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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.
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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...
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