Wilhelm Roepke

In order to have a cottage on a secluded lake, within several hundred miles of the High Doganate, one must now own the lake. I haven’t fact-checked this exhaustively, however. There may be a virgin, mosquito-infested puddle north of Sudbury somewhere, that no one has claimed. Parks are nice, but everything pleasant beyond them has been scooped up.

Find a lake of exceptional primaeval beauty, and you have found motorboats, monster homes, and an “infrastructure” being noisily installed and constantly repaired or upgraded; the peace once offered now draining or drained away. This includes the drive to the cottage, which becomes an ever longer horrible experience for the whole family.

The solution, as any businessman or free-market enthusiast will see, is to increase production of secluded lakes. Too, we could take existing, unused secluded lakes, presently in remote and inaccessible wilderness locations, and move them closer to the city.

On further inquiry it turns out this cannot be done. I could explain why, but I fear this would over-extend my patience.

Better, I could refer gentle reader to the works of Wilhelm Roepke, the German economist and social thinker who was the principal architect of the “economic miracle” achieved by Ludwig Erhard (under Konrad Adenauer) — which began three years after the Second World War. Roepke and colleagues were able to explain to this unusually intelligent politician why the continuation of Adolf Hitler’s economic policies — insisted upon by the American, British, and French occupation authorities — could only lead to the continuation of hunger, collapse, social disintegration. Erhard bravely followed Roepke’s “anti-plan.”

Overnight, a slew of financial and other regulations were rescinded, and a new hard currency was launched — more or less behind the occupiers’ backs. Then deeper layers of Bismarckian Nanny Statism were cunningly disassembled. Overnight, Germany began to recover, then prosper. In little time the German economy had overtaken that of e.g. Britain, where the very policies Germany had abandoned were being imposed by Clement Attlee’s “moderate Left” (the policies which Margaret Thatcher finally reversed to trigger a British “economic miracle” in the 1980s).

This, anyway, is the myth upon which the free-market, open-society, Mont Pelerin Society feeds. Like some other myths, it is essentially true. I used to hang about the edges of this club myself, years ago. Roepke was a founder and member until 1962, when a big fight with Friedrich Hayek led to his departure.

Germany’s “economic miracle” lifted all boats — for a while. It saved Germany from a revolutionary socialist implosion. But it was only a quick fix. Roepke, while he lived (1899–1966), tirelessly pointed to the limitations of laissez-faire formulas. The quick fix may quickly fix a few things, in a catastrophe; but over a longer period a longer fix will be required, involving ever less hocus-pocus. Values beyond those of economic necessity must be not only restored, but cultivated. They must survive in the hearts of the people themselves; religion is not “optional.”

I’ve been reminded of Roepke by a chance trail of Internet links, which led me to articles about him from the 1990s, by his disciple Ralph Ancil, which have resurfaced at an interesting website called The Imaginative Conservative. They may give my Hayekian readers some idea of what Roepke’s fight with him was about; or vice versa, for I gather Hayek picked it.

(Only “some idea,” however, and while I have shifted away from the “Austrian School” myself, to a broader and more catholic view of life and society, more like Roepke’s, I would not wish to depreciate Hayek’s economic insights, or cease to recommend him as an historian of ideas who traced positivist and revolutionist currents in social thought back to Descartes. Alas, Hayek’s flaw in all cases is that he is spiritually tone-deaf.)

Roepke described himself as “a Protestant who wished the Reformation never happened.” Much of his thinking was rooted in Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, as well Hugo Grotius. He was committed unambiguously to a Christian society, in opposition to the prevailing statist collectivism. He was never kidding about liberty — not an abstract, ideologized liberty, imposed by state legislation, but a realized and practical freedom in large areas where the state has no business. He had gone to the wall against Nazism, against Communism, and against “social democracy,” too. But he was no starry-eyed libertarian: he knew that real freedom is grounded in cultural continuities, and reverence for enduring truths. Lose these “intangibles,” found society instead on competition, greed, abstract “rights,” libertinism — and man becomes a sick and vicious animal.

The problem of the secluded lake is just the beginning. The problem of Ireland will come into this as well, should we choose to indulge a little conservative imagination. There are “goods” no free market can deliver, because they are prior, in kind and in logic. They cannot be isolated, then quantified, and therefore cannot be transacted in market terms. The market is instead for what can be bought and sold; as politics for things that can be negotiated. We are fools to put everything up for sale; to vote on the most fundamental institutions of society. Past a certain “point of no return,” we can no longer understand what it is we have bartered away. And then we celebrate a new “liberation” after every irreplaceable thing we destroy.

Here is a point Roepke would have made, about the recent Irish referendum: that the issue was not homosexuality, per se. It was rather, Can we toy with such fundamental social institutions as marriage and child-rearing? To think that we can, that we could ever put such things to a vote, and thus remake the moral order according to our current whim, is bottomlessly depraved. It is worse than perverted, it is Benthamite. Yet moral degeneration on this colossal scale does not arise from a vacuum.

It is in the nature of rapid economic growth, as also in the nature of the welfare state (Roepke attacked both), to destroy both economy and societal welfare over the longer course. It is in the nature of “freedom” and “democracy,” as presently conceived, to eliminate genuine human autonomy and, over time, the possibility of human influence in human affairs. The very qualities which civilized men have always acknowledged to be humane, are sacrificed by our glib methods and criteria. We part with the greater good because the lesser good can be isolated, quantified.

Or put this another way. Our ancestors were wise to fear “too much of a good thing.” It can, and invariably does become a bad thing. Moreover, it becomes an evil that we have lost the ability to recognize, or resist; an evil that can thus spread like a cancer.

We want more of everything, and more for everyone, and in the course of getting more and more, we lose the very thing we first wanted. Secluded lakes were just one example.