An Aristotelian preference for balance and variety, a Burkean delight in the little platoons, a Chestertonian love of the local and the down-to-earth—that was Roepke.
This is all very well, you might say, but where are the economics? Actually, Roepke’s technical work on credit, monopoly, the business cycle, interest rates, inflation, employment, and the gold standard was of a very high order. He could wield graphs with the best of them. He did more than complain about Keynes: he out-argued him. To be sure, he insisted on the complexity of his subject because he understood the complexity of the world it sought to explain, parting company with his Austrian colleagues when he thought they overstated the scientific side of economics. “A very inefficient way of producing vegetables,” Mises famously remarked to him as the two men walked by some allotments after the war. Perhaps, Roepke memorably replied, “but a very efficient way of producing human happiness.”
That was his answer to economics as mere technique, as applied science. Even Madame Obama, digging for victory in the White House garden, seems to intuit the wisdom. There she is, a peasant in Prada, urging us onward to spinach Nirvana. Good for her, but even better were she and her husband to understand the point. Roepke might have helped them. The significance of that famous exchange with Mises is that Roepke was epistemologically modest, knowing that the most rational thing about rationality is that it knows its own limits. When even sensible economists forget they are dealing with human beings, we should forget them.
Posted on 15 April 2009 by The Gentleman From Indiana