This week’s Acton Commentary, adapted from my preface to the newest Acton Institute publication The Humane Economist: A Wilhelm Röpke Reader, illustrates what makes Röpke such an interesting and vital economist:
Röpke saw his project in holistic terms involving intersecting and interdependent spheres or orden that to be fully appreciated and understood scientifically must be examined in their economic, social, and moral dimensions. The combined commitments to mainline economic analysis, the importance of social institutions, and the moral and religious framework of what Röpke calls the “classic-Christian heritage” makes him a unique figure in the history of economics. As such he was ideally suited to avoid the dangers of economic reductionism, embodying the maxim: “life is economic; economics is not all of life.”
Wilhelm Röpke was more than an economist, he was a social theorist, and in reaching beyond the constraints of his discipline he was able to be a more faithful practitioner of it. As an economist, self-described liberal, and Protestant Röpke was intensely interested in Catholic social teaching. He explains why such a man, superficially unlikely to hold such an interest, finds so much that is fruitful in this tradition in his essay on Quadragesimo Anno “Liberalism and Christianity” (1957):
…such a man—and this is the essential point—who in the higher and more general sense can call himself a liberal, will not hesitate to declare that this Encyclical is one of the most impressive, profound, and noble of manifestoes, in which many things close to the hearts of all of us are expressed with a dignity, with a vigor of conviction, and with a comprehensiveness of view which are rare. Indeed, the “liberal” quintessence of this document cannot be denied, so long as we take this word in its large and eternal sense of a civilization based on man and upon a healthy balance between the individual and community; so long, in short, as we accept liberalism as the antipodes of collectivism.
Wilhelm Röpke, Catholic social teaching, and the authentic liberal tradition all hold to a conception of what Lord Acton described as, “The society that is beyond the state – the individual souls that are above it.” Such a conception is also shared by a broader tradition within Christian social thought in general. Abraham Kuyper is perhaps the leading light in the modern Reformed tradition whose vision of sphere sovereignty shares much in common with both the concept of subsidiarity in Catholic social teaching and Röpke’s own concept of the intersecting and interdependent orden which make up our social life. Röpke’s own Lutheran tradition is no stranger to this line of thought from the Table of Duties in Luther’s Small Catechism to the robust natural law theory of Niels Hemmingsen, “the teacher of Denmark.”
These traditions all have much to learn from each other as Wilhelm Röpke’s own rich scholarship demonstrates.
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