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Late modernity and humane economies

I’ve been reading the first couple of chapters of Wilhelm Roepke’s A Humane Economy, and they call up mixed feelings.

The book is generally a good one. It’s an attempt to place free-market economics in a civilizational setting. That setting is classical bourgeois society, especially as it existed in European villages and small towns before 1914. The author is in effect a distributist: he believes in roots, localism, and widely dispersed property. On the whole he’s liberal as to economic self-organization but conservative on ultimate matters. In particular, he believes in “natural law, tradition, corps intermediataires, federalism, and other defenses against the flood of modern mass democracy.” 8.

His big bugaboo is the trend toward mass society, the “shift of the center of gravity toward the collectivity and away from the individual, at rest within himself and holding his own as an integral personality.” 52. That trend is altogether consistent with current understandings of individualism. “Mass man is individualistic … Enmassment … detaches the individual from his natural social fabric and leaves him to his own resoruces. Conversely … individualism … became one of the most corrosive of spiritual acids, dissolving the organic structure of society and thereby contributing to the formation of mass society.” 70-71.

All of which is well and good. He makes many penetrating observations on modern tendencies, and I agree with most of what he has to say. What bothers me though is that what he says is so utterly irrelevant to political life as it now exists. It mostly seems useful as a reminder of what we have lost. The back dust jacket gives a blurb from the New York Times: “If any person in our contemporary world is entitled to a hearing it is Wilhelm Roepke.” I don’t know when that statement appeared in the Times but today it would be utterly unthinkable.

The whole book is, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, an attack on freedom, inclusiveness and tolerance as now understood, which depend on understandings of human life and social organization he rejects but are now considered to define moral legitimacy and rationality. By current standards he is a raving theocrat: “Cardinal Manning’s statement that ‘all human differences are ultimately religious ones’ goes to the core of the matter … Above all, man is homo religiosus, and yet we have, for the past century, made the desperate attempt to get along without God … no one who is at all honest with himself can fail to be struck by the shocking dechristianization and secularization of our culture.” 4, 8-9. He is also a total racist: he protests explicitly against the replacement of “ethnocentrism” by “ethnofugal” tendencies, 73, and treats a UN official’s statement in favor of racial intermarriage as beneath the need for refutation. 64. His constant talk of the need for “roots” and the like is patently a denial of the supremacy of individual choice and a call for keeping people in their place.

No respectable conservative would say anything of the kind today. What that means, since Roepke is in fact a terminally moderate man, is that no respectable conservative today has much to say that’s helpful in conserving anything worthwhile. Current understandings of freedom, inclusiveness and tolerance make civilized life impossible, and what now passes for the Right refuses to engage those understandings in any principled way but just complains about excesses and makes jokes.



Great to see you’re reading the book. I found Ropke a funny case—amazingly boring (in a long-winded old Swiss prof kind of way) as a writer, but amazingly simpatico in terms of what he was saying. I think of all the economists I’ve read, I find his view of things the most congenial. He to relate to the beast-that-generates-wealth that is the free market? What if the operations of the free market tend to erode the society that makes a free market possible? These are important questions, god knows. I’m not 100% sure all of Ropke’s preferred policies would translate well to this country, but what the heck.

I’m hoping you’ll share some more reactions and thoughts about it. Nudge, nudge, of course.

Zmirak’s piece on Roepke and immigration is quite good. I haven’t read the other two but will. I’ll say more on Roepke later.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

You might enjoy these bio/discussions of Ropke:

I confess that I found them a little more lively than Ropke himself…

Oh, and a good John Zmirak article about him: