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Wilhelm Ropke: Swiss Localist, Global Economist (Library of Modern Thinkers) Paperback – January 31, 2002
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"John Zmiraks Wilhem Röpke rises toward literature." -- National Review, November 19, 2001 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From the Back Cover
"John Zmirak provides a fresh and fair look at Wilhelm Röpke. He unearths writings that are sometimes ignored, particularly those relating to international economics, to show that Röpke's "Third Way" compromises neither freedom nor the moral sense. What emerges is a brilliant and complex thinker: a cosmopolitan liberal in the classical tradition who believed firmly in the free economy, sound money, local rights, and the old bourgeois virtues. This book should immediately become the standard treatment of this much-neglected and often-misrepresented figure in the history of ideas."--Jeffrey Tucker, Vice President, The Mises Institute "Wilhelm Röpke's life is a story of courage, integrity, and independent thinking. His ideas on the economic role of government--embracing policies to maintain competition and reduce monopoly power; independent monetary policies and fiscal conservatism; the decentralization or subsidiarity of both government and industry; and support for families and a wide range of cultural and voluntary organizations and institutions--are now echoed in political agendas. In many ways, compassionate conservatism starts here. John Zmirak's short intellectual biography is a beautifully written summary of Röpke's life, work, and legacy."--Michael Watts, Professor of Economics, Purdue University "If any person in our contemporary world is entitled to a hearing it is Wilhelm Röpke."-- The New York Times "Wilhelm Röpke exhausted himself offering--to those trapped in socialist-collectivist thought, to those unable to escape such thought, to all those involved in the constitution or glorification of the totalitarian state, to those who have comfortably excused themselves from responsibility and pangs of conscience--words of transformation, offering them once more firm ground under their feet and an inner faith in the value and blessings of freedom, justice and morality." --Ludwig Erhard, Former Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany The New York Times "The author has done an excellent job in pinpointing to what extent Wilhelm Röpke, in his most mature work, was fired by his first-hand knowledge and experience of the small-scale, directly democratic, and partially corporatistic and communitarian institutions of his Swiss environment. Röpke's twin emphasis, on the one hand on private property rights, individual liberty and self-reliance, and on the other on a social setup characterized by face-to-face networks can be regarded as an antidote against the incipient facelessness of both an atomized capitalistic mass society and a bureaucratic welfare state."-- Robert Nef, Schweizer Monatshefte "Wilhelm Röpke was really a great personality and an important figure in the history of liberal thinking. It was certainly worthwhile to publish a book on him and Zmirak has done a great job. He shows, that Röpke was not only an economist, but also a profound social philosopher. This reconciliation of technocratic economies and human values would be even more needed nowadays than at the time of Röpke. Zmirak shows better than other books on Röpke, that the Swiss social and political system was very important for Röpke's thinking, that many ideas were new only to Germans or Americans, but draw on Swiss history and Swiss experience."-- Dr. Gerhard Schwarz, Economics Editor, Neue Zürcher Zeitung " a window on the most turbulent decades of the twentieth century, seen through the eyes of Wilhelm Röpke, outstanding economist and social thinker. A tale skillfully retold by a scholar of our times in this very readable account of Röpke's life and work. A pleasure for anyone interested in the economic history of the twentieth century. Röpke's insights into the Great Depression, the errors of National Socialism and, after World War II, attempts at reconstruction and reform have the ring of truth and are of relevance to our times."-- Victoria Curzon-Price, Professor, University of Geneva
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Living in Germany at the time of the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, Ropke saw through the thin veil of the Nazi economic program, and dedicated to his principles he unleashed a devastating critique of Nazi economics. In doing so, his academic career in Germany was terminated and he was forced to leave Germany. He first moved to Turkey, and later he settled down in Switzerland where he would remain throughout the war years and the rest of his life. He would also gather much of his inspiration from his experience in Switzerland for his later writings. Ropke remained a staunch opponent of both fascism and communism, while embracing much of the criticisms leveled against "capitalism" as it was understood at the time. Ropke would reject the utilitarianism of much of the old economics/economists while substituting in its place his "third way" that embraced morality combined with the market economy.
While in Switzerland, Ropke would focus on the importance of institutions and government as it applied to economic/social life. Ropke would reject much of the centralizing forces of government in favor of the "principle of subsidiarity." He favored decentralization of power in politics and when problems arose he favored if possible for those problems to be dealt with through family, civil associations, churches, etc. to local government to regional gov. and finally the central gov. He wasn't against government interventions, but was in favor of what he called "compatible interventions" during a crisis to provide for unemployment and the very poor, but also critical of the proposed danger of interventions can bring.
Ropke opposed the monopolists both private and public and advocated for antitrust policies to breakup companies where a large concentration of accumulated capital. He accurately described the position monopolies and big government colludes at the expense of workers and consumers and how they gain from government protections to secure monopolies. He was also in favor of people owning their own homes instead of being concentrated in large cities; however he was ahead of his time in predicting the problems of urban sprawl like the long commute, pollution, etc. (he was against those kind of housing proposals that spread after the war). Ropke also had an interesting note of "sudden population booms" which can create "a generation of children that is cut off from its parents' traditions and [become] easily radicalized." Ropke was concerned about the degradation of the family by the lack of influence between generations.
As I stated before, Ropke was in favor of decentralization (like Switzerland) and against the emerging nationalism that plagued Europe during the time which he associated with "economic nationalism, impoverishment, imperialism, and war." Ropke, the author believed, would consider himself a moderate internationalist e.g. through trade, morality, etc., but he also considered the "sovereign individual" and "sovereign nation" essential to his system. He disapproved of the U.N., the European Economic Community, etc. (and probably the European Union) calling them "false internationalism" which he believed they functioned as a "veneer of economic and social harmony" and believed they would lead to a "proliferate bureaucracy" and "protectionism." More importantly he wanted Germany to emulate the Swiss model of government.
After the war, Ropke's ideas would have a considerable influence on the post-war German economy. Ludwig Erhard, who led West Germany's economic plan by 1948, was heavily influenced by Ropke's ideas. However not all of his ideas were adopted, nevertheless he did have an impact of West German development in the post-war years.
Despite my disagreements with the author (nothing to significant) this book is of considerable value. I would recommend it to other readers interested in Ropke's ideas and other reviewers hit on topics I left out. Ropke was a complex thinker who has considerable value to the modern reader and people should check out his ideas.
Röpke possessed some peculiarities in his lexicon that set in him apart from his colleagues, but his motive for such peculiarities was principled. Röpke rejected characterizing socialism as a "planned economy" since in his view a market economy is just an economy "planned" by entrepreneurs as opposed to state planners. He preferred the delineation of "market economy" to "capitalism," since what often passed for capitalism in the early twentieth century was a large interventionist welfare state in a cozy lockstep relationship with big business monopolists. This was state corporatism not capitalism. Moreover, "capitalism" was, of course, coined by its chief critic Karl Marx and while the term captures the importance of capital to the market economy, it remains rather sterile. Capitalism frequently connotes a materialistic consumerist ideology or images of big business rather than a social framework based on the market economy. Röpke would attest that mammon is not the measure of all things. In Röpke's eyes, the intangibles-that is to say faith, family and tradition-are the things that animate life and give it meaning.
Röpke recognizes the limitations of the market economy. Röpke possesses a remarkable sense of prudence and conservative sobriety in his thinking as it relates to the political economy. He rejected the idea of making economists into social engineers whether in the interests of "efficiency" or "social justice." And amongst his "Austrian" colleagues like F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, he brought economics to a more humane level, rejecting crude utilitarian logic in favor of more humane empirical reasoning to defend the market economy. Furthermore, he refrains from the market idolatry that is so common to libertarian apologists for the free-market these days. Libertarians frequently espouse an ideology that can be summed up as "everything in the market, nothing outside the market." (This, of course, turns Mussolini's mantra on its nose.) Röpke recognizes something that libertarians miss with their penchant for crude utilitarian calculations and their moral neutrality that often makes being an avowed "libertarian" indistinguishable from being a "libertine." Many libertarians content themselves writing diatribes defending the "robber barrons" of the yesteryears while praising the colossal (e.g. Wal-Mart.) In their efforts to defend any and everything related to "the private sector," they forget that the apparently sporadic interventions of the state often come at the behest of big business. Many big business capitalists content themselves with cozy public-private partnerships that translate to steady, predictable profits and a regulated environment that drowns small business competition. Big business possess a comparative advantage in that they can absorb the regulatory costs easier than their smaller competitors and perhaps influence the regulations. Röpke, however, scorns the colossal not in demagogic rhetoric, but in the rhetoric of an economist. He likewise sees "big business" as a concomitant pillar of "big government" and its regulatory state.
Underlying Röpke's humane economy is the idea that a market economy needs a prudent civil framework, widespread distribution of property, a strong entrepreneurial middle class and emphasis on parochial traditionalism. Anyway, Röpke itinerates the need for sound monetary and fiscal policy on the part of the state. He holds that the gold standard is the only real safeguard against the vicious boom-and-bust cycles of modern capitalist society. Röpke recognized that a market economy flourishes when tradition and community guard against the centralizing depredations of the state and big business. Röpke further emphasized the principle of subsidiarity, which in Europe today seems to survive only in that beautiful alpine island of parochialism-Switzerland-which itself is straddled by the colossal and cosmopolitan EU super-state as if it is ready to be consumed.
In the Humane Economy, Röpke surmised that: "The market economy, and with social and political freedom, can thrive only as part and under the protection of a bourgeois system. This implies the existence of a society in which certain fundamentals are respected and color the whole network of social relationships: individual effort and responsibility, absolute norms and values, independence based on ownership, prudence and daring, calculating and saving, responsibility for planning one's own life, proper coherence with the community, family feeling, a sense of tradition and the succession of generations combined with an open-minded view of the present and the future, proper tension between individual and community, firm moral discipline, respect for the value of money, the courage to grapple on one's own with life and its uncertainties, a sense of the natural order of things, and a firm scale of values." To answer those who might sneer at this, Röpke nimbly replies, "Whoever turns his nose up at these things... suspects them of being 'reactionary'... may in all seriousness be asked what ideals he intends to defend against Communism without having to borrow from it."
John Zmirak does a wonderful job profiling the life and work of a very brilliant man. Bravo! Röpke's ideas are remarkably original, but even so are analogous to that of conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet, Anglo-Catholic distributists like Chesterton and Belloc, and the Southern agrarians like Agar and Tate. You might check out their works as well, if Röpke interests you.