Max Weber Was Wrong

That his book is "great" does not mean it is correct, or is to be taken as good history or good economics or good theology.


Max Weber, the north German economist, proud reserve officer in the Kaiser's army, literal dueler with academic opponents, and co-founder of modern sociology, sits on every college reading list for his 1905 book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. If you didn't read it in college, it's time to turn off the TV, Google it, and do so. It's a stunning performance, one of my top 100 nonfiction books of the 20th century. The book is brilliant, readable, short. (By the way, henceforth you should exhibit your sophistication by pronouncing his name correctly. It's "VAY-ber," not like the "WEB-er" hamburger grill you've just put away for the year. You get extra points for saying "Max" in echt deutsch: "Maahx," not like "Mad Max.")

Others of the stunning 100 include Joseph Schumpeter's Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942), John Maynard Keynes' The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936), Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1949), and Edward Tufte's The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (1983). If you don't know such books, you don't know much, and you really need to get going.

But that a book is "great" does not mean it is correct, or is to be taken as good history or good economics or good theology. Marx's Das Kapital is indubitably a great book, one of the very greatest of the 19th century, as I say to annoyed friends of libertarian or conservative bent. But then I say to my left-wing friends, annoying them too, that Marx was wrong on almost every point of economics, history, and politics. Which is why I haven't got any friends.

So what's wrong with Weber's argument? First we need the argument. (Reading this summary is not an excuse for skipping the actual book.) Weber thinks that there is such a thing as, to use the Marxist word, modern "capitalism," originating in the 16th century. By capitalism he means, as the name implies, the focused accumulation of capital in masses. The focused accumulation, he says, depends on ample saving and hard work, characteristic of the Protestant north Germans as against the lazy, Catholic Bavarians.

How to get the ample saving and hard work? Spirit, Geist, runs things, he says (and I do too). He claims that the doctrine of salvation put forward by John Calvin emerged as the new spirit's engine. People saved and worked because they wanted to prove to themselves that they were in fact among the few "elect," predestined since the beginning by an omniscient God to be saved from hell's fire.

It is a theory about psychology, applicable Weber claimed even to the world-enjoying descendants of Calvinists, such as our own Benjamin Franklin. Weber took the comical speech Franklin wrote for Poor Richard's Almanac in the person of wise Father Abraham—"Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise"—to be exactly what Franklin believed. No one lacking a sense of humor should venture on interpreting Franklin. (Weber's nephew said once that a sense of humor was the main characteristic lacking in his beloved Uncle Max.)

Weber's theory continues to acquire converts, namely, anyone who reads the book without considerable knowledge of theology, economics, or history. The union of a spiritual spark with materialist kindling utterly charms the first reader. But almost everyone who has looked seriously into the evidence behind Weber's theory finds it lacking.

For an economic example, it is not true that accumulation caused the modern Great Enrichment. In the absence of innovation, as Keynes pointed out, mere accumulation would swiftly reach diminishing returns. It could hardly, therefore, explain an enrichment since 1800 in places like Germany and the U.S. and Japan of 3,000 percent in the goods and services made and earned by the poorest among us.

Market-tested betterments, not the mere investment for exploiting them, explain our riches. Electricity. Autos, soon self-driving. Large living quarters. Doubled life expectancy. Better education in great books.

Now Weber was a very learned and intelligent scholar. After all, he gave us the true definition of a government, namely, a monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory. It is a definition as full and accurate as it is sadistically useful for torturing our mild social democratic friends in Sweden or Massachusetts, who like to believe that the government is a festival of kindly collectivism, sort of like a loving family.

Weber wisely understood as well that greed was not invented in the 16th century, which is a persistent if silly theory about markets. He wrote in The Protestant Ethic that "it should be taught in the kindergarten of cultural history that this naive idea [about] capitalism must be given up once and for all." Greed "has been common to all sorts and conditions of men at all times and in all countries of the earth."

And Weber was spot on in saying that "spirit" runs the show. But oddly for the founder of modern sociology, he located the spirit in individual, terrified, Calvinist psychology, not out in society. The psychological hypothesis has been taken up, not very successfully, in studies of individual entrepreneurship.

What actually changed between the age of Shakespeare and the age of Jane Austen was not individual psychology but a spirit of social approval for capitalist acts among consenting adults. Entrepreneurship at the psychological level probably exists in all human groups—in, say, one in 10 or so of the people. Look at your acquaintance who fearlessly opened a new hairdressing salon, or your college classmate who jumped on the improvement of the internet. You can make a case, as George Gilder does in his 2009 book The Israel Test, that the Jews of Eastern Europe are often unusually good at initiating trade-tested betterments. Could be. Looks like it, and for the benefit of us all, as against the lush growth of anti-Semitism these days. But in the coming world we will enjoy the benefits brought by scores of such unusually entrepreneurial groups, in Africa and Asia and Latin America. It's not psychology. It's sociology and law.

So Weber was mistaken. But his is still a great book. Culture, wrote the Victorian critic Matthew Arnold, "is a study of perfection [which] seeks to do away with classes; to make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere." Even the best may be found after a while to be mistaken.

Hobbes' Leviathan is mistaken, claiming centrally that "Covenants, without the sword, are but words, and of no strength to secure a man." Wrong, wrong, wrong. Geist expressed in words does indeed bind and secure people. But Michael Oakeshott properly classed Leviathan as the greatest (and "perhaps the only") work of English political philosophy.

Another Victorian, a witty atheist, used to suggest that every church door have a large sign declaring "Important if true." The Protestant Ethic is important though false, an instance of imperfect perfection.

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  1. Weber’s nephew said once that a sense of humor was the main characteristic lacking in his beloved Uncle Max.

    What is it with major sociological/political theorizers lacking any sense of humor or fun? I remember a critique of Howard Zinn in Reason years ago that mentioned this as well. If you don’t approach a study of humanity with humor – both your own sense of it and an ability to appreciate when others have it as well – you will never, ever understand mankind.

    1. Smug and humor can’t coexist. For examples, see the works of Tony and Shreek. To be sure, the list could be much longer.

      1. Are you kidding? Tony may be a boring dolt, but shreek is still entertaining. His bizarre delusions are leavened with enough assholery that you don’t ever have to feel bad for laughing at him.

        1. But see? He’s not funny on purpose.

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      2. Smug and humor can’t coexist.

        Of course they can. Every time I see one of those smug coexist bumper stickers, I laugh and laugh and laugh.

        1. If you really want a laugh, tell the owner that without the C, there would be no reason for the bumper sticker.

    2. Germans are too busy being organized to laugh!

      1. German humour is based on butt of the joke being disorganized and imprecise.

        “Maahx, he does not save his wrapping paper. Let’s all laugh. Ha ha.”

        1. I chuckled.

          1. I fired up my Vay-bar grill and had a frankfurter.

      2. Plus, they gassed all the really funny people.

    3. This is why I like Rothbard. The dude had a great sense of humor. He is always chuckling in his lectures.

      But yes, all philosophy is psychology, and the psychology of most philosophers is pathological.

      1. “But yes, all philosophy is psychology, and the psychology of most philosophers is pathological.”
        Don’t know if it’s true but you got a slow drool of a spit-take from me.

  2. A book that is wrong in almost every particular that purports to be non-fiction is not a “great” book. It may be a work of great influence, but that only makes its infamy worse.

    1. Karl Marx is the prophet of a religion that is responsible for the murder of 100 million innocents. Influential? Yes. Great? I guess it depends what you mean by great. Greatly destructive?

      1. “Great” in the sense of “large”, not “magnificent”.

          1. It’s funny how a joke can have a life-span.

        1. If Lord Acton was right that “Great men are almost always bad men”, is it also true that “Great books are almost always bad books”?

    2. You wouldn’t call the works of Aquinas and Aristotle, who were also factually wrong on all of the particulars, “great books”?

  3. If you don’t know such books, you don’t know much, and you really need to get going.

    What if one has no desire to be ‘boring guy’ amongst one’s friends?

    1. Little more boring than talking to unknowledgeable people.

      1. I’ll bet you’re great at parties. Do you often realize that everyone you’re talking to walks off about 30 seconds into your speech?

        1. People get pissed off when I don’t invite them to my parties.

          And talking about things that require a certain level of knowledge is a great way to chase boring, unknowledgeable people away.

          Don’t you ever want to graduate to the grown ups table?

          Read a book.

          1. I already read boring ass philosophy and am smart enough to not bore my friends with it. I see no need to add boring ass economics to that.

            So yes, I’d rather be a dumb uncultured hick.

    2. I tend to avoid parities where Maahx Weber is the topic of conversation. Nothing aginst Maahx, but such shindigs tend to devolve into discussions of Camus.

        1. My next RPG character shall be Seamus Camus

          1. Isn’t he that guy with the monster red Mohawk on WWE Raw?

  4. Because great ideas require later refinement, don’t account for every exception, can be easily oversimplified, etc .doesn’t mean they’re wrong or don’t contain an essential truth.

    Take the idea, “Do unto others as you would have done unto you”. Some might observe that similar ideas existed that predate the First century CE, that Christians have not always lived up to this idea, that its supposed supernatural origins are dubious, etc. However, who would argue that this idea isn’t essential to Christianity or that the ideas held by people don’t influence their behavior?

    Religion is an evolutionary adaptation like language. It survives and thrives because of the advantages it bestows to the people who believe in it. Beliefs that bring associated disadvantages (like communism) end up on the ash heap of history. For those who don’t know, altruistic exists in the natural world–it beings advantages to ants, prairie dogs, bonobos, and homo sapiens, too. This isn’t surprising to libertarians who see the advantages to society of living by the NAP. Doesn’t the NAP closely approximate the golden rule?

    Just like there are behavioral differences between Christians and non-Christians, there are essential differences between the behavior of Catholics and the behavior of Protestants–this isn’t surprising since they believe different things. If other societies embraced the same ideas by other means, that doesn’t mean Protestantism isn’t especially conducive to capitalism.

    1. Rand was famously anti-altruist but even she, I think, believed in benevolent altruism e.g. you put a dime in the jukebox to hear a song you liked and if the other people in the room enjoyed hearing it played on your dime, well that was fine.
      Like anything, altruism can be taken to extremes and I’m sure we all know people who have sacrificed their entire being to please others. One wonders how homo sapiens may have benefited to a greater degree if Michelangelo, for one, had spent less of his time and fortune bailing out his disfunctional family.

      1. Rand’s egoism quickly goes screwy.

        A few years ago, there was some controversy over whether a Marine, I believe, out of San Diego should posthumously receive the Medal of Honor. He threw himself on a grenade to save his buddies.

        Rand might contend that what he did was selfish because he cared more about his buddies than he did about himself, but I might contend that observation defies the simple definition of “selfish”. If a thing is what it is and not something else, then caring more about other people than yourself is not “selfish”.

        The fact is that societies of animals do altruistic things. If altruism could only be found in humanity, with no evidence of antecedents in the natural world, that would be an excellent argument for the existence of God. However, the natural world is riddled with examples of altruistic behavior.

        1. As usual, Ayn is refuted by stuffing what “Rand might contend” into her mouth, as opposed to quoting what she actually wrote. Ken’s strawman is a perfect specimen of what prompted Robert Heinlein to warn: “Beware of altruism. It is based on self-deception, the root of all evil.” (Source: Time Enough for Love)

          1. That egoists often argue that altruistic behavior is actually selfish in some way is not a straw man.

            1. Though I think Heinlein’s aphorism had more to do with being skeptical of the motives and methods of someone who claimed to be doing something out of altruism.

              For instance, I saw someone recently praise Bernie Sanders for being a generous man.

              1. He’s very generous with other people’s money. So that person was correct, from a certain point of view.

                1. If she failed to live up to her own standards of consistency in her personal behavior, I see that as a personal failure rather than a failure of her philosophy.

                  I haven’t seen any evidence yet that Ayn Rand (or her raving fans) can grok altruism as anything other than stupidity or insanity, and, like I showed, that’s problematic.

                  When someone moves the goalposts on selfishness so far out that it can include a Marine sacrificing his life to save his buddies’, they’ve glossed over a problematic definition somewhere.

                  And it’s rife through the bunch of them. Sometimes, I make sacrifices for people I care about–quite reluctantly–but when I make sacrifices for people I care about and it makes me feel good to help them, I’m still making sacrifices, then, too.

                  Meanwhile, how do we feel about judging the definition of an objective word based on someone’s inner feelings about their sacrifices?

                  The irony of using “feel” in that sentence twice was intentional. If we’re depending on our feelings to define these things objectively, then we’re probably not using an objective standard.

                  1. Actually, I think it was in Barbara Branden’s book that she pointed
                    out a number of kind (altruistic) things that Ayn Rand had done,
                    including letting a stranger who was an immigrant live with her
                    for quite awhile.

              2. Well, Bernie is generous…with someone else’s money and/or life.

                1. Which is a good point. What difference does it make besides the actual outcome? I think that is what Rand was getting at. Altruism is meaningless unless it can be proven to create better outcomes for all. Embracing the good selfishness of human nature, rather than focusing on intentions that are the only differentiator in actions, is the enlightened way to go about the world.

          2. Rand is refuted because she conveniently would adjust her world view when it suited her other desires. Like, say when it’s OK to interfere in and destroy a marriage when you’ve got the hots for an acolyte but it’s a betrayal when said acolyte decides he’s in love with a younger woman.

            1. So you’re saying she was human? Wow.

          3. People, like animals, tend to engage in behavior that “pays off” in some way and avoid behavior that does not. Is throwing yourself on a live grenade to save your buddies “selfless”? Yes, in that you put their lives before yours. “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13)

            Is it also “selfish”? You can make the argument if the person doing the act also believed that in death he would live on in legend, in the memories of family, friends and combat unit. The only problem of course is that he won’t be around to reap the benefits of his “selfish” act.

            So to me, the argument that the ultimate selfless act of giving your life for your friends is actually selfish is simply cynical

      2. Appeals to “nature’s examples” betray ignorance of how selfish genes operate. Richard Dawkins has borne the flaming wrath of mystical self-deceivers for The Selfish Gene, published when the LP was a toddler, showing by Von Neumann mathematics of game theory that genes cooperate for self-replication, impelling individuals as their vehicles. Lucky for us mathematics also reveals now Malthusian disaster (as in deer population explosions) overtakes ignorance and wishful thinking. Claims that living creatures defend their gene pool out of “altruism” are as true as claims that Jesus shook the maggots out of Lazarus’ corpse and sent it out to dance in the streets.

        1. That there are advantages associated with seemingly selfish behavior isn’t surprising to anyone who knows anything about the invisible hand.

          Your understanding of Richard Dawkins and his genetics seems to assume that religion, culture, language, etc. are not adaptive, which is bizarre.

          I promise you, Protestantism is not spread to the progeny of Protestants through their genes. And if people’s beliefs influence their behavior, then believing some things rather than others influences their behavior differently–regardless of what Richard Dawkins says about their genes.

    2. Beliefs that bring associated disadvantages (like communism) end up on the ash heap of history.

      Those weren’t real communism. That’s why it’s not on the ash heap yet, but still being tried.

      1. I suspect that’s a social maladaptation.

        A society that violates individual property rights so consistently and so thoroughly cannot thrive on so large a scale–regardless of what people believe.

        1. Unless that society is named China.

          1. Actually, China abandoned the central planning of the Soviet years to avoid the fate of the Soviet Union. Their economy has thrived since because of those changes.

            Even the Soviets had to fudge a little to let people grow food in their own little gardens.

            There are negative consequences to disregarding people’s property rights, which cannot be escaped. China still suffers negative consequences when they violate someone’s property rights–as does the U.S.

            We’re getting a little more philosophical, here, but we’re starting to rub up against my own personal philosophy, sort of a variation on natural rights, where our rights are natural in that they arise naturally as an aspect of our agency and violating them has real consequences in the real world–cross culturally and throughout history.

            Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, property rights, etc. Doesn’t matter whether you’re China during the Cold War, the United States in the 21st century, the Holy Roman Empire during the Thirty Years War, or the Roman Empire in the First century CE–violating people’s rights has predictable and similar consequences in the natural world.

            1. You should read Bastiat’s “The Law” again.

  5. First Amendment religious freedom as an idea came to us by way of Luther’s Two Kingdoms doctrine, the Peace of Westphalia, and the Priesthood of Believers. Sure, there are other Catholic sources for the same idea, as well as non-Christian sources, but that idea didn’t find its way into the First Amendment because of them. It came to America by way of radical Protestants, and our society thrived because such freedom gave our society an advantage.

    Likewise, the ideas behind the Protestant work ethic bestowed certain advantages to the societies who were influenced by those ideas–regardless of whether the individuals in question were Protestants. When Catholic, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and Jews come to America and thrive because of their innovation and hard work, it is not unrelated to the values the larger culture places on individual effort (rather than family ties), hard work, frugality, the golden rule, and other ideas associated with Protestantism.

    If Weber’s Protestant work ethic as a foundation for capitalism was flawed in certain particulars, we’re usually talking about an exception that proves the rule, certainly if other societies and other religions were also successfully capitalist–to the extent that they achieved the same ideas of Protestantism through other means.

    1. “When Catholic, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and Jews come to America and thrive because of their innovation and hard work, it is not unrelated to the values the larger culture places on individual effort (rather than family ties), hard work, frugality, the golden rule, and other ideas associated with Protestantism.”

      Yeh, um. Cite needed please Ken.

      Catholics didn’t exactly look on to Protestants for that sort of stuff.

      Despite the chauvinism towards them, they were already endowed with those values and ethics.

      I grew around both (my mother and her family are Protestant) and it wasn’t how I viewed it – at all.

      1. I should add, I think, the one thing ‘Protestant’ countries had on those people coming from, say, Latin Europe, was functional and efficient government that permitted immigrants to thrive. It doesn’t mean they were ‘lazy’ but they finally had a system that they could operate in. It had little to do with ‘values’ and they maintained their own.

        I can’t think this through further because I have to go get a massage to rid me of these muscle spasms in my back!

        1. Hope your back feels better soon.

          I hate it when that happens.

          1. It’s been on-going for over two months – moving over 50 boxes/bins didn’t help.

        2. I feel your pain, brother. I got run down by a horse in 2008 and haven’t had a pain-free day since. Here’s to you having better luck than I!

      2. Think of Catholic illegal aliens coming to the United States to do manual labor. If they thrive in a society that has set up rules (social and legal) that reward hard work, frugality, etc., then it doesn’t matter whether they’re Catholic. You don’t have to be a Protestant to thrive in a culture that rewards hard work and frugality, where individual effort tends to be prized over family ties, etc. That’s what I was getting at.

        Atheist LGBTQI+ activists benefit from the argument that they should be treated the way we would want to be treated if we were them in no small part because of ideas like the golden rule, “If you have done so unto the least of these, you have done so unto me”, etc. Likewise, when Vietnamese boat people come to America and thrive in Little Saigon, being Buddhist doesn’t prevent them from enjoying the advantages of living in a society, where certain Protestant ideas have permeated the wider culture.

        1. Ah. Yes. I see that.

        2. Re the atheist LGBTwhatnots, there is only one small caveat: Jesus was speaking to and about individuals, not to the government. The Gospels are not a platform for social activism through government agency.

    2. You could just as easily say all that stuff happens only in places where you have to prepare for winter cuz if you don’t you’ll quickly die. And ‘religion’ then is merely the ism that that culture creates to reinforce whatever is already known to work – not some set of ideas adopted wholecloth that magically transforms a place into what it wasn’t before.

      1. It’s more basic than that.

        Our enlarged neocortex, what separates us from our chimpanzee cousins, appears to have adapted in order to accommodate religion and language. The size of the neocortex appears to be associated with the size and complexity of the society that mammals can maintain, as well. However, that’s about our brains evolving the capacity for religion–not the benefits of some religions rather than others.

        What I’m talking about is social adaptation. The content of that religion is beneficial to the extent that it produces behaviors that cause a society to thrive. When you get near the equator, where protein is hard to come by, there’s a taboo against having sex with a woman until her last child has had its first birthday. Indigenous cultures, anywhere in the world, the nearer you get to the equator, the more likely you are to find such a taboo.

        Belief in that taboo is driven by the scarcity of protein in the tropics and the importance of protein to infants. Should the mother’s milk supply dry up, that infant’s chances of survival drop. That may or may not be understood by the people who believe in the taboo–indigenous peoples near the equator hundreds of years ago may have simply believed that evil spirits would possess them or have other supernatural fears. Still, there’s an extra survival factor associated with that belief, and people who believed that near the equator thrived.

      2. When Canadian geese fly south for the winter, they may do so by forming a “V” in the sky. That isn’t because they understand aerodynamics. They don’t understand the change of the seasons or why the seasons change. They’re simply responding to stimuli. Those that respond to those stimuli in a certain way form flocks and thrive because of those social behaviors–regardless of whether they’re based on instinct or satellite data.

        Religion is a social adaptation. The things we believe influence the things we do. Some religions are adapted to different things. If beliefs associated with Protestantism evolved and proliferated because they led people to do things that were more advantageous, then we’re talking about social adaptation–or the content of that religion vis a vis another religion. The idea that Protestantism is especially amenable to capitalism is a function of that latter idea.

        1. The things we believe influence the things we do.

          And my point was that the things we do or the situations/context we face influence the things we choose to believe. Which is one reason why an identical idea that is taken out of a box and imposed on two different cultures can have a very different effect/impact on each. eg – individualist based ideas tend to produce little more than corruption/conflict when imposed on a tribalist/kin type society.

      3. Well, the Norse cultures and Viking expansionism in the 8th through 10th centuries demonstrate that geography can be quite a powerful force. Living in lands that could not support a growing population and surrounded by the ocean the Vikings learned to make the ocean a highway and expanded into, though not necessarily by conquest, much of Europe, western Russia and the Mediterranean. And in the process they evolved from a pirate ethic into a productive one, settling land and melding with existing populations (at least, that part of the existing population they hadn’t wiped out to begin with)

        1. I’d argue it had more to do with the political centralization than agriculture at that time.

    3. This whole line of thinking presumes that people work less hard elsewhere as the explanation of why they achieve less success. I doubt it. The benefits of a free market (“freer” anyway) is how it allows individuals operating within in it to optimize the system overall just by positioning themselves better and choosing their efforts better in their own self-interest. The result is better-focused skills and hence more efficient use of labor and other resources.

      Except for Catholics who indeed are lazy.

      1. The argument for Protestantism being especially amenable to capitalism is larger than just the Protestant work ethic, but that’s one aspect of it.

        Surely the idea that people should be valued by their achievements rather than by their family connections is amenable to capitalism.

        I knew someone who came to the U.S. thinking that her sister had already found her a job. When she found out she didn’t already have one for her, she cried all night. Why would her sister let her come to America without having a job lined up for her?

        It wasn’t until the next morning that her sister explained to her that in America, you don’t need family ties to get a job. You look in the help wanted ads, and most people work for people they never met before.

        There’s a family owned pizza place/deli down the corner from where I live. If I were looking for a job, that’s probably the last place I’d ask. Everybody who works there is related. They’re all family.

        1. I’m arguing against the very existence of or need for any special “work ethic”. Just the freedom to devote your limited efforts to what you prefer.

          Japan is super big on work ethic and tremendously values individual achievements (in terms of being a master of their skill and providing high quality, for example, rather than amassing cash), and has for a very long time. Yet I’d say they’re well behind the US in terms of market “progress”, due to their rigidity.

      2. “Except for Catholics who indeed are lazy.”

        Will assume sarcasm.

        1. Cause you’re to lazy to investigate further?

          1. Very much.

            /stretches and leans against truck.

  6. Of course, most people around here (save for a few nitwits) are well-read and have heard of the people and books mentioned by the author. I’ve read my fair share that’s for sure. However, I draw the line at anything existential. I don’t consider them to be all that relevant. Always struck me as a philosophy trying to justify bad or amoral behaviour. I read Camus’s ‘L’etranger’ in high school and thought the book – later on – to be insufferable.

    As for Weber, indeed he was omnipotent in my pol. science classes. He did have very interesting things to say but once again only points to how liberal my education was.

    1. In my experience Weber was adored mostly by TAs who smoked Balkan Sobranie in their pipes

  7. Context also matters. In Weber’s case the German and Austrian chemical empires converting Balkan and Turkish opium to morphine suffered a glut due to China’s 1911 revolt against cowardly appeasers. T. Roosevelt and R. Taft had enlisted the Hague in efforts to stop European domination of China via morphine as Weber’s book was published. Soon no foreign addictive stupefacients could be transported inland by Celestials. Balkan producing nations sought other markets and The Accursed Hun chose to try to stop them by deadly force. Weber’s accurate definition of government, glittering over his errors, made it more difficult to ignore the sovereign borders the Kaiser’s troops crossed as the so-called “Balkan” wars escalated into The Great War. The breaking of a gold-accumulating opium cartel was poorly countered by aggression against neighbors. Bad idea, this trans-border initiation of force.

  8. So we’re just criticizing the conspiracy theory about market success originating with Calvinism? I agree it’s stupid, and as far as I can tell the only point people have in bringing it up is to try and insult americans, given the silliness of that relatively-small cult-like sect. But even if it were true, it doesn’t actually matter where a good idea comes from anyway.

  9. You didn’t mention Mises or Rothbard.

  10. Which is why I haven’t got any friends.

    It’s what defines us as libertarians.

  11. you should exhibit your sophistication by pronouncing his name correctly. It’s “VAY-ber,” not like the “WEB-er” hamburger grill you’ve just put away for the year. You get extra points for saying “Max” in echt deutsch: “Maahx,” not like “Mad Max.”)

    Do we get extra extra points by pronouncing every foreign word exactly and correctly as if spoken in the foreign tongue to the point that no one knows what the fuck you’re talking about?

    1. Yes, they’re called “Pretentiousness Points”.

      1. Yes. As in “Pock-e-stahn”

    2. Yeah, screw this practice. If I go to a foreign country, I don’t expect them to pronounce my name the same way it would be pronounced at home.

  12. No one lacking a sense of humor should venture on interpreting Franklin. (Weber’s nephew said once that a sense of humor was the main characteristic lacking in his beloved Uncle Max.)

    You’re telling me Germanic peoples can’t be funny?

    1. According to Jaegermeister, probably. “Of course it’s cold, it’s German!”

  13. If you pronounce his name “Mahhhx VAY-ber” in the U.S. while otherwise speaking English, you deserve to be mocked and shamed incessantly.

  14. “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise”

    Misquoted; actual saying is – “Early to bed, early to rise, your girl goes out with other guys”.

  15. government is not a monopoly on force. There are pltny of security companies, and it is legal to defend yourself and in some cases even perform a citizens arrest on someone.

    Government is a monopoly on JUDGEMENT, and that distinction matters

    1. I prefer a different formulation. Government must retain a monopoly on VENGEANCE, not judgement. People judge all the time, as they should. Revenge, however, while a necessary part of any society, causes great havoc in individual hands.

      However I believe McCloskey has misquoted Weber. I believe Weber actually said “the state” is defined by its monopoly on violence. The quotation refers primarily to the position of the state with respect to external actors, and does not really address the question of who within the state controls the application of violence. Thus, while Weber probably had in mind a state where control of violence is held by a strong central government, his formulation is compatible with the social contract theory view in which “the state” is simply synonymous with “the citizens.”

  16. I agree that Weber got something wrong, but I’m not sure I entirely agree as to what that something is. I am not sure I find your distinction between the individual spirit and the social spirit to be useful. Certainly, the individual capitalist cannot succeed unless his ethics are pretty widely held, but I don’t think Weber says anything different.

    Weber correctly understood that a change in personal ethics changed economic outcomes. What he misunderstood was the mechanism of that change. People did not change their general level of laziness. Rather, the change hinged on a crucial insight of one the other authors on your list: Joseph Schumpeter’s notion of “creative destruction.”

    In Weber’s analysis of the Calvinist ethic, which I still think is basically correct, the individual is not only responsible for working diligently with both his time and his capital, but also for determining that his time and his capital are deployed effectively. In his economic analysis, however, Weber wrongly focuses mostly on the first issue, diligence, while ignoring the second issue, efficient allocation.


    1. The economic problem the pre-Calvinist ethic is that the individual has no moral obligation to correct inefficiency in his allocation of time or resources. The medieval view was that society had a giant org chart, drawn up by God. You were placed in a particular box in that chart, which was associated with certain customary obligations and certain customary rewards. You were responsible for diligently carrying out the duties associated with the box, but were responsible for evaluating neither whether your box was efficient located in the chart, nor whether the customary obligations and rewards were efficiently balanced.

      If a man is a baker then God rewards him to the extent he diligently applies himself as a baker, but He does not hold him responsible for determining if, for example, there are too many bakers in a given area, in which case economic efficiency requires him either to move to a location with a shortage of bakers, or to give up baking for some other, more needed occupation.

      Weber claims that the Calvinists introduced the notion of “the calling.” If a person is unsuccessful in an endeavor, he takes it as a sign that he missed his calling. He was mistaken about what God intended him to do and he should try something else. Each individual responsible for the economic returns of that effort regardless of his diligence. In my view, this is a feedback mechanism that corrects inefficient allocation of resources.

      1. Regrettably we have largely returned to the “God’s org chart” view of labor in society. A teaching prevails that we are entitled to a “just” return from our efforts, regardless of whether, in the greater scheme of things, those efforts are efficiently applied. The left side of our political divide holds this view almost exclusively, and it has made significant inroads on the right as well.

  17. The book is brilliant, readable, short. (By the way, henceforth you should exhibit your sophistication by pronouncing his name correctly. It’s “VAY-ber,” not like the “WEB-er” hamburger grill you’ve just put away for the year. You get extra points for saying “Max” in echt deutsch: “Maahx,” not like “Mad Max.”)

    Good grief, this is supposed to be the start of a rational argument about economics?

    Max Weber, the north German economist, proud reserve officer in the Kaiser’s army, literal dueler with academic opponents, and co-founder of modern sociology


    Is Reason’s fondness of McCloskey a recent phenomenon, or has she always been around and I simply mistook her for a rambling intern?

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