“We need a combination of supreme moral sensitivity and economic knowledge. Economically ignorant moralism is as objectionable as morally callous economism.” Wilhelm Röpke, A Humane Economy
Wilhelm Röpke (1899-1966) deserves a shot at the title: “The Most Influential Economist You Never Heard Of.” A citizen of Germany and decorated veteran of World War I, he graduated with a doctorate in economics at the age of 22. By the age of 24, he was Germany’s youngest professor. From early on, Röpke opposed the trends in Germany—and in the rest of Europe—to impose protectionist policies and create welfare states. He spoke out against monopolies and the always unhealthy alliance between big business and government.
He also spoke out against the National Socialist Party (the Nazis), and, as a result, he was among a group of young German intellectuals to be ousted from their positions when the Nationalist Socialist Party came to power in 1933. After being expelled from his teaching post in Germany, he taught in Istanbul—and eventually in Geneva. During this time, his views on the strength and value of the free market held strong in the face of both a Second World War and the intellectual tidal wave in favor of welfare states and socialism.
Röpke’s Christian faith played a significant role in developing his view on the strengths and weaknesses of the free market. He believed the free market was a necessary component for social flourishing, but not the only component. Röpke developed a political and economic philosophy that required robust and local institutions, broad commitments to ethics, and a strong role for religion. A strong economy needed a national structure that protected property rights, free prices, and individual liberties, but it also required an ethical population trained by the Christian religion and held together through local institutions.
In A Humane Economy: The Social Framework of the Free Market, what most consider the most mature expression of his philosophy, he writes:
“My picture of man is fashioned by the spiritual heritage of classical and Christian tradition. I see in man the likeness of God….Thus we announce the theme which is the red thread running through this book: the vital things are those beyond supply and demand and the world of property. It is they which give meaning, dignity, and inner richness to life.” (pg. 5, emphasis mine)
With these commitments in hand, Röpke dramatically opposed the rise of socialism in Europe in the mid-twentieth century. Socialism consolidates both the economic and ethical lives of citizens into the state, thus short-circuiting and destroying “the vital things” at the center of human and economic well-being. What he often called the “mass society” had a deteriorating effect on people. He said it caused: “emotional hyperthermia, intellectual regression, and paralysis of the moral sense of responsibility. In other words, as parts of an acute mass, we are more excitable, more stupid, and more ruthless than usual” (pgs. 53-54). In another place he simply says the attractiveness of communism doesn’t come from empty stomachs, but from empty souls.
So, in the midst of many powerful economic minds in the twentieth century, why does Röpke stand as one of the most influential economists in the last 120 years? Well, after losing WWII, Germany was a wasteland in more ways than we may be able to count. Ludwig Erhard was the man who was ultimately
given the arduous task of rebuilding Germany’s desecrated, post-war economy. Due to Röpke’s disrepute in Germany, Erhard read Röpke’s works in secret. Despite Röpke’s disapproval in his home country, Erhard was heavily influenced by his ideas. Erhard later attributed the plan he implemented to rebuild Germany to Röpke. Within ten years after WWII, Germany was Europe’s leading economy.
Röpke’s economic and political philosophies are still relevant and significant for us today. In our contemporary situation, we are losing our grasp on the vital things that make life worth living and make economies work for the good of the people. The good life goes beyond our free exchange of goods and services with each other. It is wrapped up in what it means for us to be made in the image of God; we are at our best when we live in accord with this image. We are economic creatures, to be sure, but we are first and foremost people designed to live well under the gaze of God.
This article is cross-posted at Thinker Sensitive