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Roepke on economic determinism

The University Bookman reprints a fine essay on the German centrist Wilhelm Roepke that is apropos of our recent discussions here:

In 1946, as a student in Roepke’s seminar, I was invited to his home in Champel in Geneva, a great privilege. We got to discussing the war, just over, and the immense tragedy of it, and Roepke recounted an episode in which, during the war, he has met, quite by accident, his old friend and colleague, Ludwig von Mises. He remembered von Mises saying that if only the principles of free trade had been followed from the beginning, World War II might never have happened. I don’t recall Roepke’s exact reply to this, but he was, in effect, struck dumb. And he remarked to me that it was incredible that anyone with a fair knowledge of German or of European history could reduce the German question — the darkest and most sombre question of the age, with myriad roots reaching back hundreds of years — to a mere set of economic arrangements. For Roepke, this kind of economic determinism, though employed in the defense of capitalism, is just as fallacious as the Marxian version of economic determinism, directed to the justification of the dialectic. Both are wrong in equating society and history with the economy.

So it was, too, that Roepke, a man born in 1899, hence with one foot, so to speak, in the nineteenth century, could look back on that century and, confronting the gruesome horrors of the twentieth, find a great deal to admire. In particular, he often praised the signal accomplishments of the infant capitalist economy of the early nineteenth century. But he found much to condemn in the subsequent evolution of “historic” capitalism, with its incipient tendencies toward monopolism and giantism, its obsessive materialism, its drive toward mass production and the associated erection of a mass culture based on mass consumption. He deplored the attendant shrinking of the spheres still left to individual creativity and initiative and to the “unbought graces of life,” a Burkean phrase he was fond of citing. In historic capitalism, he saw also the seeds of a later full-blown hostility to the preservation of, the small organic community, of small industry, of the peasant farmer, of a way of life made to “the measure of man.”

If Roepke himself had an obsession, it was his passionate detestation of “the cult of the colossal,” of the accoutrements of an increasingly mechanistic, quantitative, super-efficient, perfectionist, and mathematized society. He saw this cult, expanded to a culture, as the progenitor of the mass man, spiritually starved, desperately bored, and hence critically vulnerable to the new pseudo-religions of nationalism and socialism, and of their variant species, brown or red.

Do go over and browse the new Bookman website. Lots of excellent content there.

Comments (6)

I've thought about getting a bumper sticker made that said "Read Roepke Not Rand". No one would know what it meant, but it might be an interesting conversation starter.

Russell Kirk said somewhere that Roepke was the only Austrian economist that he cared much about, or something to that effect.

Thanks for linking this fine essay, Paul. (Say, we ought to get the University Bookman on the blogroll someday!)

Roepke's noble effort to humanize Austrian economics is an important legacy and not altogether incompatible with a Christian worldview. You have to be careful with Roepke, though. He was the best classical liberalism had to offer, but a liberal he was, through and through. He rejected, for example, "the pessimistic doctrine of mankind's original sin" - that rejection being the very cornerstone of liberalism. He was also a passionate Malthusian. In Chapter 2 of A Humane Economy, his rant against overpopulation and the "criminal optimism" of the non-alarmists goes on for 14 pages and might easily be confused with the delusions of Paul Ehrlich.

Interesting essay, Paul, and good information, Jeff.

It's interesting to see how many people of a particular generation believed that crushing overpopulation had been proven by science, that it was literally just a matter of fact, not open to dispute. Two perhaps rather unexpected people who believed this were C.S. Lewis and Flannery O'Connor (O'Connor being about a generation younger than Lewis and Roepke, in fact). That is not to say that either of them were Malthusians.

Lydia, I suspected that Lewis might have held such views, but Flannery O'Connor surprises me!

I should clarify what I meant by "Malthusian". Roepke conceded the barest possibility that food production and technology might keep up with population growth for decades or even hundreds of years, though he thought it highly unlikely. He was also smart enough not to make foolish, time-specific predictions. But he goes beyond Malthusianism in making what is, despite his liberalism, a surprisingly conservative argument (not that I agree with his premises):

"Suppose that everything said so far is less convincing than I believe it to be. Suppose that technology, science, inventions, and organization can really keep in step with population growth or even get ahead of it. Suppose that we can somehow cope with the problem of the exhaustion of the soil and of known raw-material resources. And suppose that there occurred nothing but the gradual transformation of the world into some sort of colossal urban complex, broken up by sparse green patches, rather like the Ruhr today. With all of these implausibly favorable assumptions, what would we get, beyond the material fact that people are reasonably well off, have enough to eat, and possibly consume a growing quantity of phonograph records and automobile tires? For how much does that count in the immeasurable non-material and therefore infinitely more important sense? In other words, what happens to man and his soul? What happens to the things that cannot be expressed in monetary terms and bought but which are the ultimate conditions of man's happiness and of the fullness and dignity of his life?

... 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 the break in the rush that is called 'spare time' and has to be filled by some hectic activity? All these are things, in fact, of which man is progressively deprived at startling speed by a mass society constantly swollen by new human floods."

As an aside, I find that many people hold anti-natalist views for similar conservative reasons. Which speaks, again, to the limits of social conservatism apart from the Faith.

Take out the population growth stuff and that could be Wendell Berry. Careful, Jeff, or people will be calling Roepke, or maybe even you, crazy.

Interestingly, people in conglomerate often self-limit their own reproduction to less than 4 or 6 or 8 kids per couple under certain social conditions (regardless of whether they have contraceptives), but how these conditions come to be and to what extent they may be a natural consequence of (for example) previous high growth rates is something almost nobody before 40 years ago ever tried to discuss and match up with a theorized rate of growth of population. For example, the rate of reproduction in Edwardian England in the upper classes was much lower than that in the middle classes, even though (obviously) the upper classes had more resources for more children. They married later, and they limited their numbers intentionally.

It has been observed in another thread that the best known method of reducing the reproduction rate is to increase education. I don't know if this is quite accurate, so I am not claiming it as solid. My point is that there are other things that drive the reproduction rate than mere resource availability or sex drive. And therefore, any prediction of running out of resources is fraught with difficulty - it is a self-referential chain of processes.

Jeff's quote from Roepke at 4:25 can be accepted apart from whether any given rate is accurate: increasing numbers reduces open space and natural beauty regardless of how long it takes to get there. But there is a claim built in to Roepke's comment that needs an argument, not a mere presupposition: does a man have some innate right to access to "the soil", birds, flowers, trees, the non-urban connection to not-man-made reality? As a conservative, my preferences would incline in Roepke's direction. But I am not sure I could put together a solid argument for the position. Cities are as old as the Egyptians, and large cities at least 3,000 years old. There have been, then, for 3,000 years, people who spent nearly all if not all of their entire lives within the walls of the city. Some people (not necessarily liberals, more like those attuned to different aesthetics than I) claim that this means that they spend their time in touch with a different part of the tapestry of nature, that part of the tapestry that focuses on man's nature, rather than saying that they are inherently out of touch with nature. If they (the citified) are surrounded by man-made things, then at the very same time they are surrounded by natural things, because (a) man made those objects out of not-man-made materials and (as Ed insists) they retain that nature even after man has formed them into a tool, and (b) it is man's nature to make, so when he does the objects are part of nature.

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