The Virtuous Bourgeois

This book review first appeared in the June 1999 edition of Crisis Magazine. It continues yesterday’s symposium on the “bourgeois spirit.” See also Christopher Dawson’s essay, Catholicism and the Bourgeois Mind, Jeffrey Tucker’s reply, In Defense of Bourgeois Civilization, Gerard Russello’s account of Dawson’s contribution, and Crisis editor John Zmirak’s essay, Say It Loud: Bourgeois and Proud.

A Humane Economy: The Social Framework of the Free Market
Wilhelm Röpke, 1998 (Third Edition), ISI, 350 pages, $18.00


It could be said that the measure of a man’s influence on the course of intellectual history is inversely proportional to the degree to which his name resonates among common men. While the names of Jean Buridan and Nicholas de Oresme, for example, are perhaps familiar to the handful of students of historian and philosopher of science Fr. Stanley Jaki, science is indebted to them for the first two laws of motion, the foundation of the entire scientific enterprise.

Much the same could be said for the German economist and social thinker Wilhelm Röpke. The 40th anniversary of the publication of his foundational work, A Humane Economy: The Social Framework of the Free Market, was commemorated this past year with the release of a new third edition by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute with an introductory essay by Dermot Quinn of Seton Hall University.

Born in 1899, Röpke became the youngest university professor in the German-speaking world at the age of 24, attaining a reputation as a leading liberal—in the classical, European sense of the term—thinker and, consequently, a fervent opponent of the growing Nazi movement. Shortly after Hitler’s rise to power, he became the first professor to leave Germany in protest of the regime. Writing in his self-imposed exile, his vision of a free society influenced the intellectual formation of the future chancellor Ludwig Erhard and others who brought about the post-war West German “economic miracle.” Röpke’s arguments were decisive in persuading the West German government to reject Keynesian solutions in favor of a “socially responsible market economy.”

Just as he opposed the Nazis and the intellectuals who paved the way for them before the Second World War, Röpke dedicated his postwar years to denouncing both communism and the “anti-anticommunists” whose intellectual impulses aided its spread. In A Humane Economy, he was prescient enough to recognize that socialism, in all its forms, no matter how benign contained the seeds of its own destruction in its lack of proportion and its inevitable tendency to overstep its limits. In this regard, however, he remarked that:

The market economy is no exception to the rule. Indeed, its advocates, insofar as they are at all intellectually fastidious, have always recognized that the sphere of the market, of competition, of the system where supply and demand move prices and thereby govern production, may be regarded and defended only as part of a wider general order encompassing ethics, law, the natural conditions of life and happiness, the state, politics, and power.

That community of both free markets and virtuous marketers alone constituted what Röpke defined as the “humane economy.”

It would come as an immense satisfaction, if not vindication, to Röpke to see the extent to which his definition has been endorsed by the highest authority of the Church. In the very first volume of the postwar American conservative review, Modern Age, Röpke again revealed himself a man ahead of his time, as he put himself on the record as calling for liberal thinkers to “examine Catholic social philosophy in all its sources, works, and documents, and in all its aspects, to find out if it is akin to our idea of universal liberalism.” That this dialogue—carried on over the years by thinkers such as Michael Novak, Richard John Neuhaus, and George Weigel—bore fruit can be attested to in the 1991 publication of Pope John Paul II’s landmark encyclical letter, Centesimus Annus.

Like Röpke, the pope argued that the “fundamental error of socialism is anthropological in nature” and concluded that “not only is it wrong from the ethical point of view to disregard human nature, which is made for freedom, but in practice it is impossible to do so.” The pope did not hesitate to draw out the implications of his Christian anthropology of human freedom in the field of economics. In fact, Centesimus Annus contains the most striking papal endorsement of the free economy ever, an endorsement that comes in the form of the answer to a pressing question in this famous paragraph:

Can it be said that, after the fall of communism, capitalism is the victorious social system, and that capitalism should be the goal of countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society? . . .

If by “capitalism” is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property, and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative. . . . But if by “capitalism” is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed by a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality . . . then the reply is certainly negative.

In economic terms, the prospects for the humane economy espoused by Röpke appear quite good. In essence, the liberal—or “conservative” in our American parlance—agenda is the only one being seriously considered. The United States, for example, has been treated to the spectacle of a Democratic president who entered office with an unreconstructed, left-wing agenda and ended up signing a welfare reform bill into law. Questions on the bill itself aside, the act was a significant step, a viewpoint reinforced when one considers that that same president stood before the U.S. Congress and declared that “the era of big government is over.”

However, as Röpke pointed out four decades ago and as the pope expressed in Centesimus Annus, “it is not possible to understand man on the basis of economics alone.” Compound the current moral collapse with the political correctness that makes the one unforgivable sin of present times that of “judgmentalism,” and the contemporary dilemma is all the more critical. It was Röpke who reminded his readers that “discussion is possible only where opinions may be expressed in complete freedom, but even then only on condition that both sides accept reason as the common denominator.” Where reason and the moral vision that is born of it clash with inarticulate emotionalism, there can be no proper discussion. Thus, Röpke concluded that “contempt of reason leads to contempt of man and humanity,” quoting Goethe to round off the point:

Goethe knew what he was doing when he let the devil exult: “Reason and Knowledge only thou despise, the highest strength in man lies! Let but the Lying Spirit bind thee, and I shall have thee fast and sure.” And thus we have arrived at the devil’s own present day.

All this, of course, does not bode well for a humane economy in our times.

Röpke was neither a Catholic nor a moral theologian, but in more than one way he presaged the personalist social doctrine that has been the hallmark of Pope John Paul II’s pontificate. In the end, Röpke eloquently argued, the humane economy is founded neither on economic axia nor on financial prosperity but on the correct vision of man—flawed, to be sure, but capable through reason and dialogue of devising institutions and structures that permit imperfect men and women to work together on their own and the common good. No one pretends that it will be easy to discern the common good in our contemporary pluralistic societies. But one must insist that each and every person has the responsibility to use his rational faculties to the fullest, bringing his beliefs and opinions closer to such moral vision as is available to man’s mortal lights. On the success of that endeavor, ultimately, would rest what Röpke would argue are the true prospects for a humane economy in the contemporary world.


Rev. John Peter Pham, a priest of the Diocese of Peoria, is a fellow of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. He holds advanced degrees in economics, theology, and canon law.