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Now that we have once again entered the annual time of the new year resolution and the attendant run on self-help books (and e-books) to help inspire us to improve ourselves, we even hear of such efforts — and their entirely unsurprising bad ends — on the scale of nations.

The bad end of self-improvement efforts is not surprising because it is so very nearly universal, but before we delve into the human nature — or is it a particularly American human nature?– that insists on believing that if only a measure of self-control were added to our lives then all things could improve, from melting pounds to eliminating deficits, perhaps it would be profitable to take a look at the one measure that did, once set one part of the world on the path toward prosperity, low corruption and — yes — democracy.

Let us consider first which countries have achieved this: The Netherlands came first, then England with Scotland close behind, then Germany. Also, on a different scale we have Switzerland, one half of Belgium, Canada (by extension, mostly, from England), Luxemburg and — eventually — the American Midwest. France was — and is — a laggard, and we all know of the state of South Europe and much of the rest of our little globe. Then let us consider what they have in common – and that is, without exception, a particular brand of Christianity — namely early forms of Protestantism that did away with the idea of salvation via works and substituted grace, or faith, into the equation.

Without exception these societies, when at the height of their development, far from mouthing platitudes about camels and need-eyes saw wealth instead as a big sign of divine favor rather than a result of sin, and so they honored the work of finance and commerce that were the main route to its acquisition. By contrast, all the other cultures denigrated all self-interest and viewed wealth acquisition with suspicion — not that they could succeed in banishing all wealth, but because gains were sinful it was a priori no worse to get at them through sinful means like theft or conquest.

To bring this overlong discourse back to where it started, the only way for a society to join the club of nations prosperous because of the efforts of their people rather than merely their minerals (or certain plant-based powders), one must begin by inviting preachers of the most intolerant, hell-fire breathing, patriarchal, Calvinist persuasion, setting them loose to convert the populace, and then waiting two or three hundred years for their efforts to begin to bear fruit. This would appear to work a great deal better than demonizing their wealthy for not wishing to give away large portions of their fortune or demagoguing the so-called “fair share” of taxation to pay for profligacies of the unproductive.

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