AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Snuffed-out candles, skulls and hourglasses were how the Old Masters portrayed the vanity of greed. For the Dutch, the credit crunch has revived a moralistic stance from back when the first share was issued in Amsterdam.
Erupting on the 500th anniversary of the birth of Protestant theologian John Calvin, the financial crisis has spawned a splurge of puritanical debate and self-analysis.
Calvin’s 16th-century teachings were influential for the Protestant Reformation in the Netherlands and across Europe, and as people reassess the forces that unleashed the global credit bubble, they are falling back on old truths.
Even Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende has turned to Calvin to explain the financial mess.
“If the credit crisis makes anything clear, it shows we need to strengthen the moral anchors of our economy,” Balkenende wrote in an article discussing what Calvin could teach us today.
“At its core this is also a moral crisis, caused by greed, money-mindedness and egoistic trading.”
The renewed sobriety is not without ironies.
A special edition magazine titled “Calvin Glossy” presents the French theologian as the “Barack Obama of the 16th Century,” and compares his connection with the ordinary man and his emphasis on responsibility with that of the new U.S. President.
One religious daily, Trouw, is offering an online test to assess people’s Calvinist credentials. Those agreeing with the statement “I should work harder” and disagreeing with “I like to dine in luxury” will boost their score.
But some Dutch also see a danger in Calvinist stringency and social control.
“There’s an unpleasant, bitter smell in the Dutch air: it’s not tobacco or sprouts,” wrote a contributor named Frank Lenssen in an online debate: “No, it’s the stench of Calvinism.”
Of course, the moral revival is not exclusive to the Dutch. Among recent investigations of the decline of the U.S. empire a book, “The Puritan Gift,” by Glasgow-born brothers Kenneth and William Hopper, similarly explores lost values.
It argues America’s original prosperity lay in the ethical approach of Puritan settlers that was shared by the Dutch who settled around what is now New York, including a strong emphasis on hard work and mechanical and managerial skills.
The book blames a crisis in modern business on the emergence of MBA managers who lack hands-on experience, and on the rise of financial engineering — sophisticated techniques to inflate returns regardless of the quality of underlying assets.
“The Puritan Gift is a rare ability to create organizations that serve a useful purpose and to manage them well, which means to the benefit of society, and not just to make money for yourself,” said William Hopper.
This is not the first time the Dutch have taken to moral self-assessment after a crisis. In a country where a 17th- century tulip bulb sold for the price of a decent house, moral questioning and self-ridicule have long walked side by side with trading and commercial ambition.
As the home of the first multinational corporation — the Dutch East India Company or VOC, established in 1602 and which was also the first firm to issue stock — the Netherlands has long experience of investment manias.
Its 17th-century art and literature routinely included reminders to not let selfish desires distract people from their duties.
The paintings of exotic tulips and overflowing fruit bowls that reflected the opulence of the Dutch Golden Age were often framed by insidious symbols of the inevitability of death, to show material things do not last.
In Hendrick Gerritsz Pot’s famous painting, “Flora’s Wagon of Fools,” weavers drop their looms to join the goddess of flowers in a doomed quest for riches, reflecting concern that work was being supplanted by idle and illusory routes to wealth.
“These paintings were a warning — a moral reminder — to watch what you are doing: since there will be the inevitable moment of death,” said Pieter Roelofs, a curator at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
“So you can try to be the best in your field and make as much money as you can, but when you are faced with judgment you won’t be credited for your wealth but how you acted in the broader social context.”
When tulip bulb prices collapsed in 1637 and many people refused to honor contracts, it sent a shiver through a trading community that relied on trust, a wave of self-doubt similar to sentiments expressed after markets tumbled last year.
How do we know what is real? How do we know what is valuable? What use is money? How should our society work? were some of the questions raised in literature of the time, writes historian Anne Goldgar in “Tulipmania,” a study of money and honor in the Dutch Golden Age.
But the most recent moral outpouring is also fueled by a Dutch political force.
Governing in coalition with a small but vocal religious party, The Christian Union, as well as center-left Labor, Christian Democrat Balkenende has for some years been addressing perceptions that moral values need reasserting in the Netherlands.
Stricter policies have emerged on marijuana-selling coffee shops and prostitution, and the Christian Union has also pushed for restrictions on Sunday shopping.
“This is part of something bigger,” said Nicole Maalste, a Dutch sociologist who has studied cannabis policies. “On many issues the government is looking to be more strict and to have more norms and values.”
But she noted a tension between the push for greater moral awareness and strong Dutch traditions of a tolerant, live-and-let-live approach: “At a certain point the government will go too far (with restrictions),” she said.
Moralizing elements in the past did not put people off pursuing individual and commercial ambitions for long.
The tulip craze, for example, was a shock that encouraged inward reflection and self-sacrifice for a while. But Goldgar noted that in a society where people were already doing forward trades in herring, it just made them a bit more wary.
“It didn’t destroy people’s faith in trade and finance: it just made people realize they should be a bit more careful about the market.”
Editing by Sara Ledwith and Tom Heneghan