Posts tagged with: Wilhelm Röpke

Online today at The American Spectator is an article from Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg. The article highlights the forethought of German economist Wilhelm Röpke, who predicted Europe’s present economic downturn in the middle of the twentieth century. Röpke, Gregg says, was a “euroskeptic” before the term existed. Excerpt here:

Where Röpke proved correct was in envisaging that efforts to impose European political integration from the top-down would go hand-in-hand with attempts to replicate large welfare systems and extensive regulation across Europe. What’s now called “Social Europe,” Röpke maintained, was integral to the same dirigiste and rationalist mindset that viewed extensive planning by political-bureaucratic elites as infinitely superior to the workings of Adam Smith’s invisible hand within a legal framework of clear rules and limited government.

Röpke died in February 1966, decades before the present crisis that’s created a bleak economic future for an entire generation of young Europeans and turned the phrase “Greece” into a byword for dysfunctionality. Like many prophets, Röpke’s predictions about the long-term effects of choices made by European leaders in the 1950s and 1960s were mocked in his own time. But in the unlikely event of Europe’s political masters escaping the echo chamber that tells them that salvation can only be found in ever-greater centralization, those whose knowledge of history extends beyond the last 24 hour news cycle might be honest enough to admit that Röpke was right.

And the PIIGS might fly.

Entire article here.

[Thanks to RealClearWorld,, NewsBusters and for linking to this commentary.] Over at the American Spectator, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg points to Europe’s “perceptible inability” to acknowledge some of the deeper dynamics driving its financial crisis. And these are primarily a “slow-motion population implosion” complicated by the exodus of young European Union citizens and the return of hundreds of thousands of immigrants to their homes in developing nations. That is an ominous development for a region where the dependency rate — the ratio of retirees per member of the labor force — has ratcheted up as the welfare state has ballooned over several decades.


These facts have made some Europeans willing to ponder the necessity of labor-market and welfare reform, not least because those countries that have weathered the crisis better than others (e.g., Germany and Sweden) actually implemented such changes in the 2000s. Getting Europeans to talk publicly about the continent’s population-trends and their economic consequences, however, is a different matter.

Why? One reason is that many Europeans have long been in thrall to the over-population gospel. Long before Paul Erhlich’s The Population Bomb (1968) — whose doomsday future-scenarios of a world devastated by famines, mass disease, and social unrest unleashed by overpopulation never materialized — numerous European economists had bought into this thesis.

In 1798, the Anglican vicar and one of the first modern economists, Thomas Malthus, published his Essay on the Principle of Population. This argued that growing populations would produce an increasing labor-supply. The result, Malthus insisted, would be lower wages and therefore mass poverty. “The power of population,” he claimed, “is so superior to the power of the Earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.” Another English philosopher-economist, John Stuart Mill, was so convinced by Malthusian arguments that he actually spent time in London parks distributing birth-control pamphlets to bemused onlookers.

Read Samuel Gregg’s “Europe in Demographic Denial” on the American Spectator.

A practical man?

On the American Spectator, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg examines the baleful influence exerted on economic thought and public policy for decades by John Maynard Keynes. Gregg observes that “despite his iconoclastic reputation, Keynes was a quintessentially establishment man.” This was in contrast to free-market critics of Keynes such as Friedrich Hayek and Wilhelm Röpke who generally speaking “exerted influence primarily from the ‘outside’: not least through their writings capturing the imagination of decidedly non-establishment politicians such as Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and West Germany’s Ludwig Erhard.” Perhaps not so surprisingly, many of Keynes’ most prominent devotees are also “insider” types:

The story of Keynes’s rise as the scholar shaping economic policy from “within” is more, however, than just the tale of one man’s meteoric career. It also heralded the surge of an army of activist-intellectuals into the ranks of governments before, during, and after World War II. The revolution in economics pioneered by Keynes effectively accompanied and rationalized an upheaval in the composition and activities of governments.

From this standpoint, it’s not hard to understand why New Dealers such as John Kenneth Galbraith were so giddy when they first read Keynes’s General Theory. Confident that Keynes and his followers had given them the conceptual tools to “run” the economy, scholars like Galbraith increasingly spent their careers shifting between tenured university posts, government advisory boards, international financial institutions, and political appointments — without, of course, spending any time whatsoever in the private sector.

In short, Keynes helped make possible the Jeffrey Sachs, Robert Reichs, Joseph Stiglitz’s, and Timothy Geithners of this world. Moreover, features of post-Keynesian economics — especially a penchant for econometrics and building abstract models that borders on physics-envy — fueled hopes that an expert-guided state could direct economic life without necessarily embracing socialism. A type of nexus consequently developed between postwar economists seeking influence (and jobs), and governments wanting studies that conferred scientific authority upon interventionist policies.

Read Samuel Gregg’s “The Madness of Lord Keynes” on the American Spectator.

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Friday, October 29, 2010

As America and Europe continue to wrestle with the question of how best to address their respective economic crises, many are looking back to the lessons of history and how they might be applicable to today. Scholars, public intellectuals, and policy analysts are paying particular attention to the economic debates of the 1930s, during which much intellectual wrestling — not all of it pretty — occurred over the causes of the Great Depression and how to best alleviate its destructive effects. Not surprisingly, the writings of John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich von Hayek are among the most heavily referenced by contemporary figures.

Another scholar who wrote extensively on the causes of, and possible solutions to, protected recessions was the German economist Wilhelm Röpke. His thinking was shaped not only by his lengthy formal studies of business cycles, but also the fact that he was extensively consulted by German governments in the late 1920s and early 1930s as the Weimar Republic struggled to stave off political and economic disaster amidst the collapse of banks and skyrocketing unemployment that fed the extremes of left and right. These consultations came to an end in 1933 after the fiercely anti-Nazi (and anti-Communist) Röpke became of the first academics to be purged from the universities by the new National Socialist government.

In his 2010 book, Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy (described by one reviewer in Economic Affairs as “the most comprehensive in its analysis of this important thinker’s political economy” and another reviewer in The American Spectator as “mandatory reading for every student of political economy”) Acton’s Research Director Samuel Gregg included an analysis of Röpke’s thinking about business cycles and recessions as the world remained stuck in an economic quagmire throughout the 1930s. Gregg compares Röpke’s position to that of Hayek and Keynes, illustrating how Röpke moved ever closer to Hayek’s analysis and prescriptions and ever more skeptical (and outspokenly so) of Keynes’s views.

Those interested in this subject, but who also wonder what Röpke might have thought of our current economic predicaments might be interested in an address delivered by Dr. Gregg in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in March 2010. The English-language lecture—“Wilhelm Röpke, The Depression and the 2008 Crisis: Reflections from the Past, Lessons for Today”—has just been published in the May 2010 edition of the Argentine journal Revista de Instituciones, Ideas y Mercados, the flagship journal of ESEADE, one of Argentina’s leading market-oriented universities.

It’s especially interesting to observe that while Röpke was initially willing to contemplate some mild interventions (mainly of the type that removed obstacles to a market-driven recovery), Gregg shows that Röpke soon concluded that most interventionist programs were counterproductive and/or ineffectual. Here Röpke was especially influenced by what he regarded as the failure of the New Deal (a failure beautifully documented by the economic historian Amity Shlaes in her 2008 book, The Forgotten Man) to reignite the American economy. As Röpke wrote in 1942:

It turned out that the original calculation that the Government’s boost of purchasing power would set off the private investment drive that was due, was wrong. Every time the Government’s injections were withheld, it was as if there was no private initiative which could take the place of public initiative.

Sound familiar? In his lecture, Gregg notes:

Most interwar active business-cycle policies aimed at combating the Depression, Röpke argued, had failed . . . . Instead [citing Röpke] ‘only an artificially continued prosperity developed which was bound to come to an end the moment the state injections of purchasing power upon which it depended, ceased.’ Bad investments had driven out good investments, meaning that governments were not only bound to keep injecting purchasing power, but to increase them. Such, Röpke wrote, was ‘the slippery slope of collectivism.’

How little we have learned from the past.

On the The American Spectator website, Theodore Roosevelt Malloch reviews Wilhelm Ropke’s Political Economy, a “brilliant, analytical intellectual history” from Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg.

We are extremely grateful then to the brilliant researcher and scholar, Samuel Gregg of the Acton Institute, for a concise, penetrating, and thorough analysis of Röpke’s contribution to intellectual life. It breaks new ground, is highly readable, and adds considerably to the economic literature. It should become mandatory reading for every student of political economy.

As the intellectual author of Germany’s post-World War II economic resurrection, Röpke is an under-appreciated thinker who informed policymaking. Gregg rightly calls him a Smithian, as he was against the unlimited power of the state. Put positively, he was much more. Röpke was an “economic humanist” of the first order. He historically showed how the Great Depression came to limit economics as a science and how collectivism is incompatible with authentic human freedom.

The purpose of Gregg’s masterful book is to provide a descriptive and critical introduction to Röpke’s understanding of political economy. This is unquestioningly an exercise in historical recovery. The focus is on four subjects that concerned Röpke up until his early death in 1966. They are: the challenge of business cycles, the unending growth of the welfare state, full employment and inflation, and international economic relations.

Read Malloch’s “The Great Wilhelm Röpke” on the American Spectator website.

We’ll be posting excerpts from Sam’s new book in the days ahead.

In the most recent edition of the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, Acton’s Research Director Samuel Gregg has an article in which he argues that the ongoing financial and economic crisis has raised serious questions about the credibility and usefulness of much mainstream contemporary economics. Drawing partly on his recent book, Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy (2010), Gregg suggests that much mainstream economics after Keynes became gradually dominated by a fixation upon econometrics that has threatened at times to reduce economics to a poor cousin of mathematics. As Gregg writes:

Since John Maynard Keynes’s time, mainstream economics has undergone a steady process of mathematization and immersion in abstraction. One need only glance through their nearest copy of the American Economic Review and observe the plethora of algebra that is now central to most mainstream economists’ argumentation. (p.445)

Gregg suggests that this partly reflected an unhealthy relationship between parts of the economics profession and the trend to government economic planning that accelerated after World War II. In this connection, Gregg notes:

The postwar “new economics” helped to support the belief that the state could “manage” the economy and therefore facilitated expectations that governments should attempt to do so. Governmental institutions committed to interventionist policies wanted macroeconomic research that added empirical credibility to such proposals. . . . A form of collusion consequently developed between the postwar economics profession and states pursuing interventionist strategies. (p.454)

In the second part of the article, Gregg makes the case for a re-look at the type of political economy pursued by Adam Smith: i.e., one committed to a fuller appreciation of reality.

Economists wishing to re-engage economics in a wider discussion about the truth of human reality could thus do worse than return to the writings of Adam Smith. Here one finds a truly synthetic approach to comprehending not just the economic dimension of human reality, but also how that economic component fits into a fuller picture of human reality—one that is committed to treating moral virtues as real to the same extent as the forces of entrepreneurship and peaceful free exchange, not to mention institutions such as the rule of law that are the very stuff of modern flourishing economies. Returning to Smith does not imply wholesale abandonment of all the tools and methods developed in a range of different schools of economic thought since 1776. It does, however, suggest that efforts to quarantine economic science from normative considerations or even knowledge of the basic moral goods knowable by human reason ought to be themselves viewed as unreasonable and unscientific. (p.463)

Read Gregg’s “Smith versus Keynes: Economics and Political Economy in the Post-Crisis Era” in its entirety in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy.

ropke_coverOver at Econlog, one of the best economics blogs around, Arnold Kling has been reading Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg’s latest and recently released book, Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy (Edward Elgar, 2010). Kling underlines how Röpke used ethical analysis to distinguish between the three ways of allocating resources: altruism, coercion, and what Röpke called “the business principle.”

For Kling’s take on this subject, see Econlog.

The book is available on the Elgar site and Amazon.

The Public Discourse recently published my article, Rethinking Economics in the Post-Crisis World. Text follows:

In the wake of the financial crisis, we need an economics with greater humility about its predictive power and an increased understanding of the complicated human beings who, when the discipline is rightly understood, lie at its center.

Apart from bankers and politicians, few groups have received as much blame for the 2008 financial crisis as economists. “Economists are the forgotten guilty men” was how Anatole Kaletsky, former economics editor and current editor-at-large for the London Times, put it earlier this year when explaining why “a bank with just $1 billion of capital [would] borrow an extra $99 billion and then buy $100 billion of speculative investments.”

Greed and sheer imprudence played a role, but so too, Kaletsky argued, did those (unnamed) economists who posited that their models proved that events such as the collapse of Lehmann Brothers in 2008 or Long Term Capital Management in 1998 were mathematically likely to happen once every billion years.

Kaletsky’s broader point was that contemporary mainstream economics had been sufficiently discredited by the financial crisis that the entire discipline required what he called an “intellectual revolution,” or it risked being dismissed as a rather suspect sub-branch of statistical analysis and mathematical modeling.

Kaletsky is hardly alone in arguing that economists need to rethink key aspects of their discipline. Though unwilling to call for a total paradigm shift, the Economist recently opined that the financial crisis has raised profound questions of coherence about two areas of economics: macro-economics and financial economics. “Few financial economists,” the Economist observed, “thought much about illiquidity or counterparty risk, for instance, because their standard models ignore it.” Likewise, the Economist commented, “Macroeconomists also had a blindspot: their standard models assumed that capital markets work perfectly.”

All this is certainly true. But the key expression to note here is “their standard models.” (more…)