Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Protestant Work Ethic

In response to The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Becker and Woessmann (2007) wrote a paper which questioned Weber’s relationship between prosperity and Protestantism. Becker and Woessmann (2007) ascertain that the relationship between prosperity and Protestantism is not in the religion; rather it is in the form of human capital. In 1871, there was indeed a strong correlation across 435 Prussian counties between prosperity and the proportion of the population that was Protestant. However, Becker and Woessmann (2007) show that this correlation is attributed to the fact that Protestant counties in Prussia had a higher literacy rate. The higher literacy rate was a result of Martin Luther’s demand that all Christians be able to read the bible by themselves. Luther also pushed for expanded education. In the 16th century, school systems did not exist, and often education was limited to children of wealthy merchants and rulers (Faber, 1998). Luther opposed the Catholic tradition of reading the bible out loud in Latin. Therefore, Luther was the first to translate the bible into German so that everybody could read it. Thus, the higher literacy rate translated into economic activities which were necessary for their calling. When Becker and Woessmann (2007) controlled their study for literacy, there was no relationship between Protestantism and prosperity. There was no significant difference in economic success between Protestant and Catholic counties. It is true that the Protestants were richer than the Catholics, but it had nothing to do with being harder workers or being more frugal, it was due to the fact that they were better educated (Becker and Woessmann, 2007).

The results of the Becker and Woessmann study (2007) show firstly that Weber was right; Protestants areas were more affluent in 19th century Prussia than Catholic areas. However, secondly, the study shows that it is the acquisition of literacy that accounts for the higher prosperity of Protestants, rather than work ethic and thriftiness. Regarding the issue of whether there is a relationship between religious domination and economic success, Becker and Woessmann (2007) are inconclusive, and assert that this is a difficult question to determine since the spread of Protestantism, and with it, literacy, came centuries before our time of observation, and individuals’ work ethics could have had many different influences (Becker and Woessmann, 2007).

How have work ethics from different cultures affected the Protestant Work Ethic?

Becker, S. O., and Woessmann, L. (2007). Was Weber Wrong? A Human Capital Theory of Protestant Economic History. Department of Economics, University of Munich. [Discussion Paper]. Retrieved from: PEPG07-04_Becker_Woessmann.pdf. Accessed: February 7, 2009.

Faber, R. (1998). Martin Luther on Reformed Education. Retrieved from: Library/rfaber/luther_edu.htm. Accessed: February 8, 2009.


  1. Even if literacy rates are the ones held responsible for prosperity, how can one be so sure that religion did not play a bigger role? Also on the results part it states that the acquisition of literacy accounted for the higher prosperity of protestants instead of work ethics and thriftiness, is there any empirical research that supports this?

  2. Who's to say that those groups converting to Protestantism during the reformation, around 1570, were not the affluent, well educated families to begin with? Their affluence in later centuries could be due to their inherited wealth and subsequent access to education. I was unable to access the Becker and Woessmann article, but I was curious to find out if this was something they addressed.

  3. Red Fraggle, here is the direct link to the article "Was Weber Wrong?"
    I hope you can access it.