Acton Institute Powerblog

Wilhelm Ropke for Today

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Spurred on by listening to and reading Samuel Gregg, I’ve been making my way through Wilhelm Ropke’s A Humane Economy which is really a special book.

The following passage (on p. 69) really caught my attention with regard to our current situation:

Democracy is, in the long run, compatible with freedom only on condition that all, or at least most, voters are agreed that certain supreme norms and principles of public life and economic order must remain outside the sphere of democratic decisions . . . It is this fundamental agreement which imbues the concept of inviolable law as such with an absolute content, and once it can no longer be taken for granted, we are in the presence of mass democracy of a pretotalitarian kind.

Ropke is making a very important point here. We are naturally quite comfortable with saying that certain rights are not really within the ambit of the democratic process. For example, a simple majority cannot take away my right to stand on a soapbox on a street corner and declaim on American politics. The right of free speech has our fundamental agreement, despite the fact that our mood may change from time to time. The right is firmly enshrined. But shouldn’t that same agreement hold with regard to our economic freedom? What good are our so-called civil rights if we enact a system that continues to eat up giant chunks of our economic prerogatives?

The Supreme Court, for example, has made much of how important it is that we each be able to make our own decisions about the mysteries of sex and reproduction. Are the questions of how we earn our living, how we plan for our financial future, how we choose to protect ourselves against health problems, and the ability to start a business without excessive encumbrance from the government not equally massive in their implications?

Hunter Baker Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D. is an associate professor of political science at Union University and an Affiliate Scholar in Religion & Politics at the Acton Institute. He is the author of The End of Secularism and Political Thought: A Student's Guide.


  • “The right of free speech has our fundamental agreement”

    Not so sure about this. Look at Canada and their attacks on free speech. Hate crime laws are undermining all kinds of speech. Look at campus speech codes. Look at postmodern arguments that all speech is really a guise for power relationships.

    The tide is going out on free speech. Its cultural, intellectual and legal underpinnings are all crumbling.

  • DavidW

    Wilhelm Röpke understood the importance of the Judeo-Christian value-system, the importance of Christianity for our ‘Here and Now’, for our Freedom and Economic growth perfectly well.
    While Ludwig von Mises, for all his insights and brilliant thoughts on economy, didn’t see it at all.
    The death threat for Democracy, the Rule of Law, a life in prosperity comes in the name of more freedom, more justice, a healthier environment, more ‘tolerance’: it’s secular utopianism, in red, as long as it’s fashionable, now in green, since it’s now more fashionable. ‘Sex sells’ is always part of it: they want to ‘liberate’ us.
    And of course multiculturalism is part of secular utopianism -another assault on freedom of speech and Rule of Law (just try to base human rights on sharia law, the koran, the hadith, or modern contract law).

    We desperatly need ‘enlightenment’,the real one: why is the Christian Occident so special in world history?
    (and why will ‘the West’ cease to be special as soon as Christianity is gone?)

  • Roger McKinney

    David, I really like Roepke for the most part, but his emphasis on cottage industry, small towns and agriculture was misplaced. And his business cycle theory leaved a lot to be desired. Still, he was the architect behind Germany’s “miracle” (it was a miracle only to socialists) revival after WWII and should remain in the hall of fame of all freedom loving Christians.

    Mises started out very anti-Christian, partly because he was Jewish and was familiar with the many anti-semitic pogroms in Europe and Russia, and partly because the Catholic Church was a major opponent of classical liberalism most of his life. But if you read Hulsmann’s biography of him, you’ll find that he softened a great deal after coming to the US. His best friends and financial supporters were devout Protestants. One couple took care of Mises and his wife when they no longer could care for themselves until they died. As a result, Mises became a great admirer of Barth.

  • DavidW

    Roger, thank you for the background about Mises and your remarks on Röpke. Röpke was a great inspiration for Ludwig Erhard who’s name is to be mentioned when it comes to the German economic miracle.
    The sad thing: While I think, Mises is perfectly wrong by holding the free market economy responsible for almost every good in the occident (beside of classical education), given the books and theologians he quotes on the Protestant side (eg in ‘Gemeinwesen’/ ‘On Socialism’), given the kind of Catholicism he encountered and describes (still around in some areas), I can understand him very well. It is stupidity, but a very well informed and learned one, and – sadly – a quite correctly observing one (just not seeing many other important historical facts and facets, and the difference compared with other cultures).
    And: his “Gemeinwesen”, “On Socialism” is still a very worthwhile read with brilliant observations – I would even call it a prophetic call at that time.

    …the more we have the obligation to make the role of Christianity clear as root and heart of our freedom in affluent societies: memento mori ( = remember: there is a last day in your life) is one thing, even the more important one. But if we want our children and grandchildren live in freedom and prosperity we’d better make these interweavements understood.
    Yes, Mises can still help us to grasp how the ‘economical machine’ works and can free us from some illusions. He did that for me.