The economic consequences of Luther: Ideas have legs, but some come with leg-irons

Johannes Wessels

500 Years after Martin Luther hammered his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenburg, Davide Cantoni, Jeremiah Dittmar and Noam Yuchtman saved their theses to the internet: Beliefs have economic consequences.

Old news, one might say, recalling Weber. But Weber’s thesis was always contested: assumptions of cultural traits based on unreliable statistics from the 19th C. Cantoni, Dittmar and Yuchtman (further-on Cantoni and co.) offer hard micro-statistical evidence from the century when Luther protested against Papal authority : 1517 was a watershed year in how people viewed the world and those (world)views had economic consequences.

In a National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper of October 2017 they state: “the pre-Reformation era can be understood as an equilibrium in which a monopolist religious producer (the Catholic Church) provided political legitimacy to secular authorities at a high price—charged in the form of control over resources, tax exemptions, and some degree of political power. The Reformation represented a competitive shock in the market for salvation. Protestant reformers offered a popular, lower-cost alternative to the Catholic Church… This had implications for the allocation of resources between secular and religious uses…

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