The Protestant promotion of wealth as a just reward for hard work, good character and initiative ensured employers had a hard working labour market and that the wealthy gained not only profits but also social rewards and influence.
The idea of wealth and success as being God-ordained emerged from the Protestant Reformation. Hard work was a virtue and the wealthy, symbolic of that virtue. The newly formulated work ethic gave the social system of inequality a moral legitimation, ensuring most people saw it as fair, and protecting it from those who might question or challenge it.
With the rise of capitalism work came to be valued according to its productivity and wealth creating potential. Success in business was measured solely in terms of profits. Wealth, as the supposed fruits of hard work, became an indicator of a person’s worth and determined their social standing. The emphasis on work as a religious calling was gradually superseded by a materialistic quest for social mobility and material success.
Today the ambition for material success is so ingrained in all industrialised countries that people assume it is so natural and unavoidable, “that material wealth is an ultimate human motive”. In his book The Illusion of Choice: How the Market Economy Shapes Our Destiny, Andrew Bard Schmookler, argues that people have come to accept the market as the adjudicator of value, even their own value. The way they “evaluate their lives” now conforms with “the way the market system keeps score”.
A person’s value is assessed by others according to what they do for a living and how much money they have or earn. In this context it is little wonder that so many people work, not just to provide their needs, but to improve their status and increase their wealth. However, as examined in the previous chapter, such values had to overcome a previous set of human values that had seen the naked pursuit of personal wealth as greed and avarice that should be avoided.
In capitalist societies there has been no shortage of wealthy people and those who depended on them to preach “the new gospel of the morality of wealth”. It was in their interests to present the capitalist system of inequalities as being based on merit, with social advancement open to anyone of good character who was willing to work hard.