The New Protestant Work Ethic

“To keep entire communities in enforced idleness is to exclude them from full participation in humanity”

Manchester Square UK Politics Welfare State

A century ago, the great German sociologist Max Weber first postulated the link between “the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism”. For Protestants in general and the Anglo-American Puritans in particular, work was ordained by God to be life’s raison d’être. St Paul told the Thessalonians: “If any would not work, neither should he eat.” (Evidently Greeks were taking early retirement even then.) This applied, says Weber, “to everybody and unconditionally”. Reluctance to work was “a symptom of the absence of divine grace”. Medieval theologians such as St Thomas Aquinas interpreted St Paul to apply only to those who needed to work to support their families. The Puritans demanded “rational professionalism”. Only “internalised asceticism” could create the modern bourgeoisie, with its “capitalist spirit” and “Protestant work ethic”. Even the Royal Family has (literally) embraced these values in the person of Kate Middleton. 

As a nation, we may care little for St Paul and even less for Weber, but the work ethic, Protestant or otherwise, looms large in the present political debate. Iain Duncan Smith has proposed the greatest reform of the welfare state since the 1940s. At that time, Sir William Beveridge drew on the Puritan tradition of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, conjuring up “five giants on the road to reconstruction”: Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. The Coalition has undertaken the task of slaying all five giants. But it is the last — Idleness — that Duncan Smith wants to conquer. His Universal Benefit restores Beveridge’s insurance principle by insisting that welfare must be funded, that nobody should be penalised for getting a job and that “full employment in a free society” is still a worthy aspiration.

What of the curious incident of the Labour Party? But surely, you may say, it has done nothing to oppose welfare reform so far. That was the curious incident. Duncan Smith is winning the argument hands down: so much so that almost the only serious opposition so far has come from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Asked by the BBC last month about the proposal to oblige the long-term unemployed to do voluntary work to prepare them to return to paid employment, he said that he did not think it was fair. “People who are struggling to find work…are, I think, driven further into a sort of downward spiral of uncertainty, even despair, when the pressure’s on in that way,” he explained. “People are often in this starting place, not because they’re wicked or stupid or lazy, but because circumstances have been against them.” 

Lambeth Palace’s opposition proves that Duncan Smith is on the right track, just as back in 1985 the fulminating Anglican report Faith in the City proved that Margaret Thatcher was doing something right. But Dr Williams deserves a reply. Duncan Smith believes that returning the unemployed to work is not merely good for society, but above all for those individuals and their families. The Pauline work ethic, based on Jewish tradition and bequeathed to the Church, follows logically from the commandment to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. To abandon someone we love to idleness, even a relatively affluent idleness, is a callous form of neglect. “We would all be idle if we could,” said Dr Johnson. By reducing the temptation to live on state handouts, by rewarding effort and by rekindling the habit of work in those who have lost it, we restore their dignity as well as their productivity.

The Archbishop is right that the unemployed are prey to despair. That is why the work ethic is such a vital defence mechanism: communities that encourage it — not only Protestants but Catholics, Jews, Hindus and Chinese, for example — tend to have low rates of unemployment. By contrast, half of Muslim men and three quarters of Muslim women are unemployed in Britain, according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Dr Williams is right, too, that most people are not unemployed because they are wicked, stupid or lazy. But it is too glib merely to blame “circumstances”. Such fatalism would not have passed muster with St Paul, or Moses. The whole point of a work ethic is to keep us busy in adversity, even in despair.  We now have the curious spectacle of a Catholic Cabinet minister defending the work ethic against a Protestant primate.

The Judaeo-Christian tradition does not sanctify greed, but it does see the work of human hands as a reflection of the divine labour of Creation. To keep entire communities in enforced idleness — as Gordon Brown’s monstrous attempt to bribe us with our own money did throughout the long boom — is to exclude them from full participation in humanity. For the Archbishop of Canterbury to single out for criticism Iain Duncan Smith, one of the few Christians in the Cabinet who has the courage of his convictions, is perverse. But for Duncan Smith, braving archiepiscopal censure is all in a day’s work. There will be plenty more odium theologicum in the coming years. His work, and the work of the Coalition, has hardly begun.