November 15, 2003

The Creation of Wealth ...

... IS AIDED BY RELIGIOUS BELIEF, The Economist reports on its excellent Web site. It is also apparently in the magazine's print edition this week, but since our useless news agent failed YET AGAIN to have The Economist on sale, we wouldn't know.

In any event, The Economist writes that Harvard economists Robert Barro and Rachel McCleary have found as follows:

The most striking conclusion, though, is that belief in the afterlife, heaven and hell are good for economic growth. Of these, fear of hell is by far the most powerful, but all three indicators have a bigger impact on economic performance than merely turning up for church. The authors surmise, therefore, that religion works via belief, not practice. A parish priest might tell you that simply going through the motions will bring you little benefit in the next world. If Mr Barro and Ms McCleary are right, it does you little good in this one either.

We here at The Rant do not find this at all surprising, but we have our own thoughts about why religious belief drives economic growth.

The first is that morality is the natural product of a societal belief in God. The roots of this morality run extremely deep -- so much so, that people who are not actively religious hold to the morals they were taught in their youth; and even people who have no use for religion adhere to that morality. In the latter case, that's due to both such folks' hard-wired sense of right and wrong, and societal pressure, namely how their colleagues or friends or family would look upon their conduct. True, the laws of our nation also forbid activity which we deem to be wrong. But those laws only serve as punishment for wrongdoers. They in themselves do not prevent wrongdoers from committing anti-social acts in the first place.

An active religious believer, we think, will also adhere to his religion's guidelines regarding lifestyle. One might assume that a goodly sense of moderation, temperance and duty would go along with such belief; and as such, the believer would be personally strengthened by it. It then follows that such a believer would have stronger ties to his community, his place of employment, and-- this is the key -- his family.

We know -- thanks to the work of folks like Patrick Fagan at The Heritage Foundation -- that strong family ties go hand-in-hand with economic well-being. We further know that a strong family will actively prevent both adults and children from engaging in anti-social or otherwise detrimental behavior. Obviously, these things are not absolute, but they certainly do help.

Along with this sense of duty to one's family also comes a sense of obligation -- the inherent desire to provide for one's family, the desire to have one's children be better off than one was in life. Like religion, all these things are good things. It also does much to explain one issue which The Economist's writer brought up: why societies such as China, in which fear of a monotheistic Hell is not at all widespread, are doing very well. The Chinese tradition, of course, has an admirable emphasis on both family and order -- e.g. Confucius' Six Relationships. Confucianism also holds as its highest order the command to do what is right.

Of course, giving into temptation and avarice and all of mankind's other myriad faults do much to make living up to these guidelines difficult. This may also hint at why belief in Hell acts as an economic engine: because for folks who believe in Hell, committing anti-social acts won't just earn one a fine or jail time, but a ticket to Perdition.

(Link via Jane Galt)

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at November 15, 2003 02:21 PM | TrackBack

Interesting analysis. Religion is a strong influence in the way people think and therefore act. What do you think about all the research about the role of religion in physical health? Researchers seem to be studying that a lot the past few years.

Posted by: Kim at November 17, 2003 01:28 PM

Wasn't this just a re-hashing of what Max Weber wrote in his great work "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism?" It strikes me as odd that it took the Economist nearly 100 years to catch on. They are normally a little faster on the uptake.

Posted by: The Maximum Leader at November 17, 2003 03:36 PM