Wilhelm Roepke

[This essay serves as the introduction to The Legacy of Wilhelm Roepke: Essays in Political Economy series by Dr. Ancil that we will be publishing on The Imaginative Conservative. The essay was originally published in 1998.]

Most folks missed an important date: June 20th, which marked the fiftieth anniversary of the “German economic miracle.” It was on this day in 1948 that finance minister Ludwig Erhard took Germany off the policy of rationing run by the allied victors and returned it to a free market economy. The result surprised many: Germany, thoroughly defeated, made an astounding and vigorous return to economic health. Among the architects of that economic performance, and some might say the chief architect, operating in opposition to the climate of market critics and to the advice of many in particular, was an economist of high European reputation but little known in America. His name was Wilhelm Roepke. An ardent opponent of National Socialism as well as of Communism, he was anxious to re-establish a healthy market economy in his native land.

But Roepke was concerned with far more than getting the Germany economy started again. He wanted an economy that genuinely met human needs broadly understood and was ultimately informed by our Christian and classical Western patrimony. To this end, he wrote over 800 books and articles, among the most important are The Social Crisis of Our Time, The Moral Foundations of Civil Society and, perhaps his most famous book, A Humane Economy. Through these writings he eventually became one of the inspiring leaders of the post-World War II conservative intellectual movement in America.

His central concern was what form such an economy would take, what it would look like. Many Christians would say, especially since the demise of Soviet communism, that capitalism is indeed the one true and correct economic system. It makes little difference whether one is Roman Catholic, Protestant or sometimes even Eastern Orthodox, the defenders of the received system have their arguments in hand and can appeal seemingly to the tradition of papal encyclicals with its emphasis on the dignity and freedom of the human person, or to the Bible to defend their position. Sometimes their views can get sectarian as one history book for homeschoolers claims industrialism and capitalism were extended forms of the Protestant Reformation. They thus prefer to call this process the industrial “reformation,” not the industrial “revolution.” In other words, in the current climate of debate, being a “conservative” or a traditionalist means supporting the familiar form of economic organization called “capitalism” and generally favoring endless increases in per capita economic growth, marginal tax rate reductions, and a balanced budget. After all, what is the alternative? Big government, the welfare state or some form of protectionism? Unfortunately, many of us tend to see the world in exactly this either/or situation; we see the two pigeon holes of either laissez-faire capitalism, the market-can-do-everything-right school, or some form of big-government-that’s-on-its-way-to-socialism. It was in this frame of mind that much hope was placed in the 1994 November “revolution” where it was passionately believed the ship of state would be turned around in social policy and reduced in size as especially evidenced in the achievement of a smaller but balanced federal budget. These hopes have been sadly disappointed. But even if they had been successful, would we really have achieved a decent, humane economy?

Roepke would have answered “no” for it would not address the basic problems and distortions of what he called “historically received capitalism.” These problems include the weakening of the middle class by making it dependent on wage income alone, increasing boredom with work and life in general, the development of socially and morally blind forms of technology, and the ideology of what Roepke called the “cult of the colossal,” the worship of quantity and bigness as such. Nor would it have dealt with the modern economic disease of consumerism or the current myopia that overlooks the relationship between a genuine economic independence and a free republic.

The key elements in his alternative involve, therefore, much more than the mere acceptance of private property and the free operation of market prices. They also include an emphasis on productive property designed to give people economic independence, decentralization of businesses into smaller more widely dispersed units, locating most economic activity in socially, culturally and religiously healthy local communities, the proper limits of economic and commercial activity, principles of limited market intervention, and in a proper balance between town and country.

All this makes his approach at once radical and conservative: it conserves the principles of a free market economy but rejects the historically conditioned forms in which we have received them. Roepke insists simply that people should not only be productive but also happy in earning their daily bread and that this should be a vital part of a any society whose purpose is the realization of the fullness of our humanity, of man created in the image of God. It is in this sense that he wanted the economy to be “humane.”

It is the purpose of the following papers to introduce the reader to the principles, forms and issues of a humane economy. To do this I have selected papers that unfold Roepke’s basic vision, and also those articles that apply that vision or its principles to the questions of economic growth, the balanced budget amendment, Goals 2000, free trade vs protectionism and other current topics. Throughout, I have endeavored to take academic subjects and render them less abstract so that the educated layman call follow the arguments without feeling he must be an economist.

Roepke remarked, in comparing our modern world with the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, we are also faced with an invasion: but, as he further elaborated, this “invasion which threatens our world, indeed which has more or less got a foothold here, comes from within.” It is a spiritual and moral infection whose danger is subtle and requires careful analysis. This is why he dedicated himself to an essentially educational task, for if the Western world is to be preserved, reform must begin from within the individual. I hope this series is consistent with that spirit and will contribute to that goal.

Books referenced in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreCopyright held by the Wilhelm Roepke Institute and reprinted by permission.

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