Thursday, July 29, 2004

Religion is the Opiate of the Prosperous

Reuters reports that a belief in Hell is good for a nation's financial health:

Economists searching for reasons why some nations are richer than others have found that those with a wide belief in hell are less corrupt and more prosperous, according to a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Researchers at the regional Federal Reserve bank acknowledged the importance of productivity and investment in the economic process but looked at some recent unconventional efforts to explain differences in national prosperity.

The St. Louis Fed drew on work by outside economists who studied 35 countries, including the United States, European nations, Japan, India and Turkey, and found that religion shed some useful light.

"In countries where large percentages of the population believe in hell, there seems to be less corruption and a higher standard of living," the St. Louis Fed said in its July quarterly review.

"A belief in hell tends to mean less corruption, and less corruption tends to mean a higher per capita income," they wrote. It correlated the belief in hell findings of the World Value Series with a measure of corruption produced by Transparency International.

It then looked at the relationship between corruption and per capita gross domestic product and found "a strong tendency for countries with relatively low levels of corruption to have relatively high levels of per capita GDP."

The researchers also noted the long tradition among classical economists to equate a society's honesty, and the strength of the rule of law, with economic vitality.

There are all sorts of caveats here, not least the one Glenn Reynolds notes below about correlation and causation. Also, a sample size of 35 does not seem very representative. I would like to know what the stats for the other 158 countries. And surely the belief in hell usually correlates with other religious beliefs that would be relevant to economic health.

Still, the argument that belief in Hell is a useful proxy for ethical behavior seems like a natural one. Karl Marx must be rolling over in his... well, wherever he is.

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