Hell is Good for Capitalism

In light of the last post, George pointed me to this article in The Boston Globe by Michael Fitzgerald. The article is entitled Satan, the great motivator: The curious economic effects of religion.

The article discusses recent research linking religious belief with economic effectiveness. A particular focus in the article is on a recent research that showed that belief in hell to be predictive of economic success:

What makes economies grow? It’s a question that has occupied thinkers for centuries. Most of us would tick off things like education levels, openness to trade, natural resources, and political systems.

Here’s one you might not have considered: hell.

A pair of Harvard researchers recently examined 40 years of data from dozens of countries, trying to sort out the economic impact of religious beliefs or practices. They found that religion has a measurable effect on developing economies - and the most powerful influence relates to how strongly people believe in hell.
Why would there be a relationship between hell and economic success?

Hell is, at root, a behavioral regulator. The fear of hell keeps people on the straight and narrow. When this fear is coupled with a conflation of virtue and work--the Protestant Work ethic--you have a powerful cocktail, fear aiding capitalistic productivity. Fearing hell we strive to be a good person and this means, in America today, working hard, being punctual, and forming the "seven habits" that make us "highly effective."

The article also points to another link between hell and work ethic. Specifically, we want our kids to internalize the faith but we don't want them to become so religious that they hurt the economy. From the article:
Most strikingly, if belief in hell jumps up sharply while actual church attendance stays flat, it correlates with economic growth. Belief in heaven also has a similar effect, though less pronounced. Mere belief in God has no effect one way or the other. Meanwhile, if church attendance actually rises, it slows growth in developing economies.
In short, it seems that belief in hell is nicely portable. Hell regulates behavior outside of the church building and helps to keep us at work.

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9 thoughts on “Hell is Good for Capitalism”

  1. Do you know what capitalism is? Capitalism is when people form contracts freely and trade freely without government interference. The economy grows naturally; people always try to find a better way of doing things and people always try to provide for their families. Economic freedom, political freedom, social freedom, and spiritual freedom are ALL INTERTWINED.

  2. Although a tangent connection, you (and your readers) may be interested in reading an article I posted on the Neo-consumer.


  3. Can I push back at this conclusion?

    It doesn't seem quite as simple to me. It is my understanding that there are all kinds of negative correlations with "good behavior" and evangelicalism. Infidelity and divorce rates, for example. It doesn't seem to be a huge jump to extrapolate that these populations have a more intense belief in hell than others.

    Why would hell regulate a good work ethic but not marital commitment? I think something more is going on here.

  4. Matt,
    I don't have a good answer for that. The article does say that the effect is largely seen in developing countries. Which means my tacit generalizing to the American situation may be wrong or missing something important.

  5. Matt,

    I agree. Something more is going on. It may be related to how a specific culture embraces the context of their belief systems in light of economic productivity (e.g. Is a poor economy a result of punishment and vise versa?). Rather than a specific piece of their belief system (e.g. hell).

  6. I'll read the article later. And I'll committ the sin of commenting before reading. All economies thrive when people work/are forced to work, without being able to demand full control over the product of their work. That is: economies (of all kinds) do pretty well as long as there is a dependable, passive, work force that will work pretty hard without demanding full pay. Communist societies work pretty well, the semi enslaved drugged workers of Burma work pretty well, non unionized industrial workers work pretty well, slave workers work pretty well--as long as there are strong internal and external controls that force people to work and not to demand too much pay. That goes double for societies in which the cheap pleasures of the poor--drink, drugs, sex, are kept in short supply or doled out only after work hours or kept out of conflict with work.

    In Sweetness and Power Sidney Mintz describes the shift in worker productivity that arose when the beer and gin swilling english work force was moved on to cereal and sugar sweetened tea and the modern "breakfast/lunch/tea/dinner" pattern. In the modern US we see a very high tolerance for alcoholism and even for cocaine use where it doesn't interfere with work productivity and high intolerance for marijuana and crack cocaine drug use because these are seen as creating a non working poor community that can't be forced into regular wage slavery.

    Hell? There's no unitary "belief in Hell" that keeps people working. There are a wide variety of beliefs. Some hells are here and now and people generally respond to them by succumbing to addictions that prevent them from working, delaying gratification, and submitting to the tyranny of a rigged capitalist system. Other hells, calvinist ones, come specifically to the lazy and disaffected. Certainly they inspire people to delay gratification, to work hard, to pile up money, increase the savings rate, loan out money etc...But there are many hells, and many responses to them.


  7. I'll risk positing a hypothesis in response to Matt's good point: Perhaps the connection between capitalism and belief in hell is found in the fact that both are primarily "systems" that are directly related to that bete noir of the enlightened age: the "transcendental ego." In other words, both the threat of hell and the promised wealth of capitalism are profoundly connected to what directly happens to ME.

    When overall economic success is seen as directly tied to one's individual prosperity, there is, I would suggest, a very natural tendency to desire that sort of system. Who doesn't want an economy that not only makes ME healthy, wealthy, and wise, but where I make everyone else's lives better as well, by looking out for ME? (I know that's an oversimplification, but you get the point, I hope.) In the same vein, hell is primarily an individually-centered concept. A person's primary concern is nearly always "am I going to hell or not?" After all, that's been the "gotcha" moment for thousands of evangelists for years: "If you died tonight, do you know where...?" Etc Etc.

    So, perhaps we should say not that hell "regulates" a good work ethic, but rather that hell and capitalism are simply a good fit for each other because they both foster the individualistic mindset necessary for their own perpetuation as systems? Just a thought.

  8. first, a caution: Hell (and heaven) both correlate with economic growth in developing nations in conjunction with worship attendance. I don't need to tell anyone reading this blog that correlate does not mean cause. But it is a curious correlation.
    Why do we not see the same effects in the West? the researchers I talked with don't know, but they think that it has something to do with the long-term effects of religion. Once the initial spate of belief sets mores in place, it works for a long time. some scholars would say that in the course of time religious groups that see growth will tend to be at odds with the mainstream, including its economics. Hence American fundamentalists, who tend to make less money and accumulate fewer assets than Mainline protestants (and, since WWII, Catholics).

    That's the argument, anyway.

    To the commenter who commented without reading, marxist oppression is not actually the point. the question is, why are Burma and south Korea so different? Why is Brazil an economic innovator while Argentina lags behind?

    Michael Fitzgerald

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