Acton Institute Powerblog

Roepke was right

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

In my Winter 2007 article on economic globalization for AGAIN Magazine, I quoted economist Wilhelm Roepke. (AGAIN is published by Conciliar Media Ministries, a department of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church of North America). Roepke:

Economically ignorant moralism is as objectionable as morally callous economism. Ethics and economics are two equally difficult subjects, and while the former needs discerning and expert reason, the latter cannot do without humane values.

In light of all that has happened with the U.S. economic meltdown in the last few months, I continue to subscribe to the following statement from the same article:

… there is no real understanding of “social justice” without an understanding of basic economic principles. These principles explain how Orthodox Christians work, earn, invest, and give to philanthropic causes in a market-oriented economy. Economic questions are at the root of many of the problems that on their face seem to be more about something else — poverty, immigration, the environment, technology, politics, humanitarian assistance.

I remain a convinced believer in the market economy, which is a different thing than saying that I believe in the “free market” (a misnomer for industrialized economies that have always been subject to heavy regulation) or laissez faire economics (not a good idea and, again, a term that refers to something that doesn’t exist).

The climate of fear and panic that has been raised first by the Bush administration and now President Obama (we’re in a “crisis that could become a catastrophe” he claims) should have us all screaming not “help!” but “stop!” The alarm we raise should be about the fantastic expansion of government control — in some cases outright nationalization — over what was one of the freer markets in the world. And let’s recall that most Orthodox Christian immigrants came to this country for economic opportunity — in many cases a chance to put their entrepreneurial gifts to work in a growing and prosperous country. How much opportunity will be left once Washington gets finished with its top down central planning project? If this current crisis has taught us anything, it is the importance of economic growth and sustaining that growth in a humane way over the long haul.

So, I go back to Roepke for guidance on what’s being proposed in Washington. In particular, I turn to his 1957 book, “A Humane Economy: The Social Framework of a Free Market” (ISI, 1998). Page numbers in brackets:

On the necessity for economic liberty [104]: “Since liberty was indivisible, we could not have political and spiritual liberty without also choosing liberty in the economic field and rejecting the necessarily unfree collectivist economic order; conversely, we had to be clear in our minds that a collectivist economic order meant the destruction of political and spiritual liberty. Therefore, the economy was the front line of the defense of liberty and of all its consequences for the moral and humane pattern of our civilization.”Why business people and intellectuals need each other [115]: “If the business world loses its contact with culture and the intellectuals resentfully keep their distance from economic matters, then the two spheres become irretrievably alienated from each other. We can observe this in America in the anti-intellectualism of wide circles of businessmen and the anti-capitalism of equally wide circles of intellectuals.”

Economic models are at root moral propositions [111]: “Communism prospers more on empty souls than on empty stomachs. The free world will prevail only if it succeeds in filling the emptiness of the soul in its own manner and with its own values, but not with electric razors … What we need is to bethink ourselves quietly and soberly of truth, freedom, justice, human dignity, and respect of human life and the ultimate values.”

Wilhelm Roepke

Why inflation (one of the major pitfalls of “stimulus” plans) is so destructive [217]: “It is a reaction to extravagant and impatient claims; to a tendency toward excess in all fields and among all classes; to inconsistent and confused economic, financial, and social policies which disregard all time-tested principles; to the presumption of taking on too much at one time; to the recklessness of always drawing more bills of exchange on the economy than it can honor; to the obstinacy of always wanting to combine what cannot be combined. People always want to invest more than saving allows; they claim wages higher than those corresponding to the rise in productivity; they want to consume more than current income can pay; they want to earn more with exports than the latter can yield the economy by way of imports; and on top of all this, the government, which should know better, keeps extending its own claims on the economy’s strained resources.”

On the lack of respect for “sound” money and prudent monetary policy [19]: Erosion of property and erosion of money go together; in both cases, that which is solid, stable, firmly held, assured and meant to last is replaced by that which is brittle, precarious, fleeting, uncertain, and meant for the day. [220]: Democracy … degenerates into arbitrariness, state omnipotence, and disintegration whenever the decisions of government, as determined by universal suffrage, are not contained by the ultimate limits of natural law, firm norms, and tradition. It is not enough that these should be laid down in constitutions; they must be so firmly lodged in the hearts and minds of men that they can withstand all onslaughts. One of the most important of these norms is the inviolability of money. Today, its very foundations are shaken, and this is one of the gravest dangers signals for our society and state.”

The false hope of socialism [4]: “People may be led by Christian and humane convictions to declare themselves in sympathy with socialism and may actually believe that this is the best safeguard of man’s spiritual personality against the encroachments of power, but they fail to see that this means favoring a social and economic order which threatens to destroy their ideal of man and human freedom.

On the centralization of power in bureaucracies [236]: “The individual is getting caught in a situation of subordination and dependence in relation to centers of decisions … Intrigues, place-hunting, informing, ill will, bootlicking, envy, jealousy, and all the other poisons of close contact spread like a plague in all large organizations and companies, as experience has shown again and again. Neurotics are in a position to make life hell for hundreds and thousands of people, and … there is a more than even chance that it will be precisely neurotics who get to the top and into a dominating position, because of their own assertiveness and officiousness.”

The limits of the market [6]: ” … the market economy is not everything. It must find its place within a higher order of things which is not ruled by supply and demand, free prices, and competition.”

Avoiding the extremes of naive optimism and cynical pessimism [12]: ” … if we must guard against the optimism which does not even suspect the quicksands surrounding us, we must equally guard against the pessimism which sinks in them and, indeed, becomes a new danger and may prove itself true by its own effects on the cultural crisis. We have to beware of a historicism which dissolves everything into change and evolution, as well as of a kind of relativistic sociology which cannot but weaken our position still further. It would be a self-contradiction to fail to associate myself with the warning against the extreme danger threatening man and society today, and, to be sure, the causes of danger include some weighty ones previously unknown in history. But this is no reason to allow ourselves to be cast down by these apocalyptic visions. This is not the first time that danger has beset mankind. Nothing compels us to believe that we cannot overcome it, provided that we only hold fast to one ultimate belief: faith in man’s essentially unalterable nature, and faith in the absolute values from which human dignity derives.”

Cross posted from AOI’s Observer

John Couretas John Couretas is Director of Communications, responsible for marketing and advertising, media relations, and print and online communications at the Acton Institute. He has more than 20 years of experience in the news, events and corporate communications fields. He has worked as a staff writer on newspapers and magazines, covering business and government. John holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in the Humanities from Michigan State University and a Master of Science Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University.