Thursday, June 20, 2013

At Home in the South: Wilhelm Roepke

Ralph Ancil has written a fine essay that appears at The Imaginative Conservative web site - 'Wilhelm Roepke: German Economist as Southern Neighbor'.  As Mr Ancil's title makes clear, Mr Roepke's thought and life mesh well with the traditional Southern way of living and thinking.  From the Anglo-Saxon/Germanic roots of both to their shared desire for an alternative to socialism and capitalism, there are many likenesses.  These I have tried to show below.  While I quote a great deal from the essay, some things are left out.  The reader is encouraged to read Mr Ancil's essay in its entirety.

Personal Similarities of Roepke with Some Southerners:

'For example, Richard Weaver went home in spring to farm his ancestral fields with horse and plow and refused the use of airplanes, preferring trains for long distance travel. Similarly, Roepke promoted urban gardening for the health of city-dwellers and refused to use ski-lifts, preferring to ride up the mountain slopes on shank’s mare. Or one may refer to the Southern fondness for the books of Sir Walter Scott whose stories of Saxon yeomen fighting Norman invaders parallels those of William Tell fighting Austrian conquerors as eulo­gized in Schiller’s famous poem, admired by Roepke.'

Broader Likeness between the South and the Germany of Roepke’s Time:

'However that may be, in place of compar­ing the South with Ireland, as Weaver did, we could fruitfully compare it with early 19th century Germany. Just as the Old South was essentially a non-materialist civilization, we find pre-capitalist Germany similarly oriented as one of the last regions of traditional, agrarian life in Western Europe. Both patterns of life were highly decen­tralized, religious, historic-minded and industrially “backward.” England and France were to Germa­ny what the North was to the South. The French invaded with their armies and nationalist ideolo­gy, England with its economic doctrines. Both the peasants and nobility opposed the invasion of materialis­m and capitalism.

'On a more authoritative, specific level, we may draw upon Theodore Hamerow’s study of 19th century Germany. The older German way of life was built around the concept of “economic equilibrium” and rooted in a stable communal order with a stable popula­tion. The markets were intended to support an “un­changing standard of living” and to offer supplies that were “local in scope.” It was a “pastoral economic world” with a belief that even in the economy there must be “social justice,” the odium of secular conserva­tives, between producers and consumers. Ham­erow writes: “The advantages inherent in mechani­cal efficien­cy and competitive individualism were renounced for the sake of security and order.” Economic security, a settled way of life, rejection of efficiency and mechan­ics as ends in themselves to be pursued without limit, all characterize the writings of the Twelve Southerners.'

The Old Rural German Order Overthrown Just as the South’s:

'But Germany’s “civil war” was a more protracted affair, dispersed over decades though at times erupting into violence as in the revolutions of 1848. Hamerow comments: “Within the life­time of one generation Germany was forced to accept new forms of production, new methods of transportation, new social classes, new civic ideals, new demographic pressures. It proved too much for a bewildered people. The masses in their agitation began to mutter, complain, threaten, and finally they rose in open revolt against the effects of technological progress.” When all was said and done, Germany’s historic social order, like the South, was gone with the wind and left in the dust of an excessive and dehumanizing indus­trialization.'

Roepke’s Solutions to Modern Problems Rooted in an Admiration of Rural Life:

'In looking for answers to social problems in the still more disastrous aftermath of World War I, Roepke drew upon his rural past whose simple way of life became the cornerstone of his economic and social philosophy. A humane social order begins, Roepke discovered, with the person­al and the spiritual and a humane economy similar­ly begins when something of the poetic is retained in work and consumption, when these become as it were an art, integrated into the rest of life. Just as mere versification does not constitute poetry, so charts and graphs don’t make good econom­ics and the bump and grind of meaningless work doesn’t make for a good economy.'

The Importance to Roepke of Neighborliness, an Idea Deeply Engrained in the Southern Christian Tradition:

'The humane economy then must have its ideal and that ideal for Roepke is best described as “neigh­borly.” He draws attention to the etymolo­gy of the word “neighbor” to explain his views. The German word “Bauer” (farmer or peasant) is not derived from “bauen” (to build), but comes from “Nachbar” which in English is “neighbor” and whose root meaning is “near-dweller” (itself a Saxon-like expression). This, says Roepke, “expresses the friendly warmth of the village community.”

'As an economist, Roepke of course insists that a good society must have free markets and private property. These were as much as anything else a part of the natural order of mankind. However, there are some dangers even in these arrangements if they are carried too far or applied inappropriately. . . .

'Market competition, Roepke insists, is a “necessary social arrangement not a social gospel likely to make us enthusiastic” so it “must be supplement­ed by something which is humanly positive.” What is this “humanly positive” supple­ment? It is certainly not to be found in economic growth and consumerism where “dissatisfaction and discontent seem only to grow with the profu­sion of goods designed for creature comforts and in inverse proportion to the happiness expected of those goods.” Nor is it to be found in a belief in “the often cited living standard” which may “in­toxicate a naive social philosophy” with its materi­al­istic bias but which ignores and undermines the “im­measurable and inexpressible simple happiness which men feel in doing satisfying work and leading purpose­ful lives.”

'Roepke’s answer is as simple as it is radical: to have the “humanly positive” or neigh­borly life, we need “a simultaneous change of our whole economic and social system in favor of drastic decentralization of cities and industries, of the restoration of some more ‘natural order’, more rural, but less urbanized, mecha­nized, industrial­ized, proletarized and commercialized.”'

An Advocate of Self-Sufficient Families:

'A major step in fulfilling this vision is “by enlarging the sphere of marketless self-sufficiency.” Partial self-sufficiency means more people owning productive assets, especially land, includ­ing city-dwell­ers who can grow some of their own foodstuffs. More men should become small capitalists and more goods and services should be produced in the home where feasible, such as homeschooling.'

Looked Askance at the Cult of Technology:

'He further insists that we can and should take a firm and conscientious social control over our techno­logical destinies: “we are not the help­less slaves of technology” but are surely the “captains of our fate.” He rejects as unmanly any “argument of technological inevitability.” Tech­nology and science are no more autonomous than the market and like the latter are to be submitted to humane and moral standards.'

A Bold Defender of Hierarchy and Tradition vs Egalitarianism and Innovation:

'Distinguishing Roepke’s views from other more or less “small is beautiful” approaches is his rejection of egalitarian principles and his emphasis on history and tradition. His restoration of sound princi­ples of living and return to what Russell Kirk would call the “wisdom of our ancestors” leads Roepke to defend a society with social classes, including a “natural nobility” and a functional hierarchy rooted in a Euro­centric tradition, histo­ry, and culture. This natural nobility should act as secular saints providing leadership to countervail both the market and government and rejecting “eccentric novelty” in favor of the “old truths.” Though this status is to be achieved by merito­rious character rather than by birth, Roepke insists it is also true that “without wealth and its inheritance, whereby spiritual and moral tradition is handed down together with its material foundation, a natural aristoc­racy is…impossible.” Such leader­ship usually takes more than one generation to be achieved. Hence a settled life where such slow maturing would be allowed and encouraged is essential.'

An Advocate of a ‘Third Way’ in Economics:

'Put bluntly, Roepke’s views are, like the Southern Agrarians, hard to sell to most Ameri­cans. The complete Yankee of today sees the world as a spectrum dominated by two stark alternatives: the welfare-state/social­ist/communist “liberalism” or the in-your-face individualism of a secular, libertarian “conser­vatism.” Because Roepke cuts across these chuckleheaded divisions, he is usually reject­ed. It takes too much effort to figure him out. Yet his view is eminently simple, and full of common sense. No Ph.D is needed to under­stand him. He advocates private property, free markets and limited government. But he also refuses to deify the market any more than govern­ment and recognizes that other needs must be met, as outlined above.'

His Rejection of the Notion of Endless Progress and Its Close Kin, Unquestioned Adherence to Ideology:

'Roepke is also rejected from a defect common to both the secular right and left. That is their belief in the “automatic” proper­ties of their pet “systems,” either government or capitalism. On the left, the welfare state is supposed to take care of the poor and needy automatically, if only there were more govern­ment agencies and money. On the right, the market is supposed to do the same through greater entrepreneurial license leading to productivity increases and more. If only the government reduced taxes, etc., all of our prob­lems would go away. Like big government, the market is the salve on the conscience which excuses the secularist from loving his neighbor, being his brother’s keeper in the rightly understood sense.

'Roepke understood that both sides are wrong. When these “systems” are absolutized and human problems solved “automatically,” we are dehumanized and the problems are worsened. Political and economic independence, that is, the liberty of a free republic and a free market, re­quire intense personal com­mitment and character. It requires self-sacri­fice on behalf of one’s neigh­bor. And the only thing “automatic” is the pain and discom­fort that comes with self-denial. It has no substitute. This im­plies, as Roepke him­self was the first to point out, that his eco­nomic and social changes must be accompa­nied with “the spiritual and moral change indispensable to lasting improve­ment” and without which nothing else will be effective. In his own life he exemplified that love of neighbor philoso­phy, character and com­mit­ment, which re­flected those traditional village values of his youth and which helped lead him to fight not only National Socialists, Commu­nists and Keynesians but the secular capitalists as well. For all these reasons Roepke’s contribution is of lasting significance and keen interest to those wishing to preserve the Sou­thern lega­cy.'

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