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Guest post: The Economic/Ideological Dichotomy in History, by Matt Faherty

[This is a guest post by Matt Faherty, an undergraduate history major at the University of Chicago.]

Would it be accurate to say that Antebellum-era slaves wanted their freedom just so they could buy better clothing and live in bigger homes? Conversely, did Frenchmen of the eighteenth century storm the Bastille and overthrow the monarchy without regard to their personal finances? The answer to both questions is “no.” Major historical events occur due to changes in cultural morality which integrate both economic and non-economic forces.

Reading through the recent libertarian Civil War debates I have seen an all too common error in historical evaluation. The mistake is to attribute the motivations behind historical events to “economic self-interest” or (erroneously to) moral/ideological beliefs, with no consideration of their connection. Typically proponents of each side will oppose each other on principle. For instance, pro-Confederate scholars will claim that the South was fighting for its moral right of self-determination established by America’s Founding Fathers. Conversely, pro-Union scholars will claim that the South seceded to maintain its practice of slavery upon which its entire economy was based. This is not to say that the pro-Confederate side will deny the role of economic influences or the pro-Union side will deny the effect of Southern ideology, but that the primary causal factor will either be economic self-interest, or non-economic ideology.

I first remember witnessing this error in one of my classes at the University of Chicago. While discussing the causes of the American Revolutionary War, a self-described Marxist student claimed that the entire conflict was based on economic forces. Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and the rest of the Founding Fathers were wealthy aristocrats who wanted to escape England’s taxation and trade restrictions. Their common followers also didn’t want to pay taxes, but also wanted to break the British restrictions on Western settlement. The message seems to be: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

If the relatively well-off American colonists were rebelling for their economic self-interest, then why not the impoverished Prussian serfs, or their nearly enslaved Russian counter-parts? Surely they would have more to gain from a revolution (like ending serfdom) than the Americans resisting their petty Stamp Tax. And if it was just money the colonists were after, then why stage an unprecedented armed revolt against what was arguably the most powerful nation on earth? The commoners could have staged protests and shut down ports, if not just evaded taxation and regulation with far less of a chance of being shot. The supposed aristocrats could have used their economic influence and lobbying power to alter the state from within rather than risk execution for treason.

Again, this is not to say that that economic influence had no causal effect on the revolution. Of course the colonists didn’t want to pay taxes, but neither did Prussian peasants want to be serfs.

The key is to recognize that the American colonists thought they had a right to their money, and without representation in the British Parliament, the British government had no right to take their hard-earned wealth. The moral desire for a representative government and the economic desire for wealth were, and are, inextricably linked. Conversely, Prussian peasants in the late eighteenth century had little to no contact with the Enlightenment values envisioned by John Locke and others and, as a result, no major uprising occurred against the far more oppressive Prussian government until more than half a century later.

Therefore, the attribution of historical motivations to economic self-interest or ideological causes misses the point entirely. Both causes exist in all major historical events, but neither is primary; rather, both are integrated. One does not exist without the other. To desire wealth is to make a moral statement. The degree to which one feels he is entitled to his own wealth is an ideological declaration of the degree to which he thinks his rights should be protected by his government and his society. When the American colonists made such a declaration, they were extreme enough to take up arms.

Matt Faherty



  1. Also relevant: the British had ruled the American colonies with a fairly loose rein until the massive war debt coming out of the Seven Years’ War inspired them to try to squeeze the money out of the colonies. So the restrictions that were being imposed on them weren’t restrictions they were used to from time immemorial; instead they were novelties. Free the Prussians from serfdom, or at least from the most onerous aspects of serfdom. for a century or so and then try to put the feudal screws back onto them and they might well kick a bit. People (with honourable exceptions) seem readier to accept injustices that have been hallowed by tradition — that just seem part of “the way things are” — whereas a new injustice attracts more scrutiny.

  2. irfankhawaja says:


    Thanks for this thought-provoking post. It dovetailed perfectly with a lot of other stuff that’s been blogged here.

    There’s certainly something right about your thesis–that the opposition between “economic” and “ideological” causes involves a false dichotomy. But for that very reason, it seems to me that you’re wavering between two different claims in your post:

    (1) Economic and ideological factors are two different kinds of cause in history, and neither is primary.

    (2) So-called “economic” factors ARE a form of ideological factor, and ideological factors are the primary causes in history.

    I think (2) is the more plausible thing to say. To function as a cause, an economic factor has to be cognized by the relevant historical actors: they have to view the factor as relevant to their goals before it comes to motivate their actions. (I think Roderick is saying something similar above.) In other words, there’s no such thing as an “economic cause” that impels people to action in a historically significant sense without first being cognized by them, i.e., without first coming to have ideological (or more broadly, normative) significance. The picture that has to be rejected is the crude Marxist one in which economic factors somehow bypass people’s thoughts altogether, take hold of them, and make them do things. That’s the view that your fellow student was defending. In fact, even Marx didn’t hold that view, though his own views are enough of a mess to have encouraged the thought.

    Keep it coming! In its current form, the Objectivist theory of historical causation is in its infancy. It could use a lot more work.


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