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August 28, 2008

Ropke Linkage

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

An underknown giant in economic thought -- or so it seems to me -- is the German "ordoliberal" Wilhelm Ropke ). An advocate of the free market, Ropke nonetheless spent much of his career gnawing over the question: "What if the activities of the free market undermine the social conditions that the existence of a free market depends on?"

Many who argue that a society isn't just a marketplace turn out to be either boring ol' leftists or boring ol' rightists, of course. Considerably Crunchy (localism, federalism, respect for small farms and businesses) yet much preoccupied with the basics (soundness of currency, noninterference, ease of trading), Ropke seems to me to offer a refreshing alternative to the two-teams-and-only-two-teams shootout that we're used to (dogmatic "freemarketers" vs. top-down, dial-twisting Keynesians). He was anything but a True Believer, disliking Socialism and statist capitalism equally. "Good man!", sez I.

There aren't many Ropke resources on the web at this point -- the fate, perhaps, of those who don't play along with the usual version of the usual story. But some of them are awfully good.

* John Zmirak's short intro to Ropke makes a punchy and likable starting point. Zmirak's longer essay introduces some depth and complexity into the picture.

* Zmirak's book-length intro to Ropke is a clear and fast read. (John Attarian writes a very informative review of the book here.) Zmirak himself is a very interesting guy in his own right, provided that your tolerance for being-interested-in- and-amused-by Catholicism is pretty high. He makes regular appearances at Taki's magazine.

* Shawn Ritenour's article-length biography of Ropke fills in much of the personal story.

* Note where these links lead: Vdare ... The Mises Institute ... Weird, isn't it, the way that someone as Small-Is-Beautiful and Crunchy -- someone as downright liberal -- as Ropke has these days become the property of what's currently thought of as the fringe Right? How to explain this?

* Alan Carlson's brainy and handy-dandy intro includes this concise passage:

Röpke once declared: "It is the precept of ethical and humane behaviour, no less than of political wisdom, to adapt economic policy to man, not man to economic policy." He was a fierce foe of both state socialism and uncontrolled capitalism. He advocated a market-friendly but socially responsible free enterprise economy based on widespread ownership of property and economic enterprises.

Fun to see Carlson making a connection between Ropke and the New Urbanism.

* Ropke may be one of those cases where you're better-off sticking with the secondary material. Though a magnificent thinker -- and nothing if not clear in his presentation of his perceptions, ideas, and arguments -- Ropke was a sadly boring writer, ponderous-old-Swiss-professor division. His "A Humane Society," "The German Question," and "The Economics of a Free Society" are great books, but if you're like superficial me and like prose that has some tang, zip, and spin in it, you may spend a lot of time in a strange state: fighting sleep even while your brain opens. If you're interested in the gist of his thought, Zmirak, Ritenour, and Carlson do excellent and balanced jobs of presenting it. Let it be said: In the case of Ropke, there's no real need for anyone but but specialists, scholars, and geeks to go to the source.

Very curious to hear how anyone else responds to Ropke.



UPDATE: I should have linked to Jim Kalb's thoughtful and smart reaction to Ropke's "A Humane Society" too. Read it here. Fab passage:

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.

Here's some more Jim on Ropke. Pre-order a copy of Jim's new book here or here.

posted by Michael at August 28, 2008


MB wrote:

"Fun to see Carlson making a connection between Ropke and the New [Sub-]Urbanism." (Insert is mine -- BH.)

Allan Carlson wrote:

Writing in The Social Crisis of Our Time (1942), he called for nothing less than the "drastic decentralisation of cities and industries, [and] the restoration of some more 'natural order'." He labelled the modern big city a "monstrous abnormality", a "pathological degeneracy" that devitalised human existence, adding: "The pulling down of this product of modern civilisation is one of the most important aims of social reform."

Benjamin Hemric writes:

Fun indeed!

As far as I know, I've never heard of Ropke before, and it's always useful to know more about the intellectual landscape. At least I now have a short cut to how his philosophy relates to cities and, perhaps, to New [Sub-]Urbanism.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on August 28, 2008 1:24 PM

"...disliking socialism and statist capitalism equally."

If that's true (leaving aside what statist capitalism is, I assume it's socialism riding on capitalism's back), if Ropke dislikes watered down capitalism as much as he dislikes socialism, he doesn't have my respect.

Socialism is theft. Take away all the high sounding phrases about social justice and you're left with theft: expropriating the expropriators, as socialists put it. Which means what? Taking from the makers. And who are the makers? Capitalists. Those who have made something from nothing and made it pay. A very difficult thing to do. A thing that takes endless effort.

Hey, I'm as lazy as the next guy. Given my drothers I too would live off the efforts of others. That's why socialism appeals to so many. Who wants to work when they can steal, legally?

But to equate the two? Even the thief knows he's a thief. If Ropke doesn't see the difference....

Posted by: ricpic on August 28, 2008 2:20 PM

Weird, isn't it, the way that someone as Small-Is-Beautiful and Crunchy -- someone as downright liberal -- as Ropke has these days become the property of what's currently thought of as the fringe Right? How to explain this?

It seems to me you answer the question:

Ropke nonetheless spent much of his career gnawing over the question: "What if the activities of the free market undermine the social conditions that the existence of a free market depends on?"

So he thought that freedom has social conditions that aren't the same as freedom itself. In other words, freedom can't be the highest standard. I have a blog post that touches on the consequences:

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.

[The page cites are to A Humane Economy.]

I go on in the same vein here.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on August 28, 2008 2:45 PM

Michael, please put the umlaut on Röpke - it looks wrong without it. Röpke's an interesting guy, isn't he? Weirdly, I know him mostly from his 1950s journalism, which I read back in graduate school, without really knowing who he was. His take on European integration was pretty much what you'd expect from him - heavy on subsidiarity - but seems curiously time-bound: for example, he assumed the European colonial empires would continue to exist. I haven't read his major, but might be a good idea, eh?

He sounds a bit like another favourite of mine, Schumpeter, a free-marketer who believed that capitalism would sow the seeds of its own destruction, but not in a good way.

Posted by: intellectual pariah on August 28, 2008 2:45 PM

A very thoughtful man. Humans are not commodities, as I think sometimes libertarians forget. And populations matter: look at Singapore and Hong Kong. Different economic paths to prosperity, high average cognitive functions all.

This is a good article about Rawls and libertarians:

Posted by: jonathanjones02 on August 28, 2008 3:16 PM

Reading Allan Carson's summary, he certainly sounds like a moderate American Democrat of the Clinton stripe, with his emphasis on family and community networks, home ownership, a modest public support system providing a floor of financial support in old age, and a moderate level of government regulation designed to preserve marketplace competition.

Nothing I would disagree with there.

Posted by: Steve on August 28, 2008 3:47 PM

I recently read Ropke's A Humane Economy, and sadly, I have to agree with Michael. It's a piece of economic and social genius, but for a non-economist like myself, it's still the "dismal science." Nevertheless, his opening critique of mass society was excellent. For elucidation of Ropke's other beliefs, I have relied heavily on Carlson's interpretation of Ropke (particularly, Ropke's thoughts on the family and his strong support for small diversified farming) and Zmirak's book, both of which I enthusiasticaly approve.

Posted by: Orthodox Agrari on August 28, 2008 4:13 PM

Benjamin -- I think you might find some similarities between Ropke's thought and Jane Jacobs' ...

Ricpic -- "Statist capitalism" was (for Ropke) the collusion between big government and big business. He didn't like it.

Jim -- Thanks for reminding me. I've put links to your postings in the body of the posting.

IP -- It's funny how we run across artists and thinkers who turn out to mean a lot to us, isn't it? It's occasionally via schools, but often not. Apologies for the umlaut-lack -- no idea how to do umlauts in HTML. Can anyone coach me here?

Jonathan -- Nicely put, and thanks for the link.

Steve -- I liked the Clinton team's rhetoric too.

O.A. -- Good to see you dropping by, I like your blog a lot. Economics always will be dismal, there's no getting around that.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 28, 2008 4:15 PM

It's as if the ethical underpinnings of a free society constitute its own Tragedy of the Commons. Economics cannot provide the basis for the ethical foundation of civil society; homo economicus will annihilate that foundation as surely as homo collectivus. Libertarianism eats itself alive if it is not grounded in something other than libertarianism. But what then is the source of that foundation? I'll definitely be checking WR out, though through his interpreters (thanks for the heads up on that, Michael).

Sigh. I used to be such a fanatical libertarian. I was even a libertarian anarchist in my youth. But now that I have ceased to be a child, I have put away childish things...

Now what the hell do I do?

Posted by: PatrickH on August 28, 2008 7:28 PM

MB wrote:

I think you might find some similarities between Ropke's thought and Jane Jacobs' . . .

Benjamin writes:

Yes, even with the little I've read so far, I see "some" similarities -- but also VERY major differences. By way of illustration . . . one might also correctly say that there are some similarities between Jane Jacobs and Lewis Mumford and the other orthodox urban planners that she roundly attacks in "Death and Life . . . " -- but, then again, there were also VERY major differences too. (By the way, Mumford and the other orthodox planners she attacks were also "decentrists" but generally speaking of a more socialist bent.) I don't have my copy of "Death and Life . . ." handy, but when I read what little I did about Ropke, Jacobs' attacks on anti-urban Mumford, the Garden Cities movement and other orthodox planners came to mind.

I think one can see the DIS-similarities much more clearly, however, in Jane Jacobs' later works (especially those of them which focus more specifically on economics): "The Economy of Cities," "The Question of Separatism," "Cities and the Wealth of Nations," "Systems of Survival," "The Nature of Economies," and "Dark Age Ahead." If I remember correctly, some of these almost seem to be written with Ropke (or someone like him) in mind as a target.

- - - - - - - - -

Patrick H wrote:

Economics cannot provide the basis for the ethical foundation of civil society . . .

Benjamin writes:

I don't know if Jacobs' "Systems of Survival" will address all your concerns, but it is a truly fascinating examination of how our two (yes, "two") ethical systems (the Guardian Moral Syndrome and the Commercial Moral Syndrome) are based on the two (yes, "two") ways that humans "make a living." It's also relatively short and most of the time very entertaining to read.

Since I get the impression from some previous comments of yours that you haven't read much of Jacobs and have mixed feelings about her, I heartily suggest two books: the above mentioned, "Systems of Survival" (written first) and the "Nature of Economies." Although I read Jacobs' "Economy of Cities" (1969) many years before her "Nature of Economies," (2000?), I wonder if her later book isn't a great, relatively short introduction to her much earlier book. As usual, both are fascinating and entertaining to read, in addition to being very thought provoking.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on August 28, 2008 9:45 PM

PatrickH, there's always the Rotary club.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on August 28, 2008 9:46 PM

Benjamin, you are right that I have not read Jacobs enough to have any real understanding of her ideas. I would say that rather than that I have misgivings about her work. Oddly (or not, really) the book of hers I read with the greatest attention was about Canada, in particular the question of Quebec separatism. I remember her saying that she wished the people of Quebec well, but "they're just not my people, that's all." English Canadians were her (adopted) people, and it was their interests that she wrote to defend. Ironic that it took an American to say out loud that English Canada was worthy of patriotic feeling. I will never forget the feeling of sheer love I felt for her when I read that, and the shame I felt that English Canada lacked leaders with the courage to say it so clearly. You Yanks have always been better at that stuff. So I shall take you up on the pointers, Benjamin and thank you again.

Oh, it is interesting how you focus your disagreement with Michael on the question of cities. Michael often cites thinkers who really defend a localist, rural or suburban (Garden City) ideal, when the issue is cities, cities, cities. They're my love, I intend to live the rest of my life in cities and die in one. So JJ it is.

Charlton...the Rotary Club? Do you think I could actually handle them? They have this rep, man. I dunno...I'll think I'll stick to my lesbitious boho downtown death bunnies, tat queens and pinko prevert crypto-nazi block parent associations. They are odd, but at least they're not cannibals.

Posted by: PatrickH on August 28, 2008 10:30 PM

In the olden days, the HMTL for Röpke was "Röpke". I don't know if your blog software will let you insert it into the code, but if you can, it will work.

Posted by: intellectual pariah on August 29, 2008 5:55 PM

What I mean is, if you type "Röpke" into your code, it will came out Röpke - as it did in my last comment.

Posted by: intellectual pariah on August 29, 2008 5:59 PM

And here I was thinking that you were just postmodernly ultra-hipsterly messing with my mind there, intellectual pariah. That was one serious "huh? the 'fuh? wait? what?" comment. Thanks for the follow-up. I can sleep tonight.

Posted by: PatrickH on August 29, 2008 7:02 PM

I try to dial back my postmodern ultra-hipsterliness whenever I'm slumming in the comboxes. Don't like to make you poor schlubs feel to bad about yourselves.

Posted by: Intellectual Pariah on August 30, 2008 1:39 AM

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