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A Humanist for Our Time

The story of Wilhelm Röpke's life is that of a genuine Renaissance man—though in the tradition of Erasmus rather than Machiavelli. It is the tale of a man who combined profound knowledge of several intellectual disciplines with a genuine confidence that people can indeed know the truth. But one of the strengths of John Zmirak's new intellectual biography is that it underlines the extent to which Röpke's life was also a tale of profound moral witness to truth. For his consistent willingness to make this choice for truth, Röpke paid a heavy price, including, at times, outright persecution from ideologues of the Left and the Right.

Zmirak begins his study by bringing to the fore—in a way underestimated by previous commentators—what is perhaps the most important cultural influence on Röpke's thinking: his experience of living in Switzerland from the 1930s until his death in 1966. Zmirak's portrait of Switzerland's politically decentralized, market-oriented, and yet rather traditional society provides a useful context for understanding the ideas that appear in Röpke's most important books, such as The Social Crisis of Our Time (1942) and A Humane Economy (1958).

The Anti-Collectivist in Exile

In Switzerland, Röpke discovered a multi-ethnic society that had avoided the political excesses of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Switzerland's cultivation of economic liberty was, in Röpke's view, fundamental to its success, primarily because such liberty was conducted in a culture that emphasized personal responsibility and an institutional framework that encouraged the growth of genuinely free associations. From observing this society, Röpke drew conclusions that he considered universally applicable. These conclusions led him in later life, for example, to be deeply suspicious of supranational organizations.

The perpetual contrast with Switzerland foremost in Röpke's mind was his direct experience, first, of Weimar Germany—an experiment in grafting a liberal-democratic constitution onto a highly fractured and authoritarian-inclined society—and, second, of Nazi totalitarianism. In later years, Röpke warned that the vanquishing of Nazism did not mean that the totalitarian temptation had been exorcised from the Western mind. Even prior to 1933, Röpke pointedly highlighted the eerily similar character of the Nazi and communist economic programs, as well as their mutual affirmation of a one-party state.

As Zmirak makes clear, Röpke was so accomplished that he could have risen to high office in the German academy, if he had given his blessing to the Nazi state, as did Martin Heidegger and many other German intellectuals. Born in Saxony in 1899, Röpke was quick to achieve intellectual distinction. Having attained his first degree in law and a doctorate in economics through study at the universities of Tübingen, Göttingen, and Marburg, Röpke was appointed professor at the University of Jena in 1924, making him the youngest professor in the German world. Moreover, as a decorated World War I veteran, tall with blond hair and blue eyes, Röpke epitomized the Nazis' Aryan übermensch fantasy.

Röpke refused, however, to mollify his decidedly positive views of liberal democracy and the free economy. Zmirak underscores the strength of Röpke's beliefs by highlighting the fact that, just two weeks after the Nazis' assumption of power, Röpke effectively committed career suicide by delivering a lecture at Frankfurt-am-Main in which he described National Socialism as a “mass revolt against reason, freedom, humanity and against the written and unwritten millennial rules that enable a highly differentiated human community to exist without degrading individuals into slaves of the state.” Within ten months of uttering these words, Röpke was forced into early, unpaid retirement and had to look abroad for employment.

During the following years of exile in Turkey—before he eventually settled in Switzerland—Röpke grew increasingly frustrated with the rapid spread of collectivist ideas, but he never gave up articulating his sophisticated critique of such theories. Zmirak, however, establishes a strong case for suggesting that another important aspect of these years included changes in Röpke's understanding of freedom and the liberal tradition. Zmirak illustrates that, prior to Röpke's exile, he was critical of pre-Enlightenment European thought—especially the Christian Middle Ages and its implications for freedom. At this point of his life, Röpke essentially embraced the “orthodox liberal” view of history in which figures such as Descartes, Spinoza, and Voltaire were “stars that arose to illuminate the darkness.” Zmirak poignantly observes that these words “taken alone, might have come from any skeptical thinker of the nineteenth century.”

The factors that caused Röpke to repudiate the instrumental-rationalist versions of liberalism that remained central to the thought of some of his colleagues (most notably, Ludwig von Mises) were many. Röpke's experience of the collapse of the old liberal order throughout continental Europe in the wake of the decidedly anti-Christian movements of Nazism, fascism, and communism alerted this son of a Lutheran pastor to the indispensability of Christianity's contribution to the cause of Western freedom. In an echo of Alexis de Tocqueville, Röpke began to credit Christianity for “having elevated the individual forever from a mere constituent of an immanent state into a transcendent creature of a just and merciful God.”

This is not to say that Röpke departed at any stage from his commitment to reason when it came to political and economic debate. Instead, he appears to have accepted many of the critical insights of Old Whigs such as Edmund Burke (like Röpke, a deeply religious man who had a youthful flirtation with rationalism) concerning the importance of just authority and tradition in preventing statism. Röpke was henceforth careful to underline the subtle but important distinctions between, for example, the feudal and absolute monarchies that preceded the French Revolution, and tyrannical regimes such as Jacobin France, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union.

In the Ruins of Postwar Germany

That these developments in Röpke's thinking occurred in the years preceding and during the Second World War was indeed providential. He could not have known that many of his ideas were soon to be applied in an unexpected context: the political, social, economic, and moral ruin that was Germany in 1945. Zmirak goes to some length to trace the influence of the ideas of Röpke and others such as Walter Eucken, Franz Böhm, Alfred Müller-Armack, and Alexander Rüstow (all associated with the Freiburg ordo liberal school) upon Ludwig Erhard, the man responsible for the liberalization of the postwar German economy. As Zmirak reminds us, Erhard's abolition of price, wage, and currency controls was undertaken against the advice of Keynesian economic advisers to the Allied Military Occupation authorities and the overwhelmingly socialistic inclinations of most newly emerging German political parties. Opposition to the reforms, led by the Social Democrat trade unions, continued after their implementation, and Röpke played an important role in pressing the intellectual case for economic liberalization via newspaper and journal articles.

The secret of the ordo liberal program's success may be found in the distinction that Röpke and others made between competitive market processes and the institutional framework within which free economic activity occurs. While insisting that the state should help to shape and defend the social and economic order, ordo liberals also believed that market processes should be left to competing individuals. Zmirak particularly stresses Röpke's emphasis on ensuring that the price system was allowed to function in an unimpeded way.

Although many of Röpke's arguments were expressed in terms of economic efficiency, Zmirak demonstrates that Röpke was also anxious to underline the political importance of economic freedom. He argued, for example, that the socialized ownership of industry advocated by the Social Democrats and some Christian thinkers meant that “a new Hitler would not even be compelled to go out of his way to find stupid or unscrupulous industrialists and to bamboozle them; he would only have to shout at cowering government officials managing the nationalized industries.” In this way, Röpke indirectly underlined the falsity of the assumption that governmental bureaucrats customarily act in ways that serve the common good—a supposition subsequently brought into systematic question by the economist James Buchanan in the 1970s.

A Third Way, Rightly Understood

The last sections of Zmirak's biography are devoted to exploring Röpke's idea of a “third way.” This, too, is to be welcomed, not least because of the deep ambiguity and, at times, outright intellectual incoherence currently associated with the term. Zmirak's analysis is especially helpful because it illustrates that Röpke's “third way” has little, if anything, to do with the vaguely articulated philosophy of prominent users of the term, such as Tony Blair or Gerhard Schroeder, and even less to do with the somewhat odd melange of utilitarianism, left-communitarianism, and sociology that the philosopher Anthony Giddens collates under the term.

When Röpke used the expression, “third way,” he was emphasizing the need for a free society to complement the market economy and a limited state with both a flourishing range of intermediate associations as well as a moral culture that recognized what Christians understand as the objective hierarchy of values. Concerning intermediate associations, Röpke was clearly influenced by his observation of how such organizations prevented freedom from degenerating into anarchy in politically and economically decentralized Switzerland. Regarding issues of moral culture, Röpke was deeply disturbed by what he described as Western society's “proletarianization”—that is, a growing sameness and monotony of social and cultural conditions. Interestingly, Röpke insisted that this creeping proletarianization would result in greater cravings on the part of the population to receive social services and economic security from the state. From the standpoint of the history of ideas, Röpke's “third way” reflects two distinctly Tocquevillian themes underlined in the second volume of Democracy in America: first, the importance of intermediate associations for a healthy, non-atomistic democracy; and, second, democracy's potential to degenerate into “soft despotism.”

These and other themes found throughout Röpke's work remind us of another reason that contemporary Christians who believe in authentic freedom have sound reasons for revisiting Röpke's ideas. Careful reading of Zmirak's biography illustrates that Röpke provides us with a model of how an orthodox Christian can engage with the modern world without simply aping transitory secular intellectual fashions.

There was much about modernity that Röpke celebrated. He did not, for example, maintain any romantic illusions about the conditions of material well-being that prevailed in the pre-modern world until free trade and the spread of economic freedom began to liberate man from the indignity of poverty.

At the same time, Röpke did not hesitate to underline the equally romantic delusions of Enlightenment rationalists and their modern heirs who thought that building a heaven on earth was possible. As a Christian humanist, Röpke accepted the insight of revelation, which is confirmed by right reason, that man—that is, real, existing man—is much more than homo economicus. “Above all,” Röpke wrote, “man is Homo religiosus.” From this standpoint, Röpke stressed the futility of modern man's attempt to get along without God, and maintained that atheistic and agnostic anthropologies of man were inadequate foundations for a truly free society. At the core of man's identity, Röpke stressed, is a spiritual and moral essence. This, by definition, means that man is destined for greater things than being a mere pleasure machine. In Röpke's view, this is the deeper meaning and purpose of freedom, a truth that unfortunately escapes some contemporary believers in the importance of human liberty.

In his conclusion, Zmirak remarks that it is a tragedy that Röpke died at a relatively young age in 1966. Within a few years, many Western universities were engulfed by a wave of contempt for reason and Christianity that has yet to abate. Given Röpke's past willingness to defend truth, regardless of the personal cost, Zmirak speculates that he would have provided a strong defense of the free economy against the new Left, precisely because it would have been based on the Christian humanism that is the glory of Western civilization, rather than on the ultimately unsatisfactory foundations of utilitarianism and secular liberalism. To this extent, Zmirak leaves us with an implied challenge, pointing to the need for a retrieval of Röpke's project and its application to the new world of the twenty-first century.