Blog author: jcouretas
by on Monday, April 5, 2010

First Principles, the excellent Web-based resource from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, has posted another “classic” from its extensive archive of journal articles, this one by Wilhelm Roepke. I’m snipping a kernel from “The Economic Necessity of Freedom” (Modern Age, Summer 1959) because it so succinctly and powerfully sums up why a moral framework — and our “highest values” — are necessary for a market economy that is not only efficient, but humane. These values flow out of the “classic-Christian heritage of Europe” and are rooted, for Roepke, in an orthodox Christian anthropology.

… I came to see that socialism did not have the cure for our social ills, that indeed socialism was a heresy which aggravated these ills the more men acted on it. The economic “orthodoxy” according to which I adjudged socialism a heresy was historical liberalism, and with this liberalism I am quite willing to take my stand. What such liberalism advocates in the economic realm can be very simply stated. It holds that economic activities are not the proper sphere of any planning, enforcing, and penalizing authority; these activities are better left to the spontaneous co-operation of all individuals through a free market, unregulated prices, and open competition.

But there is more to the matter than the advocacy of a certain economic technique. As an economist, I am supposed to know something about prices, capital interests, costs, and rates of exchange, and all of them supply arguments for free enterprise; but my adherence to free enterprise goes to something deeper than mere technical grounds, and the reason for it lies in those regions where each man’s social philosophy is ultimately decided. Socialists and nonsocialists are divided by fundamentally different conceptions of life and life’s meaning. What we judge man’s position in the universe to be will in the end decide whether our highest values are realized in man or in society, and our decision for either the former or the latter will also be the watershed of our political thinking.

Thus my fundamental opposition to socialism is to an ideology that, in spite of all its “liberal” phraseology, gives too little to man, his freedom, and his personality; and too much to society. And my opposition on technical grounds is that socialism, in its enthusiasm for organization, centralization, and efficiency, is committed to means that simply are not compatible with human freedom. Because I have a very definite concept of man derived from the classic-Christian heritage of Europe in which alone the idea of liberty has anywhere appeared, because that concept makes man the image of God whom it is sinful to use as a means, and because I am convinced that each man is of unique value owning to his relationship to God but is not the god declared by the hybris of an atheistic humanism — because of these things, I look on any kind of collectivism with the utmost distrust.

And, following from these convictions along the lines of reason, experience, and the testimony of history, I arrive at the conclusion that only a free economy is in accordance with man’s freedom and with the political and social structure and the rule of law that safeguard it. Aside from such an economic system (for which I make no claims of automatically perfect functioning), I see no chance of the continued existence of man as he is envisaged in the religious and philosophical traditions of the West. For this reason, I would stand for a free economic order even if it implied material sacrifice and if socialism gave the certain prospect of material increase. It is our undeserved luck that the exact opposite is true.