Saturday, July 22, 2017

Why I'm Interested in Wilhelm Röpke

I recently bought a copy of Wilhelm Röpke's A Humane Economy as well as a biography of him. Röpke (1899-1966) was a Swiss economist who inspired the German economic miracle under Konrad Adenauer's Christian Democrats and, so far as I can tell, held firmly to two ideas: (a) The economy must be a moral place which cares for all of society. (b) Individuals and private institutions, not the state, should be the primary actors in the economic sphere. With regard to the latter point, he bears much resemblance to Ludwig von Mises and the Austrian school of economics, which staunchly supports the free market against an overly regulatory state. But unlike Mises or F. A. Hayek - to say nothing of Ayn Rand, the high priestess of libertarianism - Röpke explicitly emphasized the social and moral role of the economy.

The demands of social justice are clearly written in the Gospels and across both the Old and New Testaments. The appeal of this part of Röpke's thinking to me is obvious. But I am also attracted to the small, individual, private vision as well, for at least three reasons I can identify:

(1) As someone coming from a conservative, formerly GOP background, I have some deep-seated suspicions of government. Some of these are irrational. Many I have abandoned over the years. But some remain, with good reason, I think. We have seen in other arenas - such as same sex marriage or the never ending war in Afghanistan - the pernicious effects of a government that may have too much power for its own good.

(2) I would not characterize America's welfare state as a failure. There are many good programs accomplishing a great deal of good in our society. And yet, deep problems remain. I think it is worthwhile to at least ask if there might be alternatives to simply creating another program. This is particularly so in the US, which has a deep tradition of volunteerism and individual initiative. Large government-directed social programs may make sense in other countries, but I think Americans instinctively want to do these things themselves.

(3) Being moral agents and caring for our neighbors are fundamentally individual responsibilities. There are many legitimate roles for the government, but there is a cheapening of our dignity if, at every turn, we simply pass our moral obligations on to distant bureaucrats. Encountering the poor and the weak, the stranger and the outcast for ourselves is an experience - and a duty - which no program, however well-meaning or effective, can accomplish.

So I'm excited to read more abut Röpke and his ideas. If I find the time both to make headway on my new reading and to type up some additional thoughts here, I look forward to sharing my new discoveries.

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