April 08, 2008

As the writers on this site manfully struggle to imagine a future for genuine conservatism in the wake of the intellectual decay that has crippled the movement, and the electoral rout which faces us no matter whoever wins, I think it’s worthwhile to point readers’ attention to a figure whose thought cuts to the heart of the modern condition, whose prescriptions offer a glimmer of hope for some kind of social and political restoration”€”albeit in the very long run.

This weekend I’m embarking on a marathon flight from Europe to Indian to take part in a fascinating conference put on by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute on the thought of Wilhelm Röpke, the subject of my first book. Other, more eminent speakers, include Allan Carlson, Edward Hadas, and Roger Scruton.

Röpkegrew up in a rural environment marked by traditional forms of community, small-scale farming and business, and intellectual freedom within a Christian framework. It was against this background that he viewed the deformations of the 20th century, and grew into one of the period’s most perceptive economists and social critics. He combined the insightful critiques of tyrannical and bureaucratic government we find among the libertarians with a deep, traditionalist attachment to Western culture and the Faith that formed it. He was one of the earliest German critics of the Nazis (apart from the far Left), and was the first professor in Germany fired by the Nazis for his ideas. He sought exile in Turkey and then Switzerland, from which he issued a flurry of articles and books critiquing in detail the moral, social, and economic catastrophe that had overtaken Germany on the one hand, and Russia on the other. Röpke’s books, banned by the Gestapo, helped form the intellectual underpinnings of the Christian Democratic movement that would emerge after the war, in the administration of Konrad Adenauer and Ludwig Erhard.

In the chaos and near-starvation of the postwar period, in occupied Germany, Röpke was a major influence on such new leaders who sought to restore a healthy economy to a devastated country and continent. The biggest obstacles to recovery were the worthless Nazi currency, and the crippling wage and price controls which the Allies had carried over from the Nazi regime. (In France and England, similar wartime controls still strangled their economies, inspiring in George Orwell his vision of economic misery in 1984“€”which came from 1948, with two of the numbers reversed!)  When the Germans selected by the Anglo-American occupiers made the decision to issue a new, reliable currency, the Deutschmark, Röpke was one of the figures who argued fiercely for also removing most of these economic controls. This was considered by “€œorthodox”€ (socialist) economists and Western occupiers a crank idea, which would lead to utter economic collapse. Röpke and his allies prevailed, and when the D-mark was issued in 1948, the German leaders exceeded their authority by eliminating most of the economic controls. The result was an explosion of productivity which came to be called the German economic “€œmiracle.”€ Soon Germany was richer than victorious, but much more socialistic, Britain.
Röpke’s concern for preserving social values such as community, family, and tradition set him apart from strict libertarians such as Hayek and Mises”€”who were nevertheless close friends of his. Because he was not so narrowly economic and modernist as they, his books helped draw in more traditionally minded, religious voters who might otherwise have rejected free-market reforms. The term “€œsocial market economy,”€ which Röpke helped popularize, helped reassure voters who feared that capitalism must lead to fascism”€”as it had in the 1920s.

Röpke offered a sophisticated set of policies which were meant to make sure that this did not happen, and that the corrosive side-effects of competition and constant economic change did not drive voters into the arms of the socialists or Communists. His policies were influenced by “€œdistributist”€ thinkers such as Chesterton and Belloc, and by the “€œsocial teaching”€ of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI. Briefly, such thinkers opposed the concentration of economic or political power in the hands of the few”€”whether it be large corporations or centralized governments. They saw that the best way to guarantee political liberty and property rights was to make as many citizens as possible into independent farmers, artisans, or businessmen. Röpke favored anti-monopoly regulations, and significant interventions into the economy to favor small businessmen and farmers, and moderate the speed of economic change. However, on these measures, Röpke was not heeded. The Adenauer administration instead followed the path to the quickest and fullest economic recovery, which meant allowing pre-war monopolies and massive corporations to revive. He bought “€œsocial peace”€ with the working class by including union representatives on corporate boards, and laying the groundwork of a welfare state. Röpke warned in his later writings that the welfare state would undermine the virtues of thrift, self-reliance, and family unity”€”as citizens looked not to themselves or their families but to the State as the guarantor of their well-being. The social upheavals of 1968, the consequent secularization of Germany and radicalization of its elites, and the plummeting birthrate, all seem to bear out Röpke’s warnings.

In my next blog, I will examine some of the contemporary applications of Röpke’s ideas, which could inspire a rebirth of some meaningful conservative movement today.


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