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The article by Massimo Franco in “Corriere della Sera” on September 5 revived possibly the most worn vulgate in the history of economic and political thought: “‘Rigorous’ Protestants from North, against ‘Lax’ Catholics from South.” Let me be clear, I recognize the author’s undoubted merit for having registered the birth of a controversy and have done it with style and competence.
As the most dated “vexata quaestio,” that the spirit of capitalism takes the improbable character of political dispute, once it was assumed that the reasons for the public debt of countries like Italy and Spain was due to “Catholic lax”, as opposed to “Protestant rigor.”
A short-sighted political opportunism and shallowness of analysis can lead to arguments such as that of the director of the “Globalist” Staphan Richter, according to whom, if Martin Luther had been present at Maastricht in 1992, would have said: “Read my lips: no Catholic country which has not experienced the Protestant Reformation should enter the Euro circle. ” In fact, the Protestants roots (anti-Catholic) of the spirit of capitalism have nothing to do with the spread between the Italian and German government bonds, but rather with the Spanish. Germany is a rich and industrious country, where the Catholic Bavaria plays the role of locomotive compared to the distinctly Protestant Länder. Moreover, in the European Union constitution process, the Catholic Chancellor Konrad Adenauer felt no inferiority complex against the Protestant Minister Ludwig Erhard, and both collaborated with economists such as Wilhelm Röpke and Alfred Müller-Armack to create the first economic communitarian institutions, highlighting the character of freedom (market dynamics), solidarity (taking care of each other) and subsidiarity (responsibility) as figures common to the tradition of the Catholic social teaching and the Evangelical social theory.
At this point, I think it’s more interesting to see the characters that are at the basis of such clichés and understand their weaknesses. From a historical perspective, the dispute knows a decisive moment with the publication of the famous work by Max Weber, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” (1904-1905)”. Weber said there would be a substantial correspondence between the spirit of capitalism and the spirit of the Protestant Calvinism. It would exist for the German sociologist a correspondence between typical attitudes of Protestant Calvinism and those equally typical of capitalism. This would obviously match with ideal types and not with empirical phenomena. Weber himself wrote that “it is madly doctrinaire” the argument that ‘the capitalist spirit’ is able to rise only as an extension of certain influences of the Reformation, or even that capitalism as an economic system is a product of the Reformation.”
The core of Weber’s theory consists of recognizing the difference between a kind of “patrimonial capitalism,” characterized by a dependence on a moral or political authority, and a type of “rational capitalism,” linked to concrete and logical procedures, autonomous, open to various possibilities and ruled by laws that reward merit. Weber’s thesis considers the rise of the spirit of capitalism, an eloquent testimony to the final transition from the traditional era to modernity, represented by entering a new mentality in history, a calculator and a rational perspective, according to which rational actions appear as the weighted outcome of a careful cost-benefit calculation. Thus, the rational spirit that identifies this new phase of mankind history would be the final divorce between ethics and rationality.
The debate opened by Weber ended up involving sociologists, economists, historians and theologians. Among the deep critics of Weberian vulgate, I would like to mention the late Prof. Oscar Nuccio, who in his book “Epistemology of human action and economic rationality in the thirteenth Italian century: The case of Albertano from Brescia” (Effatà, 2005) faces the debate on the rise of the spirit of capitalism and the role played by civil jurists from the low medieval Italy to the formation of the modern social sciences. Nuccio’s analysis aims to grasp the beginnings of some economic categories typical of modern economical epistemology, so as to make reason of the dynamics of market processes. For example, Nuccio recognizes that an author like Albertano from Brescia (a jurist who lived in the thirteenth century), despite being a man of the Middle Ages, adopts a modern analysis of “human action,” the “dual legitimacy of labor and profit,” and the “ethics consecration of profit.”
At this point, we can ask provocatively: if all this were founded, where would the established Weberian clichés that recognize these merits priority to Calvin and the Protestants be? In support of Nuccio’s thesis, consider the sociologist Luciano Pelicani, for whom no serious scholar of Middle Ages today would be willing to credit the claim that the formation of a true spirit of capitalism had not already begun during the Middle Ages; and the Catholic theologian Michael Novak, for whom even the Benedictine abbeys repudiate the above clichés. The analysis of Pelicani tends to identify the causes that contributed to the rise of modernity in the form of domination that took the European society during the Middle Ages, summarized in the “dismemberment of public power” and in the “pulverization of the local powers that replaced the centralizing State” – and it is interesting to note that, even if in an autonomous way, Friedrich August von Hayek and Luigi Sturzo came to a similar analysis.
The work of authors apparently so distant from modernity highlights the continuing tension in reconciling the contemplative with the working life; that is, a man that combines the “vir sapiens” with the “homo faber.”
This is the perspective from which it is possible to move to critically understand Weber’s analysis, whose merit is unquestionable: the Weberian thesis has urged many to reflect on the relationship between values, culture and modernity, overcoming the Marxian distinction between “structure” and “superstructure.” However, the vulgate that arose from it proved misleading for the purposes of explaining how the spirit of capitalism really appeared, and lends itself to being used as a cudgel to enforce national interests as legitimate as partial. Worse, we must acknowledge with sadness, it has become an alibi which our politicians and intellectuals often have used and continue to use for intellectual laziness or political expediency. It seems they don’t want or don’t know how to attack the problems on the side of quality and merit of our ruling class and the form and the maintenance of our institutions, as well as the replacement of the former and continuous and necessary reform of the latter, which is how wise and intellectually honest men reply, once acknowledged their ignorance and their fallibility. Exactly what European Catholics and Protestants were able to do after the Second World War, with all due respect to Martin Luther.
Flavio Felice is President of Tocqueville-Acton Centre Studies and Adjunct Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute
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