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December 15, 2005

David Brooks: The Holy Capitalists.

David Brooks is today musing on just what was it that started off the economic boom times of the last 500 years.

I have to admit that I’m not sure I see what the argument is. I have no problem in believing that all of these reasons are correct, that Europe did have the right plants, that climate and geography are determinants, that culture matters, that the Renaissance was important and that the Catholic Church had a basic almost proto-capitalism in the economy of the monasteries (and the manorial economy outside the Church as well).

But maybe that’s just me. I’m always uncomfortable with anyone stating, when we’re dealing with organisms as complex in their desires as human beings, of anyone who says "That’s it!"

Rather why I like the old standards of markets, liberty and the freedom to go to perdition in your own way...because you’re only ever saying "That’s it!" for yourself.


What explains success? What forces drive some nations and individuals to move forward and grow rich while others stagnate? These happen to be the most important questions in the social sciences today.

In the scholarly arena, you see an array of academic gladiators wielding big books and offering theories.

Over here are the material determinists. Jared Diamond, with his million-selling ''Guns, Germs, and Steel,'' says the West grew rich not because of any innate superiority, but because Europeans happened to have the right kinds of plants. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, with his tome, ''Civilizations,'' argues that success is determined by climate and geography.

Over there are the cultural determinists. Thomas Sowell argues that ethnic groups develop their own skills and values and thrive or suffer as they compete, conquer and migrate. In his great opus, ''The Wealth and Poverty of Nations,'' David Landes shows how cultural mores shaped European empires and the Industrial Revolution.

Now another academic heavyweight has entered the arena. In his new book, ''The Victory of Reason,'' the Baylor sociologist Rodney Stark argues that the West grew rich because it invented capitalism. That's not new. What's unusual is his description of how capitalism developed.

The conventional view, embraced by most of his fellow cultural determinists, is that during the Renaissance and Reformation, Europeans shook off the authority of the Catholic Church. When a secular world was created alongside the sacred one, when intellectual freedom replaced obedience to authority, capitalism and scientific advances were the result.

That theory, Stark says, doesn't fit the facts. In reality, capitalism developed in the Middle Ages, and the important innovations were made by people in the belly of the faith. Religion didn't stifle economic and scientific ideas -- it nurtured them.

Stark is building upon the recent research that has reversed earlier prejudices about the so-called Dark Ages. As late as 1983, the esteemed historian Daniel Boorstin could write a chapter on the Middle Ages entitled ''The Prison of Christian Dogma.''

But the more we learn, the more we realize that most of the progress we link to the Renaissance or later years actually happened during the Middle Ages. Roughly a hundred years before Copernicus, Jean Buridan (circa 1300-1358) wrote that the Earth is an orb rotating on an axis. Buridan, a rector of the University of Paris, was succeeded by Nicole d'Oresme (1323-1382), who explained why the rotation of the Earth doesn't produce wind.

Other medieval Scholastics made the same sort of discoveries in economics and technology. Five hundred years before Adam Smith, St. Albertus Magnus explained the price mechanism as what ''goods are worth according to the estimate of the market at the time of sale.''

Catholic monasteries emerged as capitalist enterprises, serving not only as manufacturing and trading centers, but also as investment houses. And engineers invented or commercialized a vast array of technologies: the compass, the clock, the round-bottom boat, wagons with brakes and front axles, water wheels, eyeglasses, and so on.

These innovations and discoveries, Stark argues, were not made by the newly secular, but by people who had a distinctly Christian sense of the sacred. Catholic theology had taught them that God had created the universe according to universal laws that reason could discover. It taught that knowledge and history move forward progressively, so people should look to the future, not the past.

The church recognized the dignity of free labor at a time when most other cultures did not. It valued private property and emphasized the essential equality of human beings despite their unequal incomes and stations.

This history is important today. (And not only because Albertus Magnus knew more about reconciling faith and reason 700 years ago than the bogus culture warriors do now.) It's important because whether we are dealing with poverty around the world or at home, it is not enough to simply liberate people and assume they will automatically pursue economic prosperity. People need to be instilled with certain beliefs, like the belief that the future can be better than the present and that individuals have the power to shape their own destiny.

Ideas and culture drive civilizations. The Catholic Church nurtured one of the most impressive economic takeoffs in human history. Today, as Catholicism spreads in Africa and China, it's important to understand the beliefs that encourage people to work hard and grow rich.

December 15, 2005 in Economics | Permalink


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This may be the original capitalists but take a look at the new capitalists. Most have not been paying attention to the World Trade talks, here is the most amazing revelation to come from the talks, “Developing nations in Africa and Asia want preferential deals put in place so they can sell more of their products in America, Europe, and Japan.” Are they serious?
Who do they think they are demanding preferential treatment deals so they can sell more of their product in Japan, Europe, and America? They are owed as much as we are, nothing. Get in gear and get to work, that’s how you sell your product. America, Japan, and Europe earned their standard of living by hard work and sacrifice, not just by asking.
Raymond B

Posted by: Raymond B | Dec 16, 2005 12:18:23 AM

David Brooks needs to take a look at the Silk Road.

Posted by: RJJ | Dec 20, 2005 5:03:00 AM