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Why the Protestant Work Ethic Is a Menace to Society

Good riddance to a religious approach that preached salvation through constant hard labor.

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Life, Liberty and Obsession

In fact, leisure advances productivity,  per the Atlantic, as the Harvard Business Review"showed that requiring business consultants to take time off every week actually boosted their productivity." Likewise, the Journal of Epidemiology found that "fluid intelligence," aligned with "problem solving, short-term memory, and creativity" was higher when working less than 40 hours vs. those slaving at 55 hour weeks. In short,  overwork cuts efficiency while amplifying stress and health problems, impedes exercise and ups our reliance on coping mechanisms, namely alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs. Obsessive work can turn one's life into an earthly hell -- redeemed perhaps only if (Christian) suffering is the gateway to heaven.

Our Founders endorsed "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," not life, liberty and the pursuit of obsession. Work-related maladies (worsened by low-nutrition fast food and insufficient sleep) undermine the "life" and spirit of millions, thus our low national happiness rankings. Gallup polls spanning 2005-2011 discovered nations that work less and play more are happier, namely Denmark, Finland, Norway, and the Netherlands. Instead, we boast about the "liberty" to work ourselves into an early grave.

Upend the Protestant Ethic

Why not start a new crusade to Upend the Protestant Ethic? Defy "Work is Salvation" or, for that matter, Time is Money, certainly that "Idle hands are the devil's workshop." Like virtue, work is rarely its own reward, of late the deluded modern version of Pie in the Sky. Other noxious fallacies follow suit: 1) that human worth and authority is a measure of how thoroughly we exploit nature (talk about trade-offs!); 2) that our economic dominance (funding military prowess) anoints us as God's chosen people, fit to rule the world. Great idea, lately, huh? Where exactly the Protestant tradition confirms that "might makes right," even endorses imperial pre-emption, I leave to religious scholars.  

The problem is now global, as we export our perverted version of "free" market capitalism with very expensive external costs, as in massive oil spills. Taking the Protestant work Ethic worldwide spreads the disease plus raises utterly unrealistic expectations that five+ billion people can live like "rich Americans." Implicit in Protestant Ethic "progress" is a terrible contradiction: industrialism that glorifies material success must expand exponentially to thrive and deliver goodies. Yet earthly resources are manifestly, painfully finite, worse still as populations grow, and that awful presumption tests non-negotiable constraints of nature. Mother Nature ultimately scoffs at our imagined human control.

Or as Benjamin Franklin might have repeated, against those who deny climatic disruptions staring us in the face, "We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid." How hard must we work to find alternatives to the folly of glorying counter-productive, life-taking hard work -- that destroys rather than serves life?


Educated at Rutgers College (BA) and UC Berkeley (Ph.D, English) Becker left university teaching (Northwestern, U. Chicago) for business, founding and heading SOTA Industries, high end audio company from '80 to '92. From '92-02 he did marketing consulting & writing; since 2002, he scribbles on politics and culture, looking for the wit in the shadows.

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