Wilhelm Röpke infused his detailed analyses of modernity with a sensitive respect for the values of tradition and religious faith and their critical importance in building social and economic order.
Born in 1899 in Schwarmstedt, Germany, Wilhelm Röpke would become one of the most distinguished economists of his age. Acknowledged as a worthy peer by such eminents as Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich A. Hayek, Röpke was a key intellectual architect of postwar prosperity in Europe. Ludwig Erhard, economic director in postwar West Germany (and later chancellor of the Federal Republic), unabashedly credited Röpke as the most formative single influence on his policies.
Wilhelm Röpke made it his life’s work to help construct and defend the free society, to diagnose the ills of capitalism and suggest concrete solutions. Like a stern country doctor—his father’s profession—Röpke was never shy about criticizing the abuses of the body politic which endangered its health and rendered it defenseless against infections from far Right and Left. Röpke was blunt, even caustic, when he wrote about the abuses that had encrusted two centuries of capitalist practice, culminating in the crisis of the Great Depression. He sharply criticized the pro-business parties of Weimar Germany that supposedly stood for economic freedom but relied on the state to impose protectionism and shore up monopolies. These groups, more than anyone else, had given credibility to the Marxist charge that market economics were merely an ideology, a rhetorical construct that served the class interests of the bourgeoisie, which violated its principles the moment they proved inconvenient.
Röpke found common ground both with socialists and libertarians in exposing the inconsistencies of contemporary capitalism. He shared with socialists their outrage at hypocrisy, intellectual subterfuge, and social injustice; along with libertarians he held a deep respect for the wealth-creating free market. But he departed from both in his analysis of where the West had gone astray and what measures must be taken to restore Europe to health. Unlike most free-market advocates, Röpke seconded complaints made by counterrevolutionary thinkers on the Right. He too was appalled at the brutality and suddenness with which old lifestyles and mores had been uprooted through the political and economic revolutions that swept Europe after 1789. Röpke infused his detailed analyses of modernity with a sensitive respect for the values of tradition and religious faith and their critical importance in building social and economic order.
Because of his intellectual openness, Röpke’s work eludes easy categorization and repays careful reading and rereading by students of history, economics, and culture, regardless of where their intellectual sympathies may lie. Röpke was a master of many languages and vernaculars; well-versed in technical economics, romantic poetry, classical literature, and the history of science, he has aptly been called a Renaissance man. While signs of this learning bejewel his books—including lengthy Latin and French quotes given in the old style, untranslated—they never seem pretentious. His broad, humane erudition—which Röpke reveals incidentally, while simply trying to make a point—may well have saved him from the intellectual extremes to which so many of his fellow social reformers fell prey. It also partly explains the breadth of his influence among educated Europeans like Ludwig Erhard.
One of the first writers exiled by the Nazis for his ideas, Röpke subsequently worked in Turkey and Switzerland, writing books that helped preserve the spark of free thought in Germany and throughout occupied Europe. After the war, Röpke was one of the founding thinkers of the newly created Christian Democratic movement, the strongest European voice for resistance to the next totalitarian menace, the expansionist Soviet Union. While remaining a strong advocate of the free market, Röpke was also a keen critic of its abuses and an advocate for minimalist, effective intervention by the state to preserve vital social goods neglected by markets. Indeed, it was Röpke who first coined the (later much-abused) term “the Third Way” to denote a market-friendly, socially responsible economic policy—one aimed at encouraging the widespread ownership of property, capital, real estate, and small business throughout the population.
Appalled by all forms of monopoly, Röpke considered the economic power of colossal corporations almost as dangerous as the political might of collectivist governments. Always a cosmopolitan, Röpke favored untrammeled free trade, regional liberties, and respect for traditional peoples and ways of life. (For instance, he was an outspoken advocate of allowing Japan to retain her monarchy after the Second World War.) Ever a foe of nationalism, Röpke pointed to the eighteenth century as the zenith of European civilization—before ideas were branded by their country of origin and yoked to the service of intolerant nation-states.
On the other hand, suspicious as any Swiss peasant of imperial governments, Röpke opposed attempts to abolish borders and concentrate power in the hands of transnational bureaucracies. Just as the market economy had been built by small businessmen, farmers, inventors, and entrepreneurs—at the expense of monopolists, mercantilist kings, and rationalist philosophes—so Röpke saw international order and liberty as arising from free regions federated within nation-states, whose relations must be governed by written or unwritten standards of international law and enforced by a balance of power.
In light of the tragic failure of the post-Versailles commissions appointed to protect ethnic minorities in Europe, Röpke saw extra-governmental institutions (such as churches and civic and social organizations, often maintained by local elites) as the best defenders of human dignity against oppression by intolerant majorities. In this as in many other questions, he was inspired by the example near at hand—the healthy diversity and peculiarity of Switzerland, whose liberties had grown not from international guarantees or utopian schemes, but from concrete institutions, alliances of convenience, and ancient privileges fiercely guarded by peasant militias over centuries.
Instead of a multinational currency administered by a central authority (like today’s Euro), Röpke favored a worldwide gold standard that offered a single touchstone of value for many currencies—and wrested the critical power over the money supply from the hands of politicians and financial elites, leaving it to move spontaneously with the billions of daily decisions made by free men and women in free markets.
Röpke was a successful populizer, making clear the workings of the market economy in writings aimed at the educated layman. His works went through many editions, and were swiftly translated into French, English, Hungarian, even Japanese. American editions of his major works have remained in print for decades, and several neglected titles have been or soon will be reprinted in English. Unlike some other free-market advocates, Röpke understood that economics had been irreversibly politicized; there was no going back to the old, nineteenth-century view that had placed the function of a nation’s productive capacities entirely beyond the reach of popular sovereignty. The growth of mass democracy, the mobilization of millions of men of every social class during the First World War, rising nationalist sentiment and class mistrust—all these currents had joined to overwhelm the levee behind which classical liberals had hoped to protect economic life from the turbulence of politics. No longer would it be enough to convince the economics professors, the King’s ministers, and the responsible classes of the virtues of a free market.
This essay was originally published in Wilhelm Röpke: Swiss Localist, Global Economist by John Zmirak (229 pages, ISI Books, 2001) and is republished with gracious permission from the Intercollegiate Review (Fall 2016).
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.