An Economist for All Seasons

I have, for some time, wanted to draw further attention to economist Wilhelm Röpke, perhaps the only economist ever compel to question my general disdain for practitioners of the dismal science, who sought to salvage the good name of his ilk from Burke’s association of them with sophisters and calculators, and whom I have discussed, briefly, on numerous occasions. I have, recently, realized that the Western Confucian already has posted extensively on the great humane economist. This being so, I shall hereunder link to the posts on Röpke and offer a selection of quotations from The Humane Economy.

The title of one of the WC’s posts suggests that Röpke might be “An Austrian Distributivist”. It’s a compelling epithet, one endorsed to me before. This great German economist occupies a particularly interesting middle ground between the Austrian School (wherewith he had some association) and Chesterton and Belloc — Röpke’s parallels with whom Dermot Quinn, in his introduction, indicates. In light of this, I should like to highlight John Médaille’s “Can Mises Be Baptized?“, wherein Médaille inveighs against Austrian Economics as being incompatible with Roman Catholicism. (I should note that, although very Catholic-like, Röpke actually was Lutheran; I and the Western Confucian, however, are both Roman Catholics.).

The Austrian Catholic right boasts names like Michael Novak, George Weigel, Thomas Woods, Murry Rothbard, to name but a few. Further, these scholars are supported by well-funded institutes such as the Acton Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, the Ethics and Public Policy Institute, the Liberty Foundation, and a host of others. Money flows like water for these people, usually corporate money, water largely used in an attempt to baptize Mises. Still, there is one scholar who was absolute in his opposition to such a notion, who declared, over and over again, the fundamental opposition between the Austrian School and any genuine understanding of Christianity.

That scholar was Ludwig von Mises.

Mises recognized that Austrian order and Catholic order would always be at odds. “A living Christianity,” said Mises, “cannot exist side by side with, and within, Capitalism” (Quoted in Jorg Guido Hulmann, Mises, the Last Knight of Liberalism, p. 982). Later in his career, Mises would allow that Christianity could exist within capitalism, but only if the Christians kept their opinions to themselves, only if they were marginalized and kept apart from the political and economic orders. As Murry Rothbard admits, Mises considered himself a “man of 1789, an heir of the Enlightenment, (http://www.lewrockwell.com/rothbard/rothbard169.html),” that is, a man of the French Revolution. And the great advantage of the French Revolution was that it destroyed the older social order in general and the social authority of the Church in particular. As Mises himself put it, “for us and for humanity there is only one salvation: return to the rationalistic liberalism of the ideas of 1789.”

Médaille might not be wholly bang on throughout the post — some of the commenters certainly suggest otherwise — but his argument is well worth considering. I admit that, deep-down, I’m much more sympathetic to Distributism than to any other school of economics (a term I usually incredibly loosely respecting Distributism); the sad impracticality of implementing it in anything but a supremely piecemeal fashion (something that we really ought to do!) makes it less enticing; Röpke offers a fine compromise.

Find here a number of posts at The Western Confucian on Röpke. Many offer a quotation or two from the eminent economist with a short commentary from WC. Having Röpke around today might help us through these catastrophic economic times far more ably than we shall under the guidance of the present-day neoliberals.

And now, a handful of quotations from A Humane Economy, perhaps the most important of which is “the precept of ethical and humane behavior, no less than of political wisdom, to adapt economic policy to man, not man to economic policy (6)”, which recalls that “humane” derives, quite evidently, from “human”.

“Individual responsibility and independence in proper balance with the community, neighborly spirit, and true civic sense — all of these presuppose that communities in which we live do not exceed the human scale. (7)” – Röpke the New Urbanist! the Anti-Federalist!

“We all know what consequences progressive concentration entails . . . . First of all, it destroys the middle class properly so called, that is, an independent class possessed of small or moderate property and income, a sense of responsibility, and those civic virtues without which a free and well-ordered society cannot, in the long run, survive” (32). – Röpke the Distributist!

“[I]t is a degradation of man and of the great mystery of creation to turn conception and birth into an indispensable means of raising the demand for motorcars, refrigerators, and television sets — a mere mathematical factor, as it were, in the production-consumption equation” (48).

“Is it not, we may modestly ask, part of the standard of living that people should feel well and happy and should not lack what Burke calls the “unbought graces of life” — nature, privacy, beauty, dignity, birds and woods and fields and flowers, repose and true leisure, as distinct from that break in the rush which is called “spare time” and has to be filled by some hectic activity?” (49)

“The modern world of concrete, gasoline, and advertising is peculiarly apt to deprive our souls of certain indispensable vitamins — Burke’s unbought graces of life again — and it does so in the name of a technological and social rationalism which has no use for anything that just happens by itself or that is not planned, that grows wild in picturesque confusion, and whose effects defy measurement” (84).

“Man simply does not live by radio, automobiles, and refrigerators alone, but by the whole unpurchasable world beyond the market and turnover figurs, the world of dignity, beauty, poetry, grace, chivalry, love, and friendship, the world of community, variety of life, freedom, and fullness of personality” (89).

Is Wilhelm Röpke not exactly the sort of decentrist traditionalist, occupying economic middle-ground, to whom paleoconservatives ought to turn? I submit that he is.

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2 Responses

  1. […] one of the most undeservedly unknown, and most prescient, thinkers of the Twentieth Century. Here, I offer a few thought on him, links to posts about him at The Western Confucian and some […]

  2. “Is Wilhelm Röpke not exactly the sort of decentrist traditionalist, occupying economic middle-ground, to whom paleoconservatives ought to turn? I submit that he is”

    Amen and Amen!

    I do not get why palecons and trads have not used Ropke they way they should to promote sound economics.

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