In which I read David Brat’s dissertation so you don’t have to

By a series of improbable near-coincidences, I happened to be looking at the dissertation of David Brat today, on the day after he defeated Eric Cantor in the Republican primary. Under the circumstances, I wrote a review of the dissertation, which is being featured by Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

In defeating House majority leader Eric Cantor in his Republican Party primary, Tea Party-identified David Brat has surprised the political world—including Eric Cantor, whose pollsters assured him he had a comfortable lead. (It has also done some damage to the no-doubt partly-true thesis that the difference between the Tea Party insurgents and the “mainstream” Republican Party had narrowed to the point of insignificance.) Brat defeated Cantor in spite of having only a fraction of Cantor’s power, a fraction of his spending, and a fraction of his allies. Journalists and poltiicos have since been scrambling to learn more about Brat’s thinking. Because Brat is a professor of economics and business at Randolph-Macon College, he has left a large paper trail. Many Tea Party-aligned works—such as W. Cleon Skousen’s The 5,000 Year Leap, a dreadful “history” of the United States as a Christian nation—have been offensive to professional standards. Does Brat’s work fit into that category? It does not.

There is, unsurprisingly, no question that Brat is a conservative. He is to the right of Cantor on most issues. He ran against Cantor’s “corruption,” something that seems consonant with a 2011 essay titled “God and Advanced Mammon—Can Theological Types Handle Usury and Capitalism?” There, he warns of both conservative and liberal hypocrisy and calls for a church that coexists with modern capitalism. (He also writes that he has “the sinking feeling” that someone like Hitler could rise again.[1])  

Brat also administers a $500,000 grant from Branch Banking & Trust Company to teach the “moral foundations of capitalism” at Randolph-Macon, a program that teaches the “free market” principles of Ayn Rand. Brat says that he himself is not a “Randian,” though he says he has been influenced by her works and her perspective.[2] (Rand, of course, was an atheist who thought that belief in God was irrational. One reasonable hypothesis would be that Brat shares Rand’s views of capitalism, but doesn’t accept the anti-religious elements of her worldview.) In an interview in 2010, Brat asserted that “[t]he latest in economic research shows that ethical ideas may matter just as much as traditional economic variables in generating long-run economic growth.”[3]

His works make clear that the intersection of religion and capitalism has long been a matter of interest and concern. And though the published work mentioned above shows no signs of meeting high academic standards, he did earn a Ph.D. in economics in 1996 from American University. His dissertation was called “Human Capital, Religion, and Economic Growth,” and situates itself in the large debate about why some countries are rich and some are poor. Like many dissertations in economics, it is split into three semi-related chapters, at least some of which were later published as journal articles. 

What ties the dissertation chapters together is an interest in the stock of total social knowledge within nations. Brat believes that this aggregate “research and development” capital does a great deal to explain the differences between rich and poor nations: the more, obviously, the better. 

The first chapter of his dissertation is concerned with “[Research & Development] Spillovers and International Convergence,” and focuses on R&D “spillovers” from those that do the research to those that don’t, and finds that these spillovers contribute to the convergence between rich and poor economies. It also argues that the effect of research and development capital is stronger than the effect of human capital, defined in a limited way as investments in secondary education. The second chapter of the dissertation, “Inequality among Nations,” examines changes in inequality between 1960 and 1988. He finds that global inequality worsened over that period, and attributes the differences to R&D investment. In the absence of “spillover” that he explored in Chapter 1, he argues, inequality would be even worse. 

But why, he asks at the end of the chapter, are human capital inputs such as scientists so unevenly distributed throughout the world? It’s a question that he addresses in the third chapter of dissertation, which, by appearances within the text and also given his subsequent career, seems like the most personal. (It also takes up about half of the pages of the dissertation.) In chapter 3, “Science and Religion in the 19th Century,” Brat contributes to a debate in historical sociology that stretches back to Max Weber about the role of religion in economic growth. (Weber, though briefly discussed, is shockingly not cited in the dissertation.) 

Like Weber, Brat believes that Protestantism shapes other social institutions in a way that leads to economic growth. For Brat, however, it is not so much that Protestantism inculcates personal thrift and hard-work, but, more importantly, that it is most compatible with the rise of science. Brat’s hero of economic growth is not the Calvinist farmer or shopkeeper, but the Protestant scientist. 

The chapter examines the rise of scientific education in (Protestant) Germany and England and contrasts it with Catholic France. The basic findings are that Protestantism stimulates scientific production by influencing educational institutions, the organization of the state, and philosophical modes of thinking among scientists. Yet in making the case, Brat is forced to confront the weakness of his own evidence. He catalogues a variety of mild effects attributed to Protestantism on education and the state—and, in particular, in limiting the state in England and allotting a large share of R&D to private industry. (My own view, in my capacity as an historian, is that “Protestantism” is probably not even the right category of analysis for what he is trying to accomplish.) 

Nevertheless, his examination of France leads him to conclude that “Protestantism is not a necessary condition for the advancement of science.” State support, such as existed in France, is sufficient in the short-run, he concludes, but only Protestant-derived states provide the right kind of government structure to provide stability over time, as well as the decentralized environment that can produced good science and research. There is, it must be said, much that is dubious and little if anything that is original in this chapter. Everything is based on the work of other historians and economists; there is no real additional contribution. There is a huge amount of hand-waving in the chain of causation from Protestantism leading to constitutional republics leading to educational institutions leading to good environments for research and development leading to economic growth. It is certainly not the dishonest hack-work of a Skousen, but neither is it scholarship worth much consideration. The conclusion that Protestantism was indeed important for economic growth, though the effect was not large compared to other factors, does show some degree of intellectual restraint. 

But although the pieces are not connected in the dissertation, it is troubling to place the three chapters together. First, because challenging questions for a self-identified “free-marketer,” such as why the state has been so central to the research and development that he believes drives economic growth, are totally unexamined. But more importantly, the question posed at the end of chapter two, about why some countries lack of research and development capital, is given an implied (but not explicit) answer in the third chapter: they have the wrong religion. 

It is easy to see the basis of his interest in the relationship between religious values and ethics and economic growth, even in a nearly twenty-year-old dissertation. But his thinking shows no sign of having grown more complex in the intervening years, and the interview he gave in 2010—in which he states that “ethical ideas may matter just as much as traditional economic variables in generating long-run economic growth” suggests that the modesty of some of the dissertation’s claims has fallen away. 

It has left him, perhaps, with the kind of immodesty and conviction that led him to believe that he could challenge an incumbent Majority Leader—and win.


[1] Reid J. Epstein, “David Brat’s Writings: Hitler’s Rise ‘Could All Happen Again’,”
[2] Eric Lach, “Dave Brat Runs a $500,000 Program to Push Ayn Rand’s Ideas at College,”

One response to “In which I read David Brat’s dissertation so you don’t have to

  1. I think what he is missing is that it isn’t the type, or even the existence, of religion that matters. What matters is the belief that government should provide an ethical foundation for economic activity. In the specific case of wealth inequality, government should act aggressively in creation and enforcement of anti-trust laws. It should limit corporate deductions for excessive executive pay. It should increase the minimum wage. It should dramatically increase income taxes for the top bracket and raise the estate tax. It should use these tax receipts for infrastructure, education, healthcare and basic needs, and scientific research and development.

    It is true that these actions can find a religious basis in the New Testament. However, they also find an ethical basis in the long term benefit that they provide to the countries adopting them. A country which focuses its efforts on building a society that supports the middle class and poor will, as a result, create a society that has a vibrant, demand based economy.


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