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.