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More wrestling with Roepke

Wilhelm Roepke’s book A Humane Economy is intended to lay out the conditions for the existence and well-being of a free economy and indeed a free society. Those conditions are rather demanding. Here are some quotations:

The market economy, and with it social and political freedom, can thrive only as a 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 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. 98.

We need a natural nobility whose authority is, fortunately, readily accepted by all men, an elite deriving its title solely from supreme performance and peerless moral example and invested with the moral dignity of such a life…. The way to it is an exemplary and slowly maturing life of dedicated endeavor on behalf of all, unimpeachable integrity, constant restraint of our common greed, proved soundness of judgment, a spotless private life, indomitable courage in standing up for truth and law, and generally the highest example…. No free society, least of all ours, which threatens to degenerate into mass society, can subsist without such a class of censors. 131-2.

It is invaluable to have independent institutions beyond the arena of conflicts of interests—institutions possessing the authority of guardians of universal and lasting values which cannot be bought. I have in mind the judiciary, the central bank, the churches, universities, and foundations, a few newspapers and periodicals of unimpeachable integrity, an educational system which, by cultivating the universal and the classical, sets up a barrier to the teachings of utilitarianism and the specialization of knowledge, and, finally, that natural nobility of which we have already spoken. 149.

Such things do not exist now. Not only are they absent, or present in only the most fragmentary form, but they are opposed to our whole structure of intellectual, social and moral authority. What connection do they have with the inclusiveness and tolerance that are now our supreme values? With rejection of absolutes, meeting people where they are, affirmation of other ways, and meeting human needs without regard to someone’s judgment of the worthiness of the needy? Quite obviously, they are directly opposed to what today functions as our common faith. In current terms, the guy’s a Nazi. He’s a German, and he talks about censors, absolute norms, daring, the courage to grapple with life and its uncertainties, coherence with the community, a sense of the natural order of things, a sense of tradition and the succession of generations, and natural nobility. What more, if you are a man of the mainstream, do you need to see him for what he is?

That leaves the problem of what to do if we think our common faith today is an inhuman monstrosity and Roepke’s is infinitely better. It seems to me difficult simply to follow Roepke. His ideals, admirable though they are, are dependent on a particular state of society that gives them their sense and function. It seems to me that those who find themselves increasingly alienated from a social order that bears less and less resemblance to Roepke’s bourgeois society have little choice but to choose ideals that relate to ultimate realities more than social structure. Roepke’s ideals aren’t the ideals of a saint, and that seems to be what we need, even if we ourselves are not saints. They have a role to play, since organizational issues are always of some importance, but today that role is definitely secondary. We need much more.

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