G. Beliefs about work and economic productivity

The society honors productive work

A positive view of productive work is an essential value if a society wants to make progress from poverty toward greater prosperity. It is important for people to think of an “ideal” life as one of joyful productivity that benefits both themselves and others. A productive culture values and honors people who continue to work as long as they are willing and able to do so, because as long as people are working they are adding productivity to society. Rather than accepting the false idea that the number of jobs in a society is fixed, the society will believe that the potential for creating new jobs is unlimited due to human creativity and inventiveness in finding new ways to make useful products and services for other people (see discussion, 173-74). These values will be taught to children and represented in the way a society encourages and rewards people in the workplace.

By contrast, in a society that is stuck in poverty, people will view work as a necessary evil, as a decree of fate (as in some Muslim societies), or even as the “just punishment” that is due them for wrongful deeds done in previous lives (as in much of Hinduism). In a poor society that is not increasing its productivity, people will think of the “ideal” life as one of ease, in which a person simply enjoys himself and his friends, and never has to work at a productive job. In such a society, people will wrongly believe that the number of jobs in the economy is fixed, which means that still-productive workers will be encouraged to retire early so that “others can have their jobs.”

The Bible places a high value on productive work. The book of Proverbs says, “A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich” (Prov. 10:4). Likewise, Paul told the Thessalonian Christians “to work with your hands, as we instructed you . . . and be dependent on no one” (1 Thess. 4:11-12). They were even to “keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness” (2 Thess. 3:6), and were to imitate Paul’s example of working “night and day” (v. 8). He even said, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (v. 10).

Economic history shows the importance of a society’s view of work. We mentioned earlier that Landes emphasizes “the Judeo-Christian respect for manual labor” as another key to the success of the Industrial Revolution in Northern Europe. The emphasis on hard work in the “Protestant Ethic” led to a society in which people were expected to be “rational, ordered, diligent, productive” in their ordinary work.[1]

Historians have argued that Protestant societies were not alone in developing a higher appreciation for work and productivity.[2] It should not surprise us that some other cultures also valued these virtues, since by common grace people generally have a God-given inner sense that it is right to be productive and to attempt to better one’s own condition.

For example, while Japan did not have a Protestant Ethic, “its businessmen adopted a similar work ethic,” especially because of a Buddhist idea that “through work we are able to obtain Buddhahood [salvation].”[3] Landes also mentions the “work values” and “sense of purpose” that were found in the cultures of South Korea and Taiwan. These were part of the reason for the remarkable economic growth of these countries beginning around 1950.[4]

In a country that honors productive work, the quality of work will also matter. A productive society will naturally give higher honor to work of higher quality. One of the reasons for the astounding economic development of Japan was that the Japanese became world leaders in making the highest quality automobiles, photographic equipment, robotics, and other electronic products. The factories in Japan instituted “the world’s most effective quality controls,”[5] thus giving high value to the highest quality of work.

Good work habits also matter. They will be inculcated and reinforced by the society. Workers will take pride in being diligent, thrifty, honest, punctual, courteous, faithful in their performance of work, respectful toward authority, cheerful, and proud of their high quality of work.

There are several good historical examples. One of the reasons for the remarkable economic recovery of Germany after World War II was “the energy and work habits of the defeated Germans,” who rebuilt their economy on “work, education, determination.”[6]

Similarly, the four “Asian tigers” of Southeast Asia that have made such remarkable economic growth in recent years (Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong) had as their primary asset “a work ethic that yields high product for low wages.”[7] Furthermore, the Chinese who have immigrated into these countries and others in Southeast Asia (such as Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia) “cherish a work ethic that would make a Weberian Calvinist envious,” and they provide significant economic energy to all of these economies.[8]

It is not surprising that the Bible commends workers who have good work habits rather than poor ones: Paul writes:

Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality. (Col. 3:22-25; see also Eph. 6:5-8)

Paul also wants employees “to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, not pilfering, but showing all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (Titus 2:9-10).

On the other hand, in a country that is trapped in poverty, honor will be given to people who can “game the system” and be paid even while being lazy, wasteful, dishonest, unfaithful to commitments, frequently late, disrespectful, arrogant, discontented, and careless in their work.

  • [1] Ibid., 175-77.
  • [2] See Dierdre McCloskey, Bourgeois Dignity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).
  • [3] Landes, Wealth and Poverty, 363, quoting a 1982 study by Shichihei Yamamoto; see also 383, 391.
  • [4] Ibid., 437.
  • [5] Ibid., 472; see also 485.
  • [6] Ibid., 471.
  • [7] Ibid., 475.
  • [8] Ibid., 477.
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