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Why Islamic Productivity Lags Behind the West, Part 2

Last week, I explained that the Ottoman Empire’s restricting the printing press also impacted their ability to grow human capital. Even now, Muslims have an affinity for oral authority instead of personal incentive. Human capital has the unique ability to research and utilize written information and make better decisions based on better information. If you follow oral authority, which is usually from a single source, information may be incorrect, misunderstood, or biased in how the information is handled. By the mid-nineteenth century, the literacy rate in the Ottoman empire was 2-3 percent compared to ten times as much in Western Europe. Human capital growth occurs at an exponential rate, which explains why productivity in Islamic dominant countries still falls behind Western countries.


There is perhaps another reason. Western countries have a strong appetite for productivity. During Bismarck’s Germany (1870-1890), Max Weber, a college professor, described this propensity as a “spirit” of Capitalism. His initial research showed that Baden, Germany was 37 percent Protestant and 62 percent Catholic, with the remainder being Jewish. On a per-person basis, the average taxable income for Protestants was 954 marks versus 589 marks for Catholics. Why would Protestants make more taxable income than Catholics as a group? More research showed the same results in Prussia, Bavaria, followed by more extensive studies in Hungary, France, Britain, and the United States. Each additional study supported the earlier studies. Protestants, as a group, were, indeed, more prosperous than Catholics.


Weber’s research had additional findings as well. The higher technical or commercially trained staff of modern enterprises tend to be predominately Protestant. As Weber sought to understand the different outcomes between Protestants and Catholics, he found that Catholics prefer the education offered by classic-based schools. Weber writes, “The Catholic is more calm; his acquisitive drive is lower, he places more value on a life which is as secure as possible, even if this should be on a smaller income.” Catholics tend to become master craftsmen while Protestants flock to the factories where they form the upper echelons of skilled workers and management.


Weber’s research finds that this trend goes back to the Reformation. The Reformation is that period in the 16th-century when religious scholars sought to reform the abuses in the Roman Catholic Church and established Reformed and Protestant churches. Martin Luther is the German monk most renowned for starting the Reformation in 1517 by nailing a list of ninety-five demands for change on the front door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Weber credits John Calvin as the reformation leader to preach a particular dogma that encouraged working people to embrace self-discipline, prompting them to work harder for God’s ecclesiastical plan.


Calvinism sported a spirit of Capitalism that followed a two-part game plan. First, there were Bible verses that promoted the positivity of work. Calvinism insisted that one’s duty was to pursue one’s calling. First, there is Proverbs 22:29: “Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will serve before kings. He will not serve before obscure men.” Next is Proverbs 23:4: “Do not wear yourself out to get rich. Have the wisdom to show restraint.” I will also mention Proverbs 31:10-31, entitled “The Wife of Noble Character.” This Bible verse is a poem about the worth of a wife who carries her weight. Over the centuries, the poem has taken a life of its own. Jewish tradition suggests that the husband recite it to his wife on Sabbath evening, and many Christians read it on Mother’s Day. I will quote the first few lines: “A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies. Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value.”


In essence, from these Bible verses, Calvin suggests that work is a noble endeavor when sought out for the proper purposes. We, as Christians, should not seek work to get rich. We should seek work to find our calling. In the Proverbs 22 verse, Calvin suggests examples of people who found their calling and served before kings were Joseph, an administrator (Genesis 41:46), David, a musician (1st Samuel 16:21-23), and Huram, a worker in bronze (1st King 7:13-14). Weber claims this line of thought shows that the Protestant work ethic is grounded in Christianity. This work ethic has become a Christian cultural value. Influencers like Shakespeare and Ben Franklin, among others, have embedded it into our everyday beliefs. In Henry VI, Part 2, Act 4, Scene 2, Shakespeare writes, “It is written: labor in your vocation.” Franklin writes in his almanac, “It is the working man who is the happy man. It is the idle man who is the miserable man.”


The second part of Calvin’s spirit of Capitalism is the self-discipline needed to follow the guided path. Protestantism does not have the institution of confession. The individual is left to face his God with nothing to rely on but himself and his state of grace, which can only be evidenced by the whole conduct of his life. Consequently, early Protestant dogma condemned hedonistic enjoyment of one’s wealth and striving for it as an end to itself. Pleasures of the flesh, that is, relaxing with one’s possessions, enjoying oneself, or wasting time and money on matters unconnected with one’s calling, was unacceptable. Weber gives an example of this self-discipline: a highly successful businessman who, even when prescribed by his doctor to take time off for stress reduction, refused as such a luxury was the improper use of wealth. The businessman insisted wealth (as capital) should be employed correctly in the interest of the calling.


The outcome of working for one’s calling and restricting one’s expenditure only on essential items, in more cases than not, resulted in large surpluses. These large surpluses were investable capital. Christian countries were unique in keeping their wealth in large sums. Two practices were essential to accomplish this end. In Western society, monogamy was encouraged, and upon death, the eldest son received the birthright. When there were multiple sons, it was common for the second son to join the clergy and other sons to join the military. Whereas early Islamic practices allowed multiple wives and divided the estate upon death, the capital was splintered into different groups.


The importance of capital has never been higher. Productivity will be impacted by artificial intelligence, i.e., robots and machines. It will be those large sums of money that make that happen. Islam is not a capital-intensive culture, at least not like Christianity. Islam has other attributes, but high productivity is not one of them.

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