The title of this essay takes its name, in part, from a speech that William McGurn delivered recently at Hillsdale College. Mr. McGurn served as the chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush from 2006-2008 and is currently the vice president of News Corporation. In his speech, Mr. McGurn sought to look at the claim that economists deserve the label of “dismal science.”
He argued that economics should not be viewed a dismal science—a horrible libel started by Thomas Carlyle—but rather as a worthwhile endeavor necessary for any society that wants to be free. Citing the use of economics in ending slavery and debunking the population bubble myths of the 1970s, he wanted economists recognized for offering “a more hopeful way forward.” Economists stepped to the forefront in those debates of the 1860s and of a century later to counter the arguments of the “progressives, artists and humanitarians” and support freedom and life. In short, men and women the most when they are free. While those points merit discussion, they are not the focus of this short essay.
Mr. McGurn’s most intriguing point came towards the end of his speech. He juxtaposed a world of only libertarians with a world of only conservatives and concluded that neither would suffice. He wrote:
“Each side has something vital to contribute. The free market cannot long survive without an appreciation that many of the virtues required for its successful operation—and I use the word virtues instead of values deliberately—are things that the market cannot itself produce. At the same time, a conservatism that lacks an appreciation for the dynamics of a free market—and its confidence in the ability of free men and free women to build a better future—can easily trend toward the brittle and resentful.”
Rather, Mr. McGurn seems to be arguing that a healthy balance between the two would facilitate a virtuous country with a free economy.
That contrast reminded of Wilhelm Röpke, the 19th-century economist much respected by Russell Kirk for his call for a “humane economy.” Lauding Röpke’s thought in several different essays, Kirk explained that Röpke wanted to find “something different from either ideological socialism or doctrinaire capitalism.” Röpke himself used the term “Third Way” to describe his proposal.
That proposal, as Kirk interpreted it, “is economic activity humanized by being related to moral and intellectual ends, humanized by being reduced to human scale.” Indeed, a society comprised of rights and civility and tradition, though understanding of the need for an economy grown “from the bottom up” could free itself from constraint to an ideological extreme.
I am, by no means, an economist nor do I consider myself a libertarian. But I can recognize the importance of an economy that acknowledges the beauty of humans as humans, not as a faceless statistic used to calculate Gross National Product and the like. Even acting in the name of the seemingly benign word “capitalism” (whose origins in Marx’s writings would surprise many people today) needs to be avoided. Rather, as Röpke and Kirk discussed, acting in the name of a virtuous people would be working towards an ethical end.
If Kirk’s words are heeded, if a “third choice,” a “humane economy” becomes the norm, and human virtues are taken into account, rather than statistics and number alone, economics may very well relieve itself of the currently apropos title “dismal science.”
Books by Wilhelm Roepke and other books on the topics in this essay can be found at The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Mr. McGurn’s edited speech is available here. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
Dr. Kirk’s quotes are taken from both “The New Humanism of Politics” The South Atlantic Quarterly 52 (1953): 180-196, and “The Humane Economy of Wilhelm Roepke,” The Politics of Prudence (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007), 114-124.