The Virtues of the Market: Wilhelm Röpke as a Cultural Economist

Patricia Commun / Stefan Kolev (eds.): Wilhelm Röpke (1899-1966). A Liberal Political Economist and Conservative Social Philosopher, Springer, Cham 2018, 272 pages, 123 Euro.

by Erwin Dekker

Neo-liberalism is often associated with an excessive focus on the market at the expense of both the state and society. This new book, which is the outcome of a conference held to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Röpke’s death, demonstrates that precisely this imbalance was one of the main worries of many ordoliberals, and in particular of Wilhelm Röpke.

Röpke who was born in 1899, started out as many economists of his day, as a theorist of the business cycle. But more than some of his liberal friends he was convinced that a crisis as severe as the Great Depression required the state to support the natural correction process, as three chapters in the volume demonstrate, in particular the one by Lachezar Grudev. But while in exile in Istanbul, on the run from the Nazi regime of which he was an early critic, he and his friend Alexander Rüstow started to theorize the far deeper crisis in society and Western culture of the 1930’s. The problem was not economic, it was far deeper, and it touched the organization of the state, the fabric of society and ultimately liberal and humanist culture.

It is here that Röpke’s great relevance lies for today, and to which most of the book is dedicated. It is clear that many of the current discontents of our day are not simply economic, but extend to social issues (immigration and free speech) as well as the state (the future of the EU and the rise of populism on the left and right). The problem is not merely the stability of our financial system or the global economy more broadly, but what in this illuminating book is called ‘the metastability’ of our society and culture. Röpke’s work from the 1940’s onwards is an attempt to provide a unified analysis of the crisis of his times, among other things by figuring out the way in which culture, society, market and state relate to one another. It is a task too big for any one man as the volume implicitly illustrates, but the strength of Röpke’s work is precisely to be found in this integrative approach. It seems that none of the nineteen contributors to this book agrees wholeheartedly with his analysis or suggested cures, but it is the questions he raises, and the challenges he presents that make him relevant.

This is best illustrated in the chapter by Nils Goldschmidt and Julian Dörr who make very clear that they disagree at quite fundamental points with Röpke, but they also make clear why this disagreement can be so fruitful. More than other economists Röpke was willing to engage fully with the cultural dimension (and the religious dimension about which this book is curiously silent) of liberalism and markets. This meant that he was skeptical that liberal institutions had much of a chance in the absence of bourgeois and Christian culture. An unpopular point to make also in his day and age, and one that did not sit easily with his liberal universalism, but a point hard to ignore after Western attempts to spread democracy and markets which have invariably run into serious trouble.

This primacy of the cultural is also evident in Röpke’s view of the market. What he liked most about the market economy was, surprisingly, not its material effects but instead the bourgeois ethic that was intimately tied up with it, as Alan Kahan shows in his wonderful chapter on Jacob Burckhardt and Röpke. It is the ethic of personal responsibility, of thrift and prudence, of self-discipline supported by the small business family capitalism. This, however, was not the capitalism of the twentieth century with its major hierarchical firms, the technological advancement and its culture of consumerism. This modern form did not allow for the continuum between private and public virtues which Röpke sought. Instead, as his close associate Hayek later would theorize, modern man lives very much in two different worlds: the small world of the family and the open society of the market and politics.

Many of Röpke’s neoliberal friends when given the choice gave prominence to the ethics of the open society: tolerance, competition and rationalism. Röpke, on the other hand, sought to protect the ethics of the small closed world. This makes him an interesting critic of his times with a sharp eye for the corrupting influence of mass movements and for the importance of civil society. With sympathies for both (European) political integration and a high degree of federalism. It makes him an original critic of monopolies: they are bad not only because they harm consumers, but also because they represent an unhealthy degree of concentration in the economy, with harmful social and cultural effects. He favored the small firm, exemplified by the independent farmer and artisan. It was an economic structure which he found in Switzerland, where he lived the latter half of his life, from 1937 to his passing in 1966.

Although the book contains little explicit engagement with contemporary issues, it is not hard to realize that this challenge too is still with us: local, regional and national identities have proven incredibly resistant to the homogenizing forces of markets, and often a powerful opponent of them. Current anti-globalist and anti-EU sentiments stem to a considerable extent from the fact that global markets are believed to endanger these identities. This book demonstrates that Röpke’s work is full of attempts to work out these tensions, without making a simple choice in favor of one of them. Both the local identities and markets are ‘cooperative practices’ as Henrique Schneider’s contribution points out. How to best combine these partly rival cooperative practices is a question that breathes life into Röpke’s work, just like this volume breathes life back into his oeuvre. Not because the book manages to resolve the tensions, but because it takes them seriously.

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