Campbell – Introduction to Wilhelm Roepke’s The Moral Foundations of Civil Society
Introduction to Wilhelm Roepke’s The Moral Foundations of Civil Society
(Transactions Press, 1996)
William F. Campbell
Professor Emeritus, Department of Economics, Louisiana State University
Let us begin by paying attention to the words civitas humana in the title of the second of Roepke’s
trilogy. Civitas carries on the Greek baggage of the polis, or the city appropriate to man. Although
Roepke recognized the validity of the nation, he was constantly trying to find the smaller platoons of
society in which real allegiances and loyalties were to be developed. He would never have
recommended such cosmopolitan entities as the world state.
The humana side of the title would best be understood in terms of the Christian humanism of an
Erasmus or More rather than the more modern understandings of secular humanism. But he always
understood that he was not constructing the City of God, or a church. He knew his limitations as
well as his strength; he was a social scientist and not a religious prophet. He was no St. Augustine.
He left the Civitas Dei, the City of God, to others.
His concern was the institutional embodiment of the spirit rather than the spirit directly. But he
understood and agreed with those of his critics who argued that a "genuine cure is not to be found
in institutional reforms but only by a deep and sincere self-examination on the part of each single
The only really decisive question is, out of what ultimate depthsof the soul is this Metanoia to be
produced?" (xxii) It would be an interesting indicator of the times to find out how many economists
know what the word, "Metanoia" means. The turning around of the soul toward God is a necessary
part of conversion. But Roepke knew that the darkest nights of the soul as well as the darkest
nights of world history stem from internal infection rather than external invasion. It is the internal
corruptions rather than external blows for which men must be held responsible.
Roepke was ever the loyal clerk and the castigator of the treasonable clerks. His courage he did
not consider exceptional because of the fact that intellectuals have a special responsibility to call
things as they are. In calling things as they are, he also believed that simplicity and a non-technical
language were essential. He persistently refused to hide behind the jargon of economics or any
other discipline to soften the impact of his thought and words. How easy it is to wrap oneself up in
an obfuscational jargon.
He also recognized the dangers of extreme specialization in an era when the soundess of society as
a whole could not be taken for granted. Overspecialized work is a luxury consumption good in
which it is irresponsible to indulge when the basic needs of society have not yet been met.
The need, Roepke recognized, was for synthesis, which is the reason that he would never have
won a Nobel prize even though he is far and away the soundest economist of the twentieth century.
Synthesizing requires originality and imagination, but these qualities are often misunderstood. I say
that he is the soundest economist of the 20th century because he understood the limitations as well
as the strengths of his discipline.
Roepke’s work was a synthesis of the best that Western Civilization has to offer. Let me therefore
take as the main thread of this introduction the historical vision of Europe and America which
Roepke offered to us.
Europe is not well-defined geographically. It is perhaps better defined as a resistance movement
against the lure of the Orient. The lure of the large empires or the eastern pull on Europe was a
temptation to the ancient Greeks and has remained one ever since. Roepke would have understood
the resolute advice which Hecuba, the mother of Hector and Paris, gave to Menelaus as to what to
do with his beautiful Helen of Troy:
Kill your wife, Menelaus, and I will bless your name.
But keep your eyes from her. Desire will win.
She looks enchantment, and where she looks homes are set fire;
she captures cities as she captures the eyes of men.
We have had experience, you and I. We know the truth.
(Euripides, The Trojan Women)
In this account by Euripides of The Trojan Women, Hecuba lets Helen of Troy have it with
accusations of lust and luxury which she claims:
….made your senses itch. You thought,
being queen only in Argos, in little luxury,
that once you got rid of Sparta for the Phyrgian city
where gold streamed everywhere, you could let extravagance
run wild. No longer were Menelaus and his house
sufficient to your spoiled luxurious appetites.
(Euripides, The Trojan Women)
Men’s search for comfort and security always makes us vulnerable to the totalitarian temptation.
But Helen is not without her defences. She does admit that her behavior looks bad at least on the
surface, but she muses:
Why did I do it? What made me run away from home
with the stranger, and betray my country and my hearth?
As an excuse for her actions, Helen hides behind "unintended consequences" on the utilitarian level.
When Paris had to judge of the three lovely goddesses as to their beauty, Helen describes the
blandishments or temptations of public power which they offered to him:
Pallas Athene would have given him power, to lead
the Phyrgian arms on Hellas and make it desolate.
All Asia was Hera’s promise, and the uttermost zones
of Europe for his lordship, if her way prevailed.
But Aphrodite, picturing my loveliness,
promised it to him, if he would say her beauty surpassed
all others. Think what this means, and all the consequences.
Cypris prevailed, and I was won in marriage: all
for Greek advantage. Asia is not your lord; you serve
no tyrant now, nor take the spear in his defense.
Now what would Roepke have thought of Helen’s sophistical defence? He was always critical of
Machiavellian sophistry of the ends justifying the means or real politique. He might have been
thankful for the outcome, i.e. Europe not being enslaved to Asia, even though he would have sternly
disapproved of the immorality of Helen’s actions.
What would have happened to the world if Paris had managed to resist all three temptations as
Christ did with three similar temptations in the desert? Christ had to reject power, influence, and the
ability to dazzle the masses by turning stones into bread.
Roepke understood along with Solzhenitsyn that the resistance to Communism had to be far deeper
than what he coined as the "standard of life-ism" argument. In fact his explicit words are relevant
here: "Far truer and far more relevant is it to say that man lives not by bread alone, but–and the
words of the gospel are singularly appropriate as they stand–`by every word that proceedeth out
of the mouth of God’ (St. Matthew IV.4); and these, be it noted, are the words that St. Matthew
put into Jesus’ mouth in answer to the man who challenged him to turn stones into bread." ("The
Free West", p. 77)
The temptation of deifying the state also characterized Hellenistic Greece. Roepke was always
distrustful of the totalitarian movement toward the insect state, the Pharaonic model provided by
ancient Egypt. He is on the side of Demosthenes against Alexander the Great, but would never
have lost his balance or civic virtue to be on the side of Diogenes, the cosmopolitan cynic, who was
not a citizen of any concrete polity. The state of nature was more appropriate for yapping dogs than
for civilized human beings.
Roepke’s resistance to the Pharaonic State is also clearly found in the men he most admired. You
can tell an author by his heroes. Who were Roepke’s guides in his reflections on ancient history?
It is interesting to note that he cites many who are historians like Gibbon and Jacob Burckhardt,
and even more narrowly some of them are economic historians like Luigi Einaudi and Rostovtzeff.
But my personal favorite is the unsung Italian, Guglielmo Ferrero. Roepke in discussing the
reception of his book The Social Crisis of Our Time goes so far as to say that, "what gave me
especial pleasure was that a few months before his death, Guglielmo Ferrero offered me his
unreserved appreciation as an historian and sociologist." (xvi)
Now why should he have valued his opinion so highly? Ferrero was an historian of European
civilization with emphasis upon ancient Rome. He provided an interpretation of history and Western
civilization which was compatible with Roepke’s vision.
Roepke favored Cato over Caesar which is not to say that he is a sour Catonist as we shall see
later. His distrust was always toward the "strong men of history." In a particularly illuminating
passage he focusses on:
The value which an era places on Caesar, Alexander, Cromwell, Richelieu or Napoleon, typifies it
as a whole and there is nothing more characteristic of the century of the colossal than that, like the
seventeenth century before it, it looks up, awe-stricken, to this type of man and his works. While in
the sixteenth century (which in its turn, is so very similar to the eighteenth), Montaigne had
reproached Caesar most disrespectfully…and whereas Montesquieu had bluntly talked of the
`crimes de Cesar,’…the nineteenth century again begins to discourse mysteriously on the `missions’
of the conquerors and to build up a veritable cult around the Caesars. Even Mommsen wrote his
Roman History in this spirit, as did Droysen his history of Alexander the Great, …Hand in hand with
the over-estimation of the successful, we find a corresponding under-estimation of those, who, like
Demosthenes offered unsuccessful resistance to the conquerors. It is a hopeful sign for our own
time that it has again brought the yardsticks of the eighteenth century down from the attic and
begins to note the negative side of the conquerors and their deeds, that it criticizes the imperators
and tyrants–the Alexanders, Caesars, Richelieus, Napoleons and others of their kind–and sees
their opponents (from Demosthenes and Cato to Talleyrand, Madame de Stael, and Constantin
Frantz) in a new light. It is only today that we have reached the point where, following in Gibbon’s
footsteps, we are once more prepared to add up dispassionately the terrible liabilities of the Roman
Empire.(Social Crisis, pp. 68-69)
Both Ferrero and Roepke understood what St. Gregory understood about the Fall of the Roman
Empire: "in its heart it had already withered." It fell because of internal infection and not because of
the invasion of the barbarians. Its slide into collectivism and the insect state–the succumbing to the
constant temptation of the totalitarian Orient–was what characterized the post-Augustan age. The
taste for luxuries, novelty, and the cult of the colossal had corrupted the household and family.
Liberty had run into license.
Before leaving the internal rot of the Roman upper classes, it is important to stress that Roepke is
always the man of moderation. It might be thought that in his reaction against Helen of Troy, the
Alexander the Greats and the Caesars of the world, that he relapsed into a sour puritanism. Like
Adam Smith Roepke was personally somewhat Spartan and rugged in his personal life, but he
understood the danger of the intellectuals with the "lean and hungry look" like the Brutuses and the
Wilhelm Roepke maintains a steady vigilance against what he called the "glum philosophy" which
was the secret of all collectivist regimes. He was steadfastly opposed to forced savings as he saw it
attempted in post World War II Europe; "austerity" reminded him of the moral equivalent for war
problem. It would work under war or siege conditions but not for a well- functioning economy. The
hostility to luxury goods which surfaced after World War II was a return to the heroic spirit of
mercantilism which stressed manufacturers. He criticized the politicians who give "their speeches the
dignified accents of unworldly asceticism and patriotic concern." (Wilhelm Roepke, "Austerity"
Against the Tide) (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1969, p. 153)
In many ways Roepke can be compared to Edmund Burke who also had to confront prophets of
doom and gloom in the 18th century. We like to think that the sourness of the eco-freaks is unique
to the 20th century, but there is nothing new under the sun. Consider the words of Edmund Burke
in Letters on A Regicide Peace:
"I know, too, the obstinacy of unbelief in those perverted minds which have no delight but in
contemplating the supposed distress and predicting the immediate ruin of their country. These birds
of evil presage at all times have grated our ears with their melancholy song; and, by some strange
fatality or other, it has generally happened that they have poured forth their loudest and deepest
lamentations at the periods of our most abundant prosperity. Very early in my public life I had
occasion to make myself a little acquainted with their natural history." (Works, V, pp. 487-488)
In the same Letter he also has the following passage which illustrates the concern for future
generations which the wise conservative has:
"Hitherto we have seen the superfluity of our capital discovering itself only in procuring superfluous
accommodation and enjoyment, in our houses, in our furniture, in our establishments, in our eating
and drinking, our clothing, and our public diversions: we shall now see it more beneficially
employed in improving our territory itself: we shall see part of our present opulence, with provident
care, put out to usury for posterity. (pp. 488-489)
Roepke accepted the usual economic considerations which condemned this discouragement of
luxurious imports and encouragement of manufactured exports on the basis that they would lead to
a misallocation of precious resources. But in addition his final criteria was more supply-sided than
anything else. If you did not allow consumers to buy the luxury goods, they would buy leisure and
Another reason why Roepke did not succumb to the sour, ascetic tendencies of the pagan Romans
was that he was a Christian. The main resistance to the Pharaonic spirit was provided by the
loosening of the social soil that Christianity provided. Roepke might not only be considered a
pre-Reformation Christian, but also a pre-Reformation classical liberal. He was a Lutheran
Protestant and not a Roman Catholic even though he was very sympathetic to the balanced social
teachings of the CatholicChurch.
Roepke’s analysis of the importance of Christianity is very similar to Christopher Dawson’s: "This is
not the place to value the immeasurable contributions of the Church as an institution which, during
the darkest days of the Middle Ages, kept the spark of culture burning under the ashes and by so
doing laid the foundation for everything else, a mission without which Europe would have become a
mere peninsular of Asia." (102-103)
Christianity and pagan antiquity also provided the "spiritual and moral capital" out of which the
ideas of economic and political liberalism flourished. This led him to the rather dire forecast:
"The Christian element, however, which predominated in this heritage has, since the beginning of
modern times, been subjected to a continuous process of secularization until finally the power of
faith, which had at first consciously and then unconsciously nourished the secularized concept of
progress, rationalism, liberty and humanity, began to flag, thus becoming responsible for the
withering of those very concepts, since no alternative sources of faith and certainty had been
provided."(Social Crisis, p. 7)
But what do we make of the Christian and Catholic social teachings of the Middle Ages? There is
still a temptation to view this teaching through the lens of an R.H. Tawney which makes out the
medieval scholastics to be defenders of landed aristocracy and feudalism, a would-be organic
corporate state. Roepke had no leanings in this direction. As we are finding out today, medieval
Scholastic thought is much more market oriented than we ever gave it credit for. I do not recall
Roepke ever discussing the breakthrough discussions of Raymond de Roover, John Baldwin,
Marjorie Grice-Hutchinson, but his vision would be completely compatible with theirs.
The feudal-absolutist heritage was an incubus. Although no egalitarian, he was quite willing to
radically change the conditions which brought about inequality–"monopoly, privileges, feudal
landownership, etc." (Problem of Economic Order, p. 6) In this sense his sympathies were with
the Distributist movement as advocated by G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc in England. All
these movements are based on the love of private property and the belief that it should be as
widespread as possible rather than the smoldering envy and resentment of the redistributive ethic
which begrudges any deviations from dead-level equality.
He does reject feudalistic accretions of capitalism and what he calls a "worn-out liberalism." In
other words the status quo of a decayed market economy was not to his liking. We have to give
Roepke credit for a radical kind of conservatism similar in spirit to the good-natured temperament
of a G.K. Chesterton. In fact, there are some striking similarities between Chesterton and Roepke
in their appreciation of the vices,–yes, vices–and virtues of the middle ages. In both cases, the
emphasis is on what might have been or what should have been, rather than an uncritical admiration
of what was.
Economically the guild organization of cities was susceptible to abuse in monopolistic and restrictive
directions. Roepke shared the hostility toward monopoly and guilds expressed by the liberalism of
the Catholic social teaching of the medieval schoolmen.
Roepke would have been very pleased with the new Papal Encyclical on the economy which
sounds exactly as if the author had listened to Roepke’s sympathetic treatments of Papal teachings
over the years. He sturdily interpreted the Church’s teaching as pro-private property and
anti-communist and even anti-socialist; he reprimanded those who interpreted the Church’s teaching
in a collectivist, corporatist direction.
To give an example from Civitas Humana, Roepke says "that a careful reader of the celebrated
but much misunderstood papal Encylical Quadragesimo Anno will find a social and economic
philosophy expressed therein which at heart comes to much the same conclusion…[as my] liberal
But the teachings of the Church both in the Middle Ages and the 19th century are one thing; the
realities of man and society are another. The dependency and servility of the individual to a feudal
lord or to the omnicompetent state have been the norm rather than the exception. Roepke saw
"There are enough millenaries of recorded history behind us to teach us in the most unequivocal
manner that whenever in their dark course the light of freedom, progress and humanity shines it was
a period when a sufficient number of people had private property to enable them to throw off their
economic dependence on the feudal lord, or–even worse perhaps–the state. Those periods of
emancipation and enlightenment would have been impossible without the existence of a large
bourgeoisie in that noble but now almost forgotten sense which brings it into a more than
philological relationship with the term `civilization.’ It lies with us whether or not one of the longest
and most brilliant of these periods shall now come to an end like all its predecessors." (Roepke,
International Economic Disintegration, p. 264
Roepke’s devotion to the small city state and trading republics lies in opposition to the Statist
tendencies of the Renaissance. His spirit is in the tradition of Erasmus and Sir Thomas More rather
than that of Machiavelli.
What would have happened to Germany if the Hanseatic free-trade conception of economics had
triumphed over the historical form which Germany actually adopted, the protectionist and
monopolistic policy of heavy industries; what would have happened if there had been small farms
instead of the large estates of the Prussian Junkers?
An answer to these questions can be found in many ways in America in the 18th century. In many
ways the "novus ordo seclorum," (the new order of the ages) which is emblazoned on the Great
Seal of the United States was made possible by the fact that we did not have to suffer a landed
aristocracy in this country.
Furthermore we were not creating a Machiavellian order based on power and evil. Roepke’s
partiality to the 18th century partially reflects his correct understanding of the Federalism written
into the United States Constitution. Limited governmental power, and the diffusion of the important
powers to their lowest possible levels was the essence of Roepke as well as the vision of the
Although he was not a simon-pure libertarian on the functions of government, he always wanted to
decentralize and demassify society as much as was feasible.
With respect to landed aristocracy and privilege, Great Britain has endured much grief and
resentment due to these centralizing tendencies. Edmund Burke’s "Letter to a Noble Lord" is
suffused with many rueful reflections on the way in which the family of the Duke of Bedford
acquired his great estates from Henry VIII.
The United States’ "new order of the ages" also owed much to our unwillingness to countenance an
established church at least on the Federal level. We owe much to the Church and our Christian
heritage, but we must beware of Caesaro-Papism, a rigid despotism both temporal and spiritual.
On its religious side it not only rigidified Byzantium and Russia, but it also explained the petrification
of an earlier, brilliant, decentralised Mohammedan civilisation.
Roepke also was dubious of the secular forms of Caesaro-Papism which he finds in Hobbes and
Rousseau who provide a theologico-political fusion in the name of national unity and civil religion.
In our rather breathless romp through history what are the characteristics of the 19th century?
Scientism and romanticism are the two opposite and equally repulsive alternatives which Roepke
saw dominating the century. Scientism and positivism enshrined in Saint-Simon’s technocratic City
of Man are the real sources for collectivist economic planning. Marx was only a vituperative critic
of Capitalism and not a constructive thinker. Collectivism is capable of great things in the cult of the
colossal or what Roepke calls technical productivity, but it is not capable of economic productivity,
i.e. producing those things which consumers really want. Drawing on Goethe’s Faust, he says, "We
may compare autocratically controlled collectivist state economy with the`Homunculus’ of Wagner’s
retort." (CH, 18)
Roepke rejected the scientism which tries to reduce the social sciences to the methods of the
natural sciences. He constantly railed against the "eternal Saint-Simonism" which believed that the
market could be improved on by importing scientific experts.
Roepke’s insights here are roughly comparable to the ruthless insights of Edmund Burke on the
hardness of heart of a thorough-bred metaphysician. (pp. 176-177 of Letter to a Noble Lord)
Roepke was always critical of the French intellectuals who understood the French genius to be its
analytical power. But alas in a melancholy fashion they were resigned to the idea that this
inheritance from the Greeks included their political inheritance as well as their spiritual heritage. This
was done in "the guise of modern Graeculi, as victims of spiritual and artificial `raffinement’–a state
of being which in the long run is not consistent with political power that had better been left to the
more robust Macedonians and Romans." (CH, 67)
Roepke was always on the alert to the irrationalist positions which might be thought to be the
opposite extreme from scientism. Here too he did not want to throw out the baby with the bath
water. For example, he believed that romanticism and mystical elements were an inescapable part
of human nature, indeed "among the eternal tendencies of mankind," but they could become
"dangerous the moment it breaches the dike of reason." (German, p. 134)
He distinguished many forms of mysticism each of which was capable of excess–the nature-loving,
the erotic, the religious, aesthetic, and democratic-social. Each of these are legitimate up to a point.
Economists are always tempted to take the easy way out, by denying reality to aspects of human
existence by reducing them to arbitrary and subjective tastes and preferences. Roepke never does
this. This is his strength. He realizes that all of these are legitimate aspects of human experience
which must be satisfied in a balanced and harmonious social existence.
Nature, sex, religion, beauty, and politics are all meaningful as part of the whole. When they
attempt to become the whole, then there is mischief.
One of Nietzsche’s aphorisms declares, "Our youth was up in arms against the soberness of the
age. It plunged into the cult of excess, of passion, of ectasy, and of the blackest and most austere
conception of the world." Roepke would have refused this plunge because "the logical end of
romanticism could only be the longing for death." (German, p. 138)
J.N. Figgis has pointed out that Nietzsche was revolting against the "domestic pettiness of a small
provincial town. He was in reaction against his aunts…Wearied with domestic virtues he calls men
to Alpine heights of danger and triumph, despising above all things utilitarian democracy and the
optimism of inevitable progress, with its gospel of the sofa-millenium." (pp. 51, 92)
Roepke, like his mentor, Adam Smith, shared the fear of the sofa-millenium, but he did not
degenerate into the hardness of the Machiavellian will-to-power which Nietzsche admired in
Bismarck or Prometheus as a barbarian from the heights. Thomas Carlyle similarly reacted against
bourgeois liberalism by worshipping Frederick the Great. As we have already seen Roepke sturdily
distrusted the cult of the colossal in all its forms–music, politics, art, and the cult of personality.
The seeds of totalitarian thought which were spread in the 19th century bore fruit in the 20th
century. Although Roepke was an uncompromising anti-communist, he was more fundamentally an
anti-collectivist of all stripes. Nevertheless, he understood that the totalitarian collectivists were a
different and unreconcilable breed in comparison to the non-totalitarian collectivists. Rational
discussion with the totalitarians was not possible.
The motives of collectivists are various. Reflect on his wise observation in his book, Civitas
"In collectivism there seems to be at the same time hidden away a further power of attraction which
one might characterise as aesthetic and artistic. If we are not mistaken, what so charms the artistic
sensibility about collectivism is its apparent symmetry, its system which on paper is so beautifully
rounded off; and there is perhaps also the romance in the `mailed fist’ which it indeed presupposes."
Like Adam Smith in analyzing the motives of the men of system, he understood the complexity of
such mixtures of self-interest, aesthetic, technocratic, humanitarian, and quite frankly the simple lust
for power. Compare Roepke’s analysis to Adam Smith’s shrewd observation in The Theory of
"The man of systems, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit, and is so often
enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the
smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts,
without any regard either to the great interests or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it: he
seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as
the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board; he does not consider that the pieces
upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses
upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of
motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon
it." The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759.
Notice that neither Smith nor Roepke assume the worst or set up straw men when analyzing the
democratic socialists. Even though he was sceptical of the consistency of the "democratic socialist"
label, he assumed their motives to be honorable and paid more attention to their anti-capitalist
criticism than most libertarians would find desirable.
He also recognized that his "third way" was firmly based in an appreciation of the market economy
and not some vague repudiation of the market. The market economy is a neutral philosophic
category which is not to be confused with "capitalism" which is the historical individuality in
particular concrete circumstances which could have been otherwise. He describes collectivism as a
"social philosophy which would extend the authority and coercive powers of the State to the utmost
and hence presupposes a distinction between ruler and ruled, those who give orders and those who
obey them." (CH, xix)
America is not a new nation, a politically immature nation. We were the fortunate beneficiaries of
the best that European civilization had to offer, and even more fortunately escaped some of the
worst institutional legacies of absolutism and despotism which encumbered Europe from the time of
the Fall of the Roman Empire.
Wilhelm Roepke understood better than anyone else in the 20th century the linkages between virtue
and liberty. It is ironical that a German should understand so well the essential lived complexity of
the American experiment in constitutional government. He represents better than any other
economist-and that includes Hayek, Mises, Friedman, Stigler–a true understanding of the moral
foundations of constitutional economics.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Roepke always denied fate or necessity to the trends of history. There was no Marxian trend
toward larger units of enterprise dictated by economies of scale. Arguing against the "skyscraper
principle" in architecture and the economy, he stated as long ago as 1936, "In still very important
sections of our economic system, i.e., in agriculture, in the small trades and the like, nothing of this
sort is going on. But even in the case of industry it can be argued that the trend towards bigger units
has, very often, less to do with real advantages derived from the increased size of the unit than with
a certain megalomania which has been such a characteristic trait of the `gay twenties,’ with
consequences which have become only too manifest during the present depression." (Crises and
Cycles, p. 7)
In some ways similar to George Gilder he was optimistic that many of the technological changes
such as the "spread of the electromotor and the gasoline engine–has in many directions, exerted
even a lowering influence on the optimum size. In this connexion it should not be forgotten that, for
example, the automobile signifies after all the triumph of the small unit over the larger one, so far as
the business of locomotion is concerned." (Crises and Cycles, p. 7)
Although I suspect that his enthusiasm for modern technology might have been a little more discrete
than George Gilder’s, he would have shared his enthusiasm for the Microcosmic aspects. Beneath
Gilder’s seeming technocracy, there are threads similar to Roepke’s attacks on mass society and
massification. Let us take a look at a typical Gilder statement: "Microchip technology is now
converging with fiber optics–also essentially made of silicon-to create a new information economy.
In the form of computers linked with fiber optics–allowing telecommuting, home schools and
remote health care–sand and glass replace oil and coal, hospital beds and centralized medicine,
ineffectively centralized schools and colleges, environmentally wasteful agriculture and culturally
erosive television and entertainment." (Wall Street Journal, February 25, 1993, p. A12, "Yale’s
Dr. Doom Looks Into the Impoverished Future")
What does all this mean but an attack on the large, bureaucratic administrative state! Home
schooling, home medicine, truly domestic employment, decentralization of all types. Roepke as well
as Gilder would have opposed the vulgarity and stupefying effects of mass television. When Gilder
states that the "death of television…would be the salvation of American competitiveness,"
Roepke would nod his approval. Roepke never believed in the inevitability of monopoly or huge
economies of scale. He believed that "there is a natural gravitation towards competition rather than
towards monopoly, and this gravitation is commonly so strong that very rarely, indeed, has a
monopoly come to life in the absence of more or less violent engineering on the part of the State…It
is doubtful whether there would many monopolies in the world if the State, in order to offset the
natural gravitation toward competition, had not weighted the scales with its authority, its jurisdiction,
and its general economic policy in the direction of fostering the formation of monopolies." (Crises
and Cycles, p. 8)
In the preface to Civitas Humana Wilhelm Roepke refers to the Swiss novel, Quite Possibly,
which served as his statement about the predictions which could be made following World War II.
They could be either gloomily pessimistic and apocalyptic or cheerily optimistic.
But we are precisely in the same position today as we were then. With the downfall of the Iron
Curtain and the elimination of the Soviet Union, the predictions of the future are widely variant.
Eastern Europe is floundering in its search for alternatives somewhere between anarcho-capitalism
and collectivism. Russia is slouching toward military despotism, desperately trying to find a dictator
in the Roman sense who will return to normal civil society after the "emergency" has passed. But the
problem for the Russians is that they have little or no experience of any normal civil society on
which to draw. They have no Cincinnatuses at the plow because they replaced them all with
tractors in the hope of unlimited economies of scale.
We need a Wilhelm Roepke now more than ever. It is still the case that the gloomy and the cheerful
are both "quite possible." What are most needed are the qualities of courage and intellectual
responsibility which Roepke breathed into his life and writings. Roepke was trying to describe the
normal conditions for a city of man to which one could repair after the abnormalities of the
totalitarian systems had exhausted themselves.
But even though Communism and the Soviet Union have exhausted themselves that does not mean
that totalitarian temptations have gone away. The United States does not face the immediate
problems of the restoration of order by means of squalid dictatorships and oligarchical juntos as
does Russia and Eastern Europe, but we do face Fascist temptations of our own. Wilhelm Roepke
was always extremely aware of the fact that his concept of the Third Way could easily be confused
with the alleged "middle course" of Fascism–not as totalitarian as Communism and not as
laissez-faire as liberalism. Yes, Fascism was a hybrid, but according to Roepke the result is:
"interventionism plus collectivist phraseology. To describe more fully the type of an economic
system characterising Fascism, one might say that the middle course which Fascism is steering
between a competitive and a collectivist economy, leads in practice, to a heavily
monopolistic-interventionist society adorned by terminological and phraseological ornaments, with
an extensive governmental control of prices and capital investments and large `socialisation of
losses,’ whereby the capitalistic institution of bankruptcy is, to some extent, replaced by
concentration camps and Lipari islands." (Roepke, "Fascist Economics" Economica, February,
1935, p. 91)
How contemporary does all that sound? Bailing out of Chrysler, the S&L crisis,–what are these
but the socialisation of losses. Industrial planning, reinventing government, national health plans with
large state cooperatives–what else is this but "interventionism plus collectivist phraseology?
The persistent attacks on the competitive economic vitality of the 1980s as the decade of greed and
the comparison with the new mergers of the 1990s as dictated by planning necessities by
well-meaning intellectuals is reminiscent of the situation during the Great Depression. In his book
Crises and Cycles, Roepke points out:
"…this revival of the medieval principle of numerus clausus is a very short-sighted interference with
the dynamic forces of our economic system which should be stimulated instead of being strangled.
If there are enterprising persons to-day who have enough optimism and courage to undertake new
investment we have every reason for rejoicing, for that is just is what we need in the interests of
recovery. They should be encouraged instead of being intimidated, even if they are uncomfortable
competitors for the old-established firms and a danger to vested interests. (Roepke, Crises and
Cycles, London: William Hodge & Co. Ltd., 1936, p. 197)
America’s flirtations with Fascism will always come dressed in the uniform of Mussolini rather than
Karl Marx. All one has to do is to look at the early New Deal with its Fascist inspiration to see
what a President like Bill Clinton can do who is inspired by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Roepke clearly opposed the excesses of the Welfare State. "Are we to call it progress if we
continuously increase the number of people to be treated as economic minors and therefore to
remain under the tutelage of the state? Is it not, on the contrary, progress if the broad masses of the
people come of age economically, thanks to their rising incomes, and become responsible for
themselves so that we can cut down the welfare state instead of inflating it more and more?" The
welfare state is "bloated", built on envy, and "turns the state into an income pump, working day and
night, with tubes and valves, with suction and pressure flows…a pumping engine…with considerable
friction losses" (Humane Economy, Chapter IV)
Whatever humanitarian justification the welfare state had in aiding individuals during the Industrial
Revolution has long ago been swallowed up by envy and resentment. Heros make the man. Man
becomes what heros he keeps. I recently gave a talk on Adam Smith and Constitutional Economics
at Hampden-Sydney College and in preparing my remarks came across a fascinating historical
study by Peter Karsten of the college’s namesakes, the patriot-heroes John Hampden and
He noted: "The decline in importance of Jefferson, Hampden, and Sydney as patriot-symbols is
occurring in both the United States and Great Britain and is surely symptomatic of a general
movement over the past three centuries toward executive consolidation and use of power and the
public’s general acceptance of that movement."(Karsten, 240)
It was Roepke’s mission to reverse this general movement toward the administrative state by
throwing off the general lethargy and public listlessness which characterized most of his peers. Your
mission if you decide to accept it, is to join Roepke in this movement to regain our liberties and our