Wilhelm Roepke

Wilhelm Roepke

How can a German economist be called a Southerner? Obviously not geographically but in the important sense that Southern Agrarians came to understand, as a possession of the mind and spirit. That Wilhelm Roepke’s mind and spirit, embodying the best of the German tradition, share significantly in the essential features of the South­ern heritage is not too surprising when it is re­called that Southern culture itself was essentially European.

In evidence of this there are some sugges­tive comparisons that can be made here. For example, Richard Weaver went home in spring to farm his ancestral fields with horse and plow and refused the use of airplanes, preferring trains for long distance travel. Similarly, Roepke promoted urban gardening for the health of city-dwellers and refused to use ski-lifts, preferring to ride up the mountain slopes on shank’s mare. Or one may refer to the Southern fondness for the books of Sir Walter Scott whose stories of Saxon yeomen fighting Norman invaders parallels those of William Tell fighting Austrian conquerors as eulo­gized in Schiller’s famous poem, admired by Roepke. Then one may conjecture about the influence of Germans and Lutherans on Southern life. Certainly, Luther himself was a social medievalist and agrarian and longed for the non-commercial life of an earlier time. To what extent this affected Southern life is arguable as is the effect of his Lutheran faith on Roepke’s outlook. But the parallels are thought-provoking.

However that may be, in place of compar­ing the South with Ireland, as Weaver did, we could fruitfully compare it with early 19th century Germany. Just as the Old South was essentially a non-materialist civilization, we find pre-capitalist Germany similarly oriented as one of the last regions of traditional, agrarian life in Western Europe. Both patterns of life were highly decen­tralized, religious, historic-minded and industrially “backward.” England and France were to Germa­ny what the North was to the South. The French invaded with their armies and nationalist ideolo­gy, England with its economic doctrines. Both the peasants and nobility opposed the invasion of materialis­m and capitalism.

On a more authoritative, specific level, we may draw upon Theodore Hamerow’s study of 19th century Germany. The older German way of life was built around the concept of “economic equilibrium” and rooted in a stable communal order with a stable popula­tion. The markets were intended to support an “un­changing standard of living” and to offer supplies that were “local in scope.” It was a “pastoral economic world” with a belief that even in the economy there must be “social justice,” the odium of secular conserva­tives, between producers and consumers. Ham­erow writes: “The advantages inherent in mechani­cal efficien­cy and competitive individualism were renounced for the sake of security and order.” Economic security, a settled way of life, rejection of efficiency and mechan­ics as ends in themselves to be pursued without limit, all characterize the writings of the Twelve Southerners.

But Germany’s “civil war” was a more protracted affair, dispersed over decades though at times erupting into violence as in the revolutions of 1848. Hamerow comments: “Within the life­time of one generation Germany was forced to accept new forms of production, new methods of transportation, new social classes, new civic ideals, new demographic pressures. It proved too much for a bewildered people. The masses in their agitation began to mutter, complain, threaten, and finally they rose in open revolt against the effects of technological progress.” When all was said and done, Germany’s historic social order, like the South, was gone with the wind and left in the dust of an excessive and dehumanizing indus­trialization.

Roepke entered this vale of tears in 1899, near the end of this tempestuous century in Ger­man history yet before all the corners of humane living had been wiped out. He was born in a small country town, the scion of generations of country physicians who might receive payment in baskets of produce instead of money.

In looking for answers to social problems in the still more disastrous aftermath of World War I, Roepke drew upon his rural past whose simple way of life became the cornerstone of his economic and social philosophy. A humane social order begins, Roepke discovered, with the person­al and the spiritual and a humane economy similar­ly begins when something of the poetic is retained in work and consumption, when these become as it were an art, integrated into the rest of life. Just as mere versification does not constitute poetry, so charts and graphs don’t make good econom­ics and the bump and grind of meaningless work doesn’t make for a good economy.

The humane economy then must have its ideal and that ideal for Roepke is best described as “neigh­borly.” He draws attention to the etymolo­gy of the word “neighbor” to explain his views. The German word “Bauer” (farmer or peasant) is not derived from “bauen” (to build), but comes from “Nachbar” which in English is “neighbor” and whose root meaning is “near-dweller” (itself a Saxon-like expression). This, says Roepke, “expresses the friendly warmth of the village community.”

As an economist, Roepke of course insists that a good society must have free markets and private property. These were as much as anything else a part of the natural order of mankind. However, there are some dangers even in these arrangements if they are carried too far or applied inappropriately. Competition, for instance, is necessary “in as far as that economy is a market economy dependent on the division of labor.” But an economy and society increasingly dependent on rarified specializations are unstable precisely because such a minute division of labor reduces the economy’s ability to coordinate its actions smoothly. Excessive specialization also turns most people into “proletarians,” workers without productive assets, especially land, with only their labor to sell. From the factory worker to the university professor we are all today like Ivanhoe in Scott’s novel: disinherited of our rightful patri­mony.

Market competition, Roepke insists, is a “necessary social arrangement not a social gospel likely to make us enthusiastic” so it “must be supplement­ed by something which is humanly positive.” What is this “humanly positive” supple­ment? It is certainly not to be found in economic growth and consumerism where “dissatisfaction and discontent seem only to grow with the profu­sion of goods designed for creature comforts and in inverse proportion to the happiness expected of those goods.” Nor is it to be found in a belief in “the often cited living standard” which may “in­toxicate a naive social philosophy” with its materi­al­istic bias but which ignores and undermines the “im­measurable and inexpressible simple happiness which men feel in doing satisfying work and leading purpose­ful lives.”

Roepke’s answer is as simple as it is radical: to have the “humanly positive” or neigh­borly life, we need “a simultaneous change of our whole economic and social system in favor of drastic decentralization of cities and industries, of the restoration of some more ‘natural order’, more rural, but less urbanized, mecha­nized, industrial­ized, proletarized and commercialized.”

A major step in fulfilling this vision is “by enlarging the sphere of marketless self-sufficiency.” Partial self-sufficiency means more people owning productive assets, especially land, includ­ing city-dwell­ers who can grow some of their own foodstuffs. More men should become small capitalists and more goods and services should be produced in the home where feasible, such as homeschooling. In many respects here Roepke’s vision reminds one of Alexander Solzhenit­syn’s recommendations for Rebuilding Russia.

He further insists that we can and should take a firm and conscientious social control over our techno­logical destinies: “we are not the help­less slaves of technology” but are surely the “captains of our fate.” He rejects as unmanly any “argument of technological inevitability.” Tech­nology and science are no more autonomous than the market and like the latter are to be submitted to humane and moral standards.

Distinguishing Roepke’s views from other more or less “small is beautiful” approaches is his rejection of egalitarian principles and his emphasis on history and tradition. His restoration of sound princi­ples of living and return to what Russell Kirk would call the “wisdom of our ancestors” leads Roepke to defend a society with social classes, including a “natural nobility” and a functional hierarchy rooted in a Euro­centric tradition, histo­ry, and culture. This natural nobility should act as secular saints providing leadership to countervail both the market and government and rejecting “eccentric novelty” in favor of the “old truths.” Though this status is to be achieved by merito­rious character rather than by birth, Roepke insists it is also true that “without wealth and its inheritance, whereby spiritual and moral tradition is handed down together with its material foundation, a natural aristoc­racy is…impossible.” Such leader­ship usually takes more than one generation to be achieved. Hence a settled life where such slow maturing would be allowed and encouraged is essential.

Roepke is far from utopian. He is certain­ly critical of much in Germany’s and Europe’s past. But he is careful to identify where his affections lie and what in Europe is essential despite a wide number of outrageous but incidental flaws. He happily jettisons these defects, but Europe’s essentially good spirit he defends com­pletely. He gives flesh-and­-blood examples of the kind of society he has in mind from European history as well as from instances in his own day. His two dominant models are 18th century Europe and early twentieth century Switzerland.

One final thought elucidates his neighborly principles. Commenting on the dehumanized medical practices and the general problem of providing health care even in his day, Roepke explains how different things used to be:

“How much easier, healthier and more human all such questions appear under the simple and neigh­borly conditions of the open cou­ntry is shown by the recollections of the author whose ancestors were coun­try practitioners as far back as the eighteenth century. Neither his father nor his grandfather nor his great-gran­dfather knew of anyone whose poverty exclud­ed him from their medical assis­tance; their services were paid for automatically in the way of neighbor­ly intercourse, perhaps by wood cutting in the fall or by lending a hand in the garden or in the fields. A family doc­tor, in the sense of a secular con­fessor, only the landed gentry could afford, but this was a luxury which had the advantage of permitting the medical ances­tors of the author the luxury of tending the poor. Human relations were pleasant in every respect in this world until it was gradual­ly permeated by the collectiviza­tion which also invaded the open country…” (emphasis added)

While this is not a blueprint for policy action today, it conveys something of the spirit and content of what he means by the “neighborly” and the “humanly positive.” If it sounds hopelessly inadequate for today’s needs, that only serves to show perhaps how degenerate and deformed we have become. Like the frog in the slowly heating water, we think because this deterioration has been slow things are not so bad, when in fact our humanity is being boiled alive.

Put bluntly, Roepke’s views are, like the Southern Agrarians, hard to sell to most Ameri­cans. The complete Yankee of today sees the world as a spectrum dominated by two stark alternatives: the welfare-state/social­ist/communist “liberalism” or the in-your-face individualism of a secular, libertarian “conser­vatism.” Because Roepke cuts across these chuckleheaded divisions, he is usually reject­ed. It takes too much effort to figure him out. Yet his view is eminently simple, and full of common sense. No Ph.D is needed to under­stand him. He advocates private property, free markets and limited government. But he also refuses to deify the market any more than govern­ment and recognizes that other needs must be met, as outlined above. This is balanced almost to the point of blandness and invisibili­ty. And yet in a world of vicious ideologies, these very qualities must make it conspicuous for its scarcity.

Roepke is also rejected from a defect common to both the secular right and left. That is their belief in the “automatic” proper­ties of their pet “systems,” either government or capitalism. On the left, the welfare state is supposed to take care of the poor and needy automatically, if only there were more govern­ment agencies and money. On the right, the market is supposed to do the same through greater entrepreneurial license leading to productivity increases and more. If only the government reduced taxes, etc., all of our prob­lems would go away. Like big government, the market is the salve on the conscience which excuses the secularist from loving his neighbor, being his brother’s keeper in the rightly understood sense.

Roepke understood that both sides are wrong. When these “systems” are absolutized and human problems solved “automatically,” we are dehumanized and the problems are worsened. Political and economic independence, that is, the liberty of a free republic and a free market, re­quire intense personal com­mitment and character. It requires self-sacri­fice on behalf of one’s neigh­bor. And the only thing “automatic” is the pain and discom­fort that comes with self-denial. It has no substitute. This im­plies, as Roepke him­self was the first to point out, that his eco­nomic and social changes must be accompa­nied with “the spiritual and moral change indispensable to lasting improve­ment” and without which nothing else will be effective. In his own life he exemplified that love of neighbor philoso­phy, character and com­mit­ment, which re­flected those traditional village values of his youth and which helped lead him to fight not only National Socialists, Commu­nists and Keynesians but the secular capitalists as well. For all these reasons Roepke’s contribution is of lasting significance and keen interest to those wishing to preserve the Sou­thern lega­cy.

Books by Wilhelm Roepke may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

[This essay first appeared in The Legacy of Wilhelm Roepke: Essays in Political Economy by Ralph Ancil, originally published in 1998 by the Wilhelm Roepke Institute. Read the series introductory essay here.]

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