Now, to close on a good note, here’s three good things in the book:
First, it thoroughly dismantles many smug and self-satisfied Protestant attacks on Catholicism. Stark is right to point out that Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was driven partly by an anti-Catholic sentiment that wanted to insist that all the progress had happened in the Protestant countries because of their Protestantism, and the Catholic countries were stagnant because of their Catholicism. Such arguments are a dime-a-dozen in modern American Protestantism. Of course, it goes the other way too--Catholic anti-capitalists have tried to pin all the blame for capitalism on Protestantism. Stark’s account shows fairly clearly that, whatever you want to think about capitalism, the praise or blame has to be more evenly distributed among Catholics and Protestants, and it will remind Protestants that Catholicism has been, in general, a friend of progress, freedom, and development every bit as much as Protestantism has.
Second, this book lent a great deal of support to a hypothesis I’ve been nursing for a while; namely, that there is a direct connection between the size of a political entity and the amount of genuine freedom that is possible within that entity. Stark argues that it was the medieval city-states that prospered much more than larger kingdoms or empires, because their much smaller size was conducive to greater freedom for the people and the commerce and greater responsiveness on the part of their governments. The post-Reformation stagnation of France and Spain vis-a-vis the Netherlands and England was due to their much larger populations and more centralized governmental structures, which could not help curtailing freedom simply because of their size. So, lots of good ammunition here for anarcho-syndicalism. Of course, Stark does not seem to realize the importance of his own observation here, and generally reverts to repeating the tired formulas of despotism vs. market-friendly governments. This means, incidentally, that he has rather too much faith in the “market-friendly” US government, not recognizing that its sheer size means that it will undermine freedom.
Third, in a fascinating passage, Stark confirms another hypothesis that had materialized in my mental matrix last term: to be a social good rather than a social ill, capitalism requires well-distributed land ownership, or at least, easy access to land ownership. In reading about the horrific depredations of British capitalism, I wondered to myself why we had not, in general, experienced the same social misery here in the US with the rise of industrial capitalism. A combination of Belloc, Berry, and the Torah hinted at an answer: in Britain, industrial capitalism arose against a backdrop of landlessness, and hence workers were ripe for exploitation, social dislocation, etc.; in the US, industrial capitalism arose against a backdrop of almost limitless private access to land, as the country expanded westward; hence, workers were in principle free and self-sufficient economic agents, capable of holding their own against capitalist manufacturers (though of course one could argue here that this relative well-being was simply maintained at the expense of tremendous exploitation of the Indians). This is precisely what Stark argues on pages 222-25. If this is true, it suggests an explanation for why industrial capitalism is having such deleterious effects in Third World countries, and also suggests that Torah principles of land-ownership may still have a lot of truth and relevance.