Economic Protestantism’s Comeback?

Max Weber’s famous essay credits Protestantism with the growth and spread of capitalism. Is it time for a comeback to expand Ulster’s private sector?The BBC highlights an ongoing debate about what is called Islamic Calvinism, areas of Turkey with strong economic growth have people who see their religion as the inspiration for their economic activity.

The problems and lack of entrepreneurship in Northern Ireland are well-known. While there has been a general decline in religiosity here the growth of smaller evangelical and charismatic churches has bucked this trend, could faith-based networks help provide part of the answer to expand the private sector?

  • Traditional unionist

    You seem to be implying that Catholicism is to blame for the bloated public sector in Northern Ireland……that’s a bit strong

  • fair_deal


    I am afraid you are seeing something that isn’t there. I do not mention the public sector nor the Catholic community nor do I ascribe blame to anyone for the state of our public sector. I am simply trying to get a debate on how we increase the number of entrepreneurs here.

  • Young Fogey

    The BBC highlights an ongoing debate about what is called Islamic Calvinism, areas of Turkey with strong economic growth have people who see their religion as the inspiration for their economic activity.

    That’s a bit of a reach. The Turkish economy is booming at the moment, with its almost endless supply of relatively cheap, relatively well-skilled industrial labour, geographically close to Europe and in a customs union with the EU. That’s true in Kayseri (a moderately religious city, not anything like as much as is made out in that article), in hyper-fundamentalist Konya and Urfa, and in utterly heathen, secular, Izmir and Edirne.

    I’m sure many devout Muslims, doing well, give thanks to God for their success and see their faith as an inspiration for their working lives. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that but that doesn’t mean that the rest of us have to accept it at face value. Of course, you could argue that many Islamic values – like Calvinist values – of thrift, hard work, responsibility, deferred gratitude and sober living – help people on this world as much as the next. I’d just find that sort of life terribly dull…

    Anyway, whatever it is, we could do with bottling a few tanker loads of it and dumping it into Silent Valley!

    Young Fogey

  • wild turkey

    ‘ could faith based networks help provide part of the answer to expand the private sector?’

    probably not … and if they tried there is a high probability the faith based firms will end up in fair employment tribunal on the recruitment, selection and promotion front.

    Fair deal, fair play on this one. the relationship between culture/religion and economic development is bewildering issue.

    Over the last two centuries an incredible number of complex and competing theories on relationships between culture and economy have been proposed. Generally, these theories can be categorised in two classes or types depending mainly on the direction of the causal relationship: (1) theories on the influence of the economy on culture, and (2) theories on the influence of culture on economic growth.

    One of the first – and certainly the most influential – theories belonging to the first group was Marx’s and Engels’s historical materialism. The same position is held in the second group by Weber’s theory on the influence of Protestantism on the development of capitalism . These are the two grand theories of the culture – economy dialectic (CED).

    But they are just that… theories.

    The important points here are the direction of casuality and the nature of culture. The argument is not about the economic relative merits of protestantism or catholicism.

    There may be certain tendencies which religion or philosophies can have which can push people in the direction of economic development. Among these are a respect for law, a strong community sense of honesty (which includes the duty to fulfill a contract), self discipline, hard work, a desire for more education, and a pursuit of achievement.

    Most of these values are found in Confucianism, which is one of the planets oldest and sanest philosophies. Could this be something that contributes to the success of places like China, Singapore, Korea and Taiwan? … and, historically, hardly a christain about the place.

    Clues on the correct causal direction?

    “It is easier for a rich man to pass through the eye of a needle than to enter the kingdom of heaven”

  • My view is that a term like Islamic Calvinism reflects cultural narcissism on the part of the polemicist. Instead, I’d say that the Moslem world has demonstrated that it long ago learned how to harness the human dark drives: fear, greed, and the desire to dominate that fuel Capitalism.

    But why stop at the Turks?

    There are several Japanese Buddhists that think Weber is a skosh dated.

    Dem dar Chinese Commies are also doing a bang up job of Capitalism or at least a fair imitation thereof.

    The Hindus that now make your calls to technical support so interesting are also getting a stab at it.

    And so it goes

  • It just occured to me, would those be Protestant Buddhists or Catholic Buddhists?

  • Billy Pilgrim

    Fair Deal

    “I am simply trying to get a debate on how we increase the number of entrepreneurs here.”

    Ending partition and the union seems the obvious place to start.

    Seriously. Eighty-five years have passed since we began our little experiment with a hermetically-sealed enclave state within Ireland, and since day one that little state has lived beyond its means. Always, always, the northern state has been dependent on public spending from Westminster – yes, we pay taxes too, but the public spending has always been exponentially more than was ever collected here. Initially the scale of the old heavy industries – most conspicuously ship-building – allowed us to delude ourselves that our economic existence was meaningful. Then the shipyards closed and were replaced by factories. As they started to wind down in the 1960s a few unionists at Stormont – O’Neill the most prominent – had the wit to realise that Westminster’s use for NI’s Protestant labour force – being largely unskilled, or at least in the skills it would need in the future – couldn’t be sustained much longer. They realised that in order to keep NI’s labour market in work long-term, the state needed to attract far greater levels of private sector inward investment. However in the 1960s, unionist-controlled NI was an internatinal pariah, and some leading unionists grudgingly accepted that global capital didn’t tend to gravitate towards sectarian slums.

    And so we had O’Neill’s tentative and cosmetic “reforms”. Queue Paisley – not a man renowned for his grasp of economics – and the Paisleyite tendency, turning up the volume on all Northern Ireland’s ugly little secrets.

    And queue the Provos, riding to the rescue and saving Protestant Ulster’s economic bacon. Suddenly Britain’s international prestige was at stake and Westminster had a dog in the NI fight. So we barrow-loads of money that would not naturally have been coming anywhere near here suddenly being keeled into the fight against the IRA.

    Happy days for Protestant Ulster. Granda worked at H&W. Da worked at Sirocco. Just when it looked like young Sammy was heading for the dole, suddenly thousands of new jobs opened up with the RUC and the UDR. Good money, fabulous bonuses and extras. Happy days indeed. Several hundred servicemen died, but for that price hundreds of thousands of Protestants (sevicemen, their families and the small businesses they spent their money with) over thirty years found themselves insulated against economic reality.

    And the thing is, it even extends to the private sector. Protestant businessmen were competing with each other in a truncated pool for a slice of the public sector spending action – 60% of the economy, remember. For various reasons, from IRA threats to the simple lack of old-school-tie contacts, Catholic businesses never saw much of that action. (60% is a hell of a slice of the economy from which to be, for all intents and purposes, automatically excluded.)

    So it’s no wonder unionists seem to all the world to actually be anti-peace. Virtually every pound in the pocket of Protestant Ulster came either directly or indirectly from the Treasury. The US Air Force motto is “Peace is our Profession.” Protestant Ulster, still a garrison people centuries later, in the land of their fathers’ birth, might reasonably counter: “War in our Profession.”

    And so you wonder why there is a lack of entrepreneurial culture here?

    Well, there isn’t, in some areas. Look at towns like Newry or Omagh, where there is and always has been, damn little public spending going on, and you’ll see far more entrepreneurial culture than in, say, a garrison town like Lisburn, or the well-heeled back yard of the civil service’s management class. Contrast the well-heeled paralysis of, say, Bangor, with the exciting growth of the engineering industry in east Tyrone. Jesus, even the smugglers of south Armagh, it has to be conceded, are entrepreneurs of a sort.

    Now, I hasten to add, none of this has anything to do with Catholicism or Protestantism, in my humble opinion. The point is simply this: areas like Lisburn, Bangor, Carrickfergus and so on are addicted to public sector spending. Wealth creation is something that hasn’t happened there for generations.

    So it’s time we call a halt to the 85-year-old experiment of having a colonial enclave on the island of Ireland, and free ourselves from the economically totalitarian security/civil service axis that we, like all colonies, have been cursed with.

    With our self-respect back, then we’ll be in business.

  • willis

    Thanks FD for opening up a topic which can truthfully be batted backwards and forwards all night.

    Let’s angle the debate to the personal. Can anyone name 5 Norn Iron Entrepreneurs to match these 5 randoms.

    Michael O’Leary
    Tony O’Reilly
    Paul Costelloe
    Sean Quinn

  • eranu

    i thought sean quinn was from fermanagh?

    i have lots of self respect living in NI thanks billy ! 🙂

    as regards faith based business networks, i remember seeing something on TV about Christian business networks in America. i had a quick google on the subject and there does seem to be a few out there. theres even the Christian Yellow Pages
    and even a Christian ISP !
    evangelical churches are growing in NI but i think they are too small at the min to make a big impact with a network of christian businesses, but you never know how that would develop. every little bit helps, so if it is seen to work in other countries theres no reason not to encourage it i suppose.
    id certainly trust a christian businessman before a non believer who might rip me off without a second thought..

  • slug

    In Ballymena the biggest names are:

    William Wright – bus manufacturer
    Billy O’Kane – poultry
    John Patton – construction

    In Ballymena the private sector is very strong, there is relatively little public sector employment and quite a lot of successful entrepreneurialism.

  • willis

    Sean Quinn
    Technically correct, but practically 50.50.


    I too have noticed the particular health of the East/Mid Antrim economy, especially manufacturing. Yet it is something I have never noticed much in the papers. Anyone found an article?


  • slug

    Willis – no the papers don’t discuss it and I wouldn’t believe in being complacent. But looking at manufacturing and Ballymena is strong, e.g. Michelin, Gallaher, Wrights. If you look at the public / private sectors, you see a relatively small public sector in Ballymena. And when I looked at some warnings data a couple of years ago, it showed that Ballymena is the only place outside Belfast where private sector wages exceed public sector. Since private sector wages are an indicator of productivity that is a good sign for Ballymena.

  • Mick Fealty

    Before this conversation veres too far from FD’s original premise, I’d just like to note this quotation from a facinating 1999 essay called “Religions of Ireland”, which draws on some interest quantitative material from the 1991 International Social Survey Programme. It measure attitudes north and south on two quite separate scales: CALVIN and PELAGIUS.

    The first perhaps needs no explanation, but the second is named after an Irish monk who did battle with Augustine (both Calvin and Luther were great fans of his) over whether humans could do good without God’s help.

    After going through the data Andrew Greely notes:

    “Insofar as our measures tap fundamental world views, Northern Catholics are as pessimistic as their Protestant neighbours, perhaps because the culture of the six county majority has been absorbed by the minority community. The ‘story’ of the meaning of life, which Northern Catholics tell is more like that of Northern Protestants than that of Southern Catholics”.

    In an interesting twist however, he notes in the same survey under the title of “Happiness, Work, Church and State”:

    “Despite their happiness (or pehaps because of it) the Southern Irish work longer hours than Northern Catholics and Northern Protestants. If number of hours worked is a sign of the Protestant Ethic, then Irish Catholics are the last Protestants in Europe”.


  • hovetwo

    I mentioned on another thread the importance of religious minorities, generally non-conformists, in building Britains industrial infrastructure in the 19th century. These groups formed a tightly-knit network (partially because they were excluded from the landed Anglican gentry) and pooled vital start-up capital and knowledge – they had the means and the motivation to become entrepreneurs.

    As the 19th century wore on capital became more freely available and motivation waned, as land values plummeted and the gentry became eager to marry plutocrats (even Americans!). Being “in trade” was no longer a barrier to social prestige and many of the leading entrepreneurial families settled down to count their money on their new estates.

    Anyone can become a successful entrepreneur with the right mix of talent, motivation and timing. Social exclusion can be a powerful motivating force, just as social aspiration (e.g. to be a “respectable” barrister or accountant) can be a deterrent, but entrepreneurs in Northern Ireland can help each other by networking and mentoring one another, and in turn reaching out to a wider talent pool.

    A bloated public sector is a serious deterrent for entrepreneurs because it competes in the market for talented resources, often paying higher wages for jobs that defy economic gravity. Although UK interest rates are only marginally affected by the public sector in NI, the public sector also crowds out investment, both directly because the cost of capital is higher and indirectly because banks want to loan money against a sure thing – a public sector contract seems a safer bet than relying on the vagaries of the market.

    In the Republic, entrepreneurialism was not a distinguishing feature before the Celtic Tiger era, with both jobs and access to capital being determined as much by who you knew as what you knew. The creation of an entrepreneurial group outside the traditional professional classes (“Decklanders” as David McWilliams calls them) was aided by the initial growth spurt brought by multinationals, attracted by low corporation taxes and a government obsessed with stimulating private sector investment. New entrepreneurs had a ready market for the goods and services they could develop – a market, incidentally, which more NI businesses could tap into.

    I suspect that Northern Ireland will need a private sector growth spurt fuelled by multinationals before you see many people leaving the permanent and pensionable public sector and taking the plunge into entrepreneurial activity.

    I also think there needs to a change of attitude among the well-meaning, if conservative, grandees of the business community, to stimulate entrepreneurial talent based on meritocracy – whether that talent comes from within Northern Ireland or elsewhere. From my limited exposure to NI business leaders, the response to a proposal put to them was:

    a) form a committee
    b) ensure the committee had the right mix of people on it

    I wasn’t too sure about the committee, but I thought they should be more concerned about getting the right balance of marketing expertise on it, rather than ensuring there was Catholic and female representation – if you create a true meritocracy talent will out, regardless of creed, colour or gender….

    From: hovetwo

  • Young Fogey

    Billy P:

    I think you’re right with the idea of Protestant dependence on the security sector (and let’s face it, you’re not the first to make that particular point), but you make too much of it and you ignore the bits of the public sector that are heavily Catholic.

    While The Hun take all the government jobs that involve posing around in a uniform, saying Sir a lot and catching criminals (or not, if you’re the PSNI), Taigs take the government jobs that involve posing around in a fleece pretending to be cool, moaning that the government needs to spend even more money and telling criminals not to worry as it’s all societies fault. Remember that Catholics now make up a majority of members of the Northern Ireland Civil Service and would anyone like to estimate the proportion of: a. social workers; b. state-funded voluntary sector poverty pests; or, c. NHS bureaucrats; who are Catholic. Well over 50%, I’d guess. I mean, do you think it’s a coincidence that Prods run the entire security and criminal justice system in Northern Ireland except for the Probation Service and the provision legal aid defence counsel?

    So you’re right, but only half right, and you’re falling into that classically Northern Irish trick of blaming the other lot for all of societies ills. This country has an ingrained culture of irresponsibility, which you’ve kindly displayed for us all. There’s a reason why no contestants from Northern Ireland were asked to compete on Survivor. We’d all be blaming the other lot for not catching enough iguanas for dinner while we starved.

    True, lots of Protestant run businesses are dependent on mooching off Britain’s ever declining defence establishment, even now the troubles are over (who do you think provides all those nice modular barracks in Iraq?) And there are lots of Catholic run businesses producing useful things that people want to buy. But there are also lots of Protestant run businesses producing useful things people want to buy – like coaches, houses and whiskey.

    Coleraine has a thriving public sector, and lots of unemployment – I mean, who wants to start a business when the best job in town is to be a perpetual striker at the DVLA? Derry is the same. Newry has one of the lowest collection of public sector jobs in the country and a booming economy, pretty amazing when you think what it was like 20 years ago. Ballymena is pretty perky too.

    Any group of people is capable of being productive and hardworking, if the incentives and infrastructure are there in the first place. And any group of pople is capable of being lazy and feckless, if the best paid jobs involve scratching your bum all day and writing blog posts at 11.30 am, while the government kills off entrepreneurialism in a doomed bid to promote equality. Culture has nothing do to with it – compare Pyonyang to Seoul, Dresden to Dusseldorf, Jamaica to Barbados… or Derry to Donegal.

  • eranu

    “if the best paid jobs involve scratching your bum all day and writing blog posts at 11.30 am,”

    have you been watching me at work or something????

  • Young Fogey

    have you been watching me at work or something????

    I was referring to myself there!

    Young Fogey

  • George

    David McWiliams argued late last year that the Irish Republic has now turned economically Protestant.

  • Biffo

    David McWilliams argued at the weekend that the republic turned Japanese.

  • Protestants? Catholics? Moslems? The Border? Your eyes are not on the prize.

    Willie Sutton, when asked why he robbed all those banks replied “because that is where the money is.”

    Bertie Ahern IS NOT visiting Bush in DC today. He’s in San Jose where the VC’s, the entrepreneurs and the power are.

    Study the Fairchild model. It ain’t rocket science, Sluggiepoos.

  • fair_deal

    “Study the Fairchild model”

    Any weblinks on this?

  • Fairchild Semiconductor is the prototype venture capital startup on the San Francisco peninsula. It was the venture capital funding from Fairchild Camera and Instrument that kicked it off. Fairchild Semiconductor was started by the Traitorous Eight who left Shockley Semiconductor, taking the family jewels with them.

    Fairchild became a nexus of on-the-make applied physicists that did unto Fairchild what the original eight did to Shockley. Thus began Intel, National, AMD, full of bright young ambitious engineers and physicists who continued the tradition.

    I think of this whenever I sign a thick NDA since I know the firm’s ultimate betrayal will be at the hands of it’s VP’s.

    The equally rapacious professors at Stanford and Berserkly who, at the time, were working for chump change played a pivotal role as did a small nucleus of engineers and techs on the peninsula who were working at Varian.

    And it all started from a boss who was a royal pain in the ass that moved to the Bay area from Bell Labs to live by his dear old Mum.

  • George

    And who set up the twinning of Dublin with San Jose decades ago when he was lord mayor sensing there was a bit of potential business there?

    Bertie Ahern.

  • Mustapha Mond

    Very good post Young Fogey.

  • Rory

    Fair Deal poses a bit of a silly question here really. As if Catholicism had not for some time embraced capitalism or indeed that the Irish Catholic church in particular had not embraced Calvinism, which it most certainly did when it allowed the trade-off of a British capitalist hierarchy within that church in return for Maynooth and an easing of middle class disapproval of the priesthood in general (Thomas Kilroy’s novel “The Big Chapel” still bears reading on these issues).

    I well remember a shame faced priest attempting to make an angry youhg man understand the cruel, unthinking brutalism of the clergy towards him and his peers by explaining that the wiser counsels of the Church had decreed that the Irish were imbued with the Jansenist heresy and that in order to assist them them towards salvation all forms of coercion were not only deemed permissable but indeed essential.

    In any case capitalism no longer needs a distortion of Christianity to validate the riches of the few pilfered from the labour of the many; it now has superceded all morality and basks in the glory of its own amorality. To be rich is all. Greed has triumphed over God.

    For some reason this topic reminds me of those silly debates that used spring up from time to time – “Was Shakespeare Catholic?” – shock! horror! etc. As if it were at all possible that he could not have been; as if it would have been possible for a Protestant to write as he did; may as well ask the question “Is Dick Cheyney really an Anarcho-Syndaclist?””. Well, is he?

  • “And who set up the twinning of Dublin with San Jose decades ago when he was lord mayor sensing there was a bit of potential business there?”

    Twas himself during the first reign of Garret the Good except Anorak Man’s first two initials were then ID (the Soldiers of Destiny didn’t have much juice with dem rainbow fellas).

  • Mick Fealty

    The topic is certainly worth raising. The original link between the Reformation and the rise of Capital and ultimately its first civil flowering in the Industrial revolution which Weber sketches is valid so far as it goes and well worth the read.

    As Rory points out, the capacity of nations to respond to both the call capital and the requisite willingness to exploit the opportunities it offers are (as the quotes I mentioned earlier in the thread) essentially non denominational.

    Do churches have a role in economic regeneration. Well probably. But its more likely they can help to generate social cohesion and promote the development of social capital, which according to Robert Putnam is a pre-quisite for economic success.

    With legislation expected soon to enable Credit Unions to lend more widely, there may soon be greater scope for faith based communities to intervene more directly in helping small businesses to take off and then establish themselves.

    Night all.