The Humane Economy of Wilhelm Roepke
by Russell Kirk
Today I offer you some observations concerning Wilhelm Roepke, a principal social thinker of the 20th century—and, incidentally, the principal architect of Germany’s economic recovery at the end of the Second World War. His books are out of print in this country at present, but I plan to reprint in a series that I edit, The Library of Conservative Thought, his study The Social Crisis of Our Time, and later other books of his (they are now in print, ed.). And to my remarks on Professor Roepke, I shall add certain related reflections of my own.
Roepke was the principal champion of a humane economy: that is, an economic system suited to human nature and to a humane scale in society, as opposed to systems bent upon mass production regardless of counterproductive personal and social consequences. He was a formidable opponent of socialist and other “command” economies; also a fearless, perceptive critic of an unthinking “capitalism.” Although German by birth, during the Second World War, Roepke settled at Geneva, where he became professor of economics at the Graduate Institute of International Affairs. There he wrote Civitas Humana; The Social Crisis of Our Time;Economics of the Free Society; The Solution of the German Problem; and the essays included in the volumes Against the Tide and Welfare, Freedom, and Inflation. The title of his last book, A Humane Economy, which was published in America, was suggested by me.
A gentleman of high courage and a sincere Christian, Roepke set his face against both the Nazis and the communists. He was intellectually and physically vigorous: an accomplished skier, he always climbed back up the mountainside, rather than riding a chair-lift. Knowing that man is more than producer and consumer, Roepke detested Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism and found that most of his fellow economists perceived human existence imperfectly, being blinkered by utilitarian dogmata.
Before turning to Roepke’s arguments, I venture to offer some background of his thought during the disorderly period that followed upon the Second World War, a time during which the idea of grand-scale social planning exercised a malign power. Roepke was the most effective opponent of that Plannwirischaft.
That highly speculative division of knowledge, which our age calls “economics,” took shape in the 18th century as an instrument for attaining individual freedom, as well as increased efficiency of production. But many 20th century teachers and specialists in economics became converts to a neo-Jacobinism. (Burke defines Jacobinism as “the revolt of the enterprising talents of a nation against its property.”) Such doctrines of confidence in the omnicompetence of the state in economic concerns came to predominate in state polytechnic institutes and state universities especially. Quite as 18th century optimism, materialism, and humanitarianism were fitted by Marx into a system that might have surprised a good many of the philosophies, so 19th century utilitarian and Manchesterian con
cepts were the ancestors (perhaps with a bend sinister) of mechanistic social planning. The old Jacobins scarcely realized that their centralizing tendencies were imitative of the policies of the “old regime”; so it is not surprising that recent humanitarian and collectivistic thinkers forget their debt to Jeremy Bentham. Yet the abstractions of Bentham, reducing human beings to social atoms, are the principal source of modern designs for social alteration by flat.
At the end of the Second World War, centralizers and coercive planners were mightily influential in Western Europe and in Britain, and they were not missing in the United States. The modem nation-state enjoys effective powers of coercion previously unknown in political structures. But the increase of coercion frustrates the natural course of development; economic theory as a basis for state coercion has repeatedly proved fallible; “planning” destroys the voluntary community and tries to substitute an ineffectual master plan (as, most ruinously, in Iran under the Shah); the goals of state action should be primarily moral, not economic; and thus the whole perspective of social planners is distorted. In opposition to the dominant school of economic theory just after the Second World War, such economists as Roepke, W. A. Orton, F. A. Hayek, and a handful of others strove to restrain the economic collectivists.
Although he proved himself very competent to deal with the vast postwar economic difficulties of Germany, a major industrial country, Roepke nevertheless much preferred the social and economic patterns of Switzerland, where he lived from the triumph of Hitler until the end of his life. His model for a humane economy can be perceived by any observant traveler in Switzerland.
Professor Roepke and I once conversed about the Swiss town of Thun, at the foot of Thunersee, enormous peaks looming above the town, and the beautiful long lake stretching southward from Thun’s miniature harbor. At Thun one perceives the Swiss achievement in dealing with the problem of social tranquility – and in reconciling the old world with the new. From the railway station at Thun you cross the river, make your way through twisted streets between very old but perfectly preserved houses, and presently reach the steep hill on which stand the square-towered schloss and the old church. From the battlements of the schloss, you look down upon the remains of the city walls, the venerable rathaus, and all the immaculate prosperity of a prospering Swiss municipality. And then your eye discovers that Thun is also an industrial town of some importance, for across the railroad tracks are factories and warehouses, busy as the old town is sedate. Here is an industrialism that has not blighted the traditional life of a society. There can be few regions more pleasant for the industrial worker than Thun. Eat at a cafe frequented by workingmen, and you are surprised by the cheerfulness, cleanliness, and good appearance of the place – which serves highly satisfactory food. Zurich, Basel, Fribourg, Bern, and other places much larger than Thun also have been successful in keeping their industrial life decent – in contrast with what industrialism has done to British, let alone American, cities.
Roepke seemed to have read everything. He was familiar, for instance, with the social ideas of John Calhoun and James Fenimore Cooper, concerning which most U.S. professors of economics are densely ignorant. Wilhelm Roepke knew the insights of religion and poetry, the problems of history and morality. His book, The Social Crisis of Our Time, is at heart an analysis of the menace that Roepke called “the cult of the colossal.” Social equilibrium has been overthrown in our age, Roepke knew. Here are some moving sentences of his concerning that grim subject.
Men having to a great extent lost the use of their innate sense of proportion, thus stagger from one extreme to the other, now trying out this, now that, now following this fashionable belief, now that, responding now to this external attraction, now to the other, but listening least of all to the voice of their own heart. It is particularly characteristic of the general loss of a natural sense of direction – a loss which is jeopardizing the wisdom gained through countless centuries – that the age of immaturity, of restless experiment, of youth, has in our time become the object of the most preposterous overestimation.
Of all our afflictions, Roepke continues, the product of moral decay, of consolidation, and of the worship of bigness, the worst is proletarianization. Capitalism may have introduced the modern proletariat, but socialism enlarges that class to include nearly the whole of humanity. Our salvation, Roepke argues, lies in a third choice, something different from either ideological socialism or doctrinaire capitalism. He writes:
Socialism, collectivism, and their political and cultural appendages are, after all, only the last consequence of our yesterday; they are the last convulsions of the nineteenth century and only in them do we reach the lowest point of a century-old development along the wrong road; these are the hopeless final state toward which we drift unless we act….The new path is precisely the one that will lead us out of the dilemma of ‘capitalism’ and collectivism. It consists of the economic humanism of the ‘Third Way.’Roepke’s “third way” is not “gas and water socialism” or consumer cooperatives or a managed economy. Instead it is economic activity humanized by being related to moral and intellectual ends; humanized by being reduced to the human scale. Roepke proposes to abolish the proletariat, not by reducing everyone to proletarian status, the method of socialism, but by restoring property, function, and dignity to the mass of men.