I worked on a congressional campaign this year that happened to coincide with my rediscovery of Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences. A few days after the midterm elections, a coworker remarked upon how Republicans lost in Michigan despite how much the economy was growing under Republican leadership. “When the economy is doing well, people don’t have to worry as much about these pocketbook issues,” she explained. “So, they can afford to worry about cultural matters.”
Her words reminded me of Weaver’s description of “economic determinism” or the “enthroning of economic man”: the tendency “to explain every human action (voting included) in terms of economics.” As Weaver explains it, prior to the Great Depression “politics was seen as a mere handmaiden to economics,” and learned men relied on iron economic law to explain everything. Then, the Depression hit. “The U.S. and Germany responded to the Great Depression by putting economics under the stern control of politics,” writes Weaver. Weaver calls this a “sharp-elbow” to economic determinists. We should note that during the height of the Depression, when national unemployment was at 25 percent, President Roosevelt won reelection—a sharp elbow to anyone who believes the health of the economy dictates how people vote.
The economic man may be confused by this sharp rebuttal, yet as Weaver famously wrote, “sentiment is anterior to reason.” Man is a creature of prerational sentiments. He binds himself to a family and place before deciding whether he has a good family or a good place. A man of sentiment accepts his place in a hierarchy as his God-given vocation. If he is born the son of a carpenter, he accepts his vocation as son and carpenter’s helper. He implicitly understands that society means station. And, “Where men feel that society means station, the highest and the lowest see their endeavors contributing to a common end, and they are in harmony rather than in competition.” For men of sentiment, there is no need to be in competition when each finds his purpose in his God-given vocation.
Economic man strives for progress and sees competition as the surest route to it. He seeks the next machine that will produce more widgets per hour, replace more working men, and give consumers lower prices at the big shop. Weaver described this obsession with innovation as “the exaltation of becoming over being.” “Becoming” is progressive, while “Being” is conservative. This raises a question for self-styled conservatives who deify economics: What exactly are you conserving?
“I am conserving freedom,” they answer. And here, we find a disagreement over the definition of “freedom.” The man of sentiment believes that freedom is submission to a legitimate authority and acceptance of one’s place in a hierarchy created by God. Economic man believes freedom is found by breaking free from hierarchy and submitting to no one. He sees no reason to submit to any authority, for he believes in “equality.” He does not see anyone above or below him in any hierarchy. Economic man rejects tradition, hierarchy, and order; he prefers freedom, equality, and chaos. And when his egalitarian notion pervades, society crumbles.
It will be found as a general rule that those parts of the world which have talked least of equality have in the solid fact of their social life exhibited the greatest fraternity. Such was true of feudal Europe before people succumbed to various forms of the proposal that every man should be king. Nothing is more manifest than that as this social distance has diminished and all groups have moved nearer equality, suspicion and hostility have increased. In the present world there is little of trust and less of loyalty. People do not know what to expect of one another. Leaders will not lead, and servants will not serve.
When economic man says “freedom,” he really means “autonomy.” And when he says “equality,” he means “autonomy for all.” For him, existence is not some divinely inspired plan with vocations, but one big shopping mall where all men can buy and sell as they please. All men are equal (as consumers). And each can interpret reality as they please: Any man can be a priest, any man can be a king, and any man can be a woman.
For four centuries every man has been not only his own priest but his own professor of ethics, and the consequence is an anarchy which threatens even that minimum consensus of value necessary to the political state.
The shopping mall does not need strong borders. Why keep potential consumers and low-wage employees out? It's better for business to keep the doors open. Also, there is no need for cultural traditions in the mall (such things may offend consumers).
In the 2016 Republican presidential primary, several candidates gave voice to economic man by campaigning on a promise of 4 percent GDP growth. In contrast, Trump promised to build a border wall. He promised that “In America, we will say Merry Christmas again.” He promised that we would speak English, and he promised to put our fatherland first. Heading into the 2018 midterms, he criticized athletes for kneeling during the national anthem. Trump is an embattled culture warrior.
Cultural traditions are more important to man than GDP. They give him a sense of the transcendent, affirm his place in a hierarchy, and create a sense of “we” and “us.” They appeal to the natural objects of his affections: God, family, and country. For these things will a man pay honor, for these things will a man die. And if he is willing to die for them, he is willing to vote for them. These things are anterior to reason. These are the first things.
John M. Howting writes from Michigan on the English Catholic literary revival.