A Humane Economy

A student of the Austrian School of economics and an architect of West Germany’s economic reconstruction after World War II, Wilhelm Röpke’s intellectual project was marked by sober thinking about the moral implications of the economic order. Perhaps his best-known work, A Humane Economy (originally published in 1960 and released last fall in a new edition), is the fruit of such thinking.

Röpke begins A Humane Economy by anticipating three types of critics of his book: the collectivists, those who reduce the world to supply and demand, and those who see only what lies beyond supply and demand. Throughout the book, he systematically dismantles parts of the collectivist position, but his passion seems to be in reconciling and reforming those who hold the other two views. Later in the book, he calls for “a combination of supreme moral sensitivity and economic knowledge” and then argues that “economically ignorant moralism is as objectionable as morally callous economism.”

Röpke discusses communism and central planning at some length but expresses greater concern about “creeping” phenomena such as the welfare state and inflation. In his eyes, there is plenty of blame to go around, and his culprits will be all too familiar to friends of liberty: bureaucrats who look to expand programs, interest groups trying to better themselves at the expense of others, the apathy and ignorance of the general public about the economic and noneconomic consequences of government activism, “a hostile and economically irrational distrust of everything that goes by the name of capital or entrepreneur,” and idolatry of government (“People are still in the habit of taking refuge in official regulations whenever a new problem turns up.”)

Röpke also takes aim at those who focus merely on the practical, material benefits of free markets. In a particularly provocative point, he says that he would argue for free markets “even if it imposed upon nations some material sacrifice while socialism held out the certain promise of enhanced well-being.” For Röpke, the most important implications of the market are not so much “economic” as they are social, ethical, and religious. “What the free world has to set against communism is not the cult of the standard of living and productivity.… This would merely be borrowing communism’s own weapons. What we need is to bethink ourselves quietly and soberly of truth, freedom, justice, human dignity, and respect of human life and ultimate values.”

Röpke is rightly critical of a variety of social ills and analytical shortcomings. In addition to hard-heartedness and soft-headedness, he attacks materialism and “economism”–reducing the economy and individuals to aggregate numbers and taking quantitative and theoretical economic analysis to the point that it no longer resembles reality. In contrast, he says that the “true task of economics” is to “make the logic of things heard in the midst of passions and interests of public life, to bring to light inconvenient facts and relationships, to weigh everything and assign it its due place, to prick bubbles and expose illusions and confusions, and to counter political enthusiasm and its probable aberrations with economic reason and demagogy with truth.” He also exhorts his fellow economists to have the courage that is “indispensable for defending the dignity of truth.”

Chapter two’s discussion of “concentration” and “enmassment” is perhaps the highlight of the book, as well as its greatest weakness. Given the limits of this review, allow me to focus on the flaws. For instance, it is admirable that Röpke focuses on the often-overlooked problems with technological advance and improved living standards, but he emphasizes them too much–arguing that these will almost necessarily result in less solitude, more limited ability, or a desire to invest in things of larger significance, and so on. Perhaps being more of a slave to obtaining enough food to survive results in a more contemplative life, but access to higher standards of living and more leisure would seem to offer greater opportunities of which some or many will take advantage.

In a similar way, he argues that when “men are uprooted and taken out of the close-woven social texture in which they were secure … true communities are broken up.” Although true, it overlooks the crucial point that people can become “too” secure–too unwilling to risk and too unable to empathize–in provincial settings. He expresses overblown concerns about overpopulation; he glorifies farm life; he does not draw a clear distinction between reverencing and idolizing nature; and he even contradicts himself, appealing dramatically to European (mass) culture and tradition. In sum, this chapter ends up reading like a combination of a brilliant discussion of the noneconomic implications of economic progress and a conservative rant about social ills.

Readers should also note that the book was crafted in a context somewhat different than our own. This allows for a perspective often lost to more contemporary observers. For example, it is Röpke’s observations about the “moral defeat” of communism in light of Hungary’s resistance that allows him to prophesy the literal defeat of communism with tremendous confidence. Likewise, his worries about chronic inflation turn out to have been well-placed, given that we now take modest inflation for granted.

At times, however, the flaws of his analysis are revealed by the test of time; for example, he criticizes mass production for resulting in a disproportionate number of products with mass appeal. While that is still true to some extent, today’s economy also features remarkable diversity as producers try to reach consumers in their particular niches. Likewise, his prophecies about the inability of the economy to shoulder the burden of an even-larger government and the limits of advertising in reaching a supposedly blasé audience are significantly overstated.

There are a host of other issues that deserve minor quibbles, but, in all, Röpke’s book stands the test of time. (Among other strengths, I would note chapter four’s detailed discussion of the components of inflation and its serious short-term and long-term problems.) It remains a compelling, well-written exposition of the practical and ethical advantages of free markets. As such, defenders of liberty should make room for it on their bookshelves.