? In place of thrift, they would find a nation of debtors, staggering beneath loans obtained under false pretenses. In place of a steady, patient accumulation of wealth, they would find bankers and financiers with such a short-term perspective that they never pause to consider the consequences or risks of selling securities they dont understand. In place of a country where all a man asks of government is “not to be disturbed in his toil,” as Tocqueville put it, they would find a nation of rent-seekers demanding government subsidies to purchase homes, start new ventures or bail out old ones.
They would find what Tocqueville described as the “fatal circle” of materialism the cycle of acquisition and gratification that drives people back to ever more frenetic acquisition and that ultimately undermines prosperous democracies.
And they would understand why. After flourishing for three centuries in America, the Protestant ethic began to disintegrate, with key elements slowly disappearing from modern American society, vanishing from schools, business, popular culture, and leaving us with an economic system unmoored from the restraints of civic virtue.
Not even Adam Smith who was a moral philosopher, after all imagined capitalism operating in such an ethical vacuum. Bailout plans, new regulatory schemes and monetary policy moves wont be enough to spur a robust, long-term revival of American economic opportunity without some renewal of what was once understood as the work ethic not just hard work but also a set of accompanying virtues, whose crucial role in the development and sustaining of free markets too few now recall.
The American experiment that Tocqueville chronicled in the 1830s was more than just an effort to see if men could live without a monarch and govern themselves. A free society had to be one in which people could pursue economic opportunity with only minimal interference from the state. To do so without producing anarchy required a self-discipline that was, to Max Weber, the core of the capitalist ethic. “The impulse to acquisition, pursuit of gain, of money, of the greatest possible amount of money, has in itself nothing to do with capitalism,” Weber wrote in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. “Unlimited greed for gain is not in the least identical with capitalism, and still less its spirit.”
Instead, the essence of capitalism is “a rational tempering” of the impulse to accumulate wealth so as to keep a business (and ultimately the whole economy) sustainable and self-renewing, Weber wrote. It is “the pursuit of profit, and forever renewed profit, by means of continuous, rational ... enterprise.”
Weber famously argued that the Protestant Reformation with John Calvins and Martin Luthers emphasis on individual responsibility, hard work, thrift, providence, honesty and deferred gratification at its center shaped the spirit of capitalism and helped it succeed. Calvinism and the sects that grew out of it, especially Puritanism and John Wesleys Methodism in England, were religions chiefly of the middle and working classes, and the virtues they promoted led to a new kind of affluence and upward mobility, based not on land (which was largely owned by the aristocracy) but on productive enterprises.
Nowhere did the fusing of capitalism and the virtues that made up the work ethic find a fuller expression than in America, where Puritan pioneers founded settlements animated by a Calvinist dedication to work.
One result was a remarkable society in which, as Tocqueville would observe, all “honest callings are honorable” and in which “the notion of labor is therefore presented to the mind on every side as the necessary, natural and honest condition of human existence.”
Unlike in Europe, where aristocrats and gentry often scorned labor, in the United States, “a wealthy man thinks that he owes it to public opinion to devote his leisure to some kind of industrial or commercial pursuit, or to public business. He would think himself in bad repute if he employed his life solely in living.”
This thick and complex work ethic, so essential to the success of the early, struggling American settlements, became part of the countrys civic fabric. It found its most succinct expression in the writings of Benjamin Franklin, whose well-known maxims, now considered quaintly old-fashioned, recommended to citizens of the new country a worldview that promoted work and the pursuit of wealth.
Franklins best-selling writings had an enormous impact on America. His ideas, widely applauded, permeated popular culture and education. The leading grammar school textbooks of the 19th century, for example, by William Holmes McGuffey and his brother Alexander, inculcated children with the virtues of work and thrift.
The work ethic even shaped American play. The most popular game of its time, The Checkered Game of Life, produced by Milton Bradley in the mid-19th century, challenged players to travel through life and earn points for successfully completing school, getting married and working hard, while avoiding pitfalls like gambling and idleness. In his patent application for the game, Bradley observed that it was intended to “impress upon the minds of youth the great moral principles of virtue and vice.”
Decades later, this secularized version of the Protestant ethic served as a lodestar for millions of poor immigrants, many from countries with little experience of free markets and democracy. Their assimilation into a culture that they recognized not as Protestant but as American reinvigorated the country, helping to set late-19th- and early-20th-century America on a distinctly different path from much of Europe.
The breakup of this 300-year-old consensus on the work ethic began with the cultural protests of the 1960s, which questioned and discarded many traditional American virtues. The roots of this breakup lay in what Daniel Bell described in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism as the rejection of traditional bourgeois qualities by late-19th-century European artists and intellectuals who sought “to substitute for religion or morality an aesthetic justification of life.” By the 1960s, that modernist tendency had evolved into a credo of self-fulfillment in which “nothing is forbidden, all is to be explored,” Bell wrote. Out went the Protestant ethics prudence, thrift, temperance, self-discipline and deferral of gratification.
Weakened along with all these virtues was Americans belief in the value of work itself. Along with “turning on” and “tuning in,” the 60s protesters also “dropped out.” As the editor of the 1973 American Work Ethic noted, “affluence, hedonism and radicalism” were turning many Americans away from work and the pursuit of career advancement, resulting in a sharp slowdown in U.S. productivity from 1965 through 1970.
The cultural upheavals of the era spurred deep changes in institutions that traditionally transmitted the work ethic especially the schools. University education departments began to tell future grammar school teachers that they should replace the traditional teacher-centered curriculum, aimed at producing educated citizens who embraced a common American ethic, with a new child-centered approach that treats every pupils “personal development” as different and special. During the 1960s, when intellectuals and college students dismissed traditional American values as oppressive barriers to fulfillment, grammar schools generally jettisoned the traditional curriculum.
The bourgeois values, however, had helped to sustain Webers “rational tempering” of the impulse to accumulate wealth. When the schools and the wider society demoted them, the effects were predictable. In schools, for instance, the new “every child is special” curriculum prompted a sharp uptick in students self-absorption, according to psychologists Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell in The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement.
What resulted was a series of increasingly self-centered generations of young people displaying progressively more narcissistic personality traits, including a growing obsession with “material wealth and physical appearance,” the authors observe. Thus did the 60s generation spawn the Me Generation of the 70s . By the mid-1980s, a poll of teens found that more than nine in 10 listed shopping as their favorite pastime.
The economic shocks that followed the tumultuous late 1960s, especially the devastating inflation of the 1970s, reinforced an emerging materialism. The inflation hit hardest those who had embraced the work ethic, destroying lifetimes of savings in unprecedented price spikes and sending the message that “saving and shunning debt was for saps,” Fortune observed. “The lesson seemed to be, buy, buy, buy, before the money visibly crumbling to dust in your hand vanishes completely.”
Once Fed chairman Paul Volckers tight-money policy tamed inflation in the early 1980s, America began to pick itself up. But it was a different country, one that had lost to some degree the “rational tempering” of the “pursuit of gain” that Max Weber had seen as the key to “forever renewed profit.”
The corporate restructurings of the 1980s, prompted by a new generation of risk-taking entrepreneurs and takeover artists reordered corporate America, shaking it out of its 1970s complacency. But the plant closings, downsizings and restructurings of the 1980s also stoked anxiety among workers, as the old ideal of lifetime employment at one paternalistic company gave way to a job-hopping career in a constantly changing business landscape.
While the results were often salutary innovation for companies and income gains for the most talented players the “get it while you can” mentality that developed among some workers and investors found its ultimate expression in the “day traders” of the technology stock boom, speculators with a “right now” time horizon rather than long-term investors.
There become a growing sense that a new ethic had superseded the old standard of playing by the rules. The 1980s version of the Horatio Alger tales was not an inspiring story of uplift but the popular movie Wall Street, with Gordon Gekkos infamous “greed is good” speech.
With government policy reinforcing the “get it now” mentality, a new era of consumption based on credit blossomed, and Americans turned from savers to debtors. Ostentatious displays of wealth grew more common. To fuel these purchases, inflation-adjusted total U.S. consumer-credit debt rose nearly threefold, to $2.56 trillion, from 1980 to 2008, while the nations savings rate shrank from an average of about 12 percent of personal income annually in the early 1980s to less than 1 percent by 2005.
The denouement of this transformation was the 2008 meltdown of world financial markets. America has certainly had its con artists, robber barons and speculators before, but what distinguished the latest panic was that millions of mortgages belonging to ordinary Americans triggered it mortgages that were foolhardy at best and fraudulent at worst.
According to the FBI, reports of mortgage fraud soared tenfold nationwide from 2001 to 2007. No one knows precisely how deep the problem ran, but some mortgage servicers, examining portfolios of subprime mortgages that went bad in 2007, found that up to 70 percent of them had involved some kind of misrepresentation. This multitude of scams required the complicity of businesses that ultimately destroyed themselves and shattered an entire industry.
In the wake of the market crash, our national discussion about how to fix capitalism seems limited to those who believe that more government will fix the problem and those who think that free markets will fix themselves. Few have asked whether we can recapture the civic virtues that nourished our commerce for 300 years.
Were not likely to find many churches preaching those virtues today. Though America is more religious than most industrialized countries, todays pulpits hardly resound with the bourgeois work ethic. While John Wesley once observed that religion produces “industry and frugality,” and the American Congregationalist preacher Henry Ward Beecher declared that the way to avoid poverty was through “provident care, and foresight, and industry and frugality,” today the National Council of Churches, to which these denominations belong, advocates for a left-wing “social gospel” of redistributing wealth.
And though the Catholic Church once strove to assimilate generations of poor immigrants into American economic life, today its major social-welfare organization, Catholic Charities, has become an arm of the redistributionist welfare state. Even our evangelical churches, whose theology most resembles that of the great Protestant reformers, have focused their energies primarily on social issues, such as fighting abortion or gay marriage, or even inveighing against welfare reform that encourages single mothers to return to work.
Could the schools do what they once did create educated citizens inculcated with the ethical foundations of capitalism? That would require rededicating the schools to “making Americans.” Promisingly, a few public and private schools around the country have replaced the child-centered curriculum with one focused on learning about our culture and its institutions. But these examples amount only to a tiny handful, swimming against the educational mainstream.
Late in life, Adam Smith noted that government institutions can never tame and regulate a society whose citizens are not schooled in a common set of virtues. “What institution of government could tend so much to promote the happiness of mankind as the general prevalence of wisdom and virtue?” he wrote. “All government is but an imperfect remedy for the deficiency of these.”
America in the 21st century is learning that lesson.
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