What if we dumped Rand for Röpke?

Wilhelm Röpke

After addressing Ayn Rand’s anti-Christian philosophy, I think it’s important to propose an alternative. This is particularly important for Christians who defend the free market and would like to expand economic freedom. Just because Ayn Rand is of the devil doesn’t mean that capitalism is too. They are not the same thing.

Sadly, some people seem to think so. “I think Christians would be less likely to embrace socialism if they understood that the economic philosophy of Ayn Rand is compatible with Christianity,” explains one pundit, as if those were our two choices: socialism and Randianism.

It’s a false dichotomy. Capitalism has had many defenders. Some, rather than being anti-religious like Rand, are self-consciously Christian. Rand’s contemporary, Wilhelm Röpke, is one such example.

Looking back at the tremendous upheavals of the first half of the twentieth century, many responded by embracing socialism, both in Europe and even America. Not Röpke. A professional economist, he lectured, wrote several books, and was partly responsible for engineering Germany’s post-WWII recovery. One of his books, published one year after Atlas Shrugged hit the market, remains essential reading today.

The book is The Humane Economy: The Social Framework of the Free Market, and I think it warrants quoting at length, particularly from the first chapter, which helps explain the crisis in modern Western social and economic systems and explains where Röpke was coming from in addressing the problem:

People may be led by Christian and humane convictions to declare themselves in sympathy with socialism and may actually believe that this is the best safeguard of man’s spiritual personality against the encroachments of power, but they fail to see that this means favoring a social and economic order which threatens to destroy their ideal of man and human freedom. . . . As far as I myself am concerned, what I reject in socialism is a philosophy which . . . places too little emphasis on man, his nature, and his personality and which, at least in its enthusiasm for anything that may be described as organization, concentration, management, and administrative machinery, makes light of the danger that all this may lead to the sacrifice of freedom in the plain and tragic sense exemplified by the totalitarian state.

It’s hard-hitting stuff, but unlike Rand, Röpke grounded his critique of socialism and his defense of free markets in a thoroughly Christian understanding of man and his world.

My picture of man is fashioned by the spiritual heritage of classical and Christian tradition. I see in man the likeness of God; I am profoundly convinced that it is an appalling sin to reduce man to a means (even in the name of high-sounding phrases) and that each man’s soul is something unique, irreplaceable, priceless, in comparison with which all other things are as naught. I am attached to a humanism which is rooted in these convictions and which regards man as the child and image of God, but not as God himself, to be idolized as he is by the hubris of a false and atheist humanism [e.g., like Rand's Objectivism--JJM]. These, I believe, are the reasons why I so greatly distrust all forms of collectivism.

It is for the same reasons that I champion an economic order ruled by free prices and markets — and also because weighty arguments and compelling evidence show clearly that in our age of highly developed industrial economy, this is the only economic order compatible with human freedom, with a state and society which safeguard freedom, and with the rule of law. For these are the fundamental conditions without which a life possessing meaning and dignity is impossible for men of our religious and philosophical convictions and traditions.

Not only is this critique of an entirely differing quality than Rand’s, it’s far deeper as well. Röpke saw the materialist answers of socialism as papering over the spiritual crisis that beset Western civilization in the middle twentieth century, and still does to this day:

We shall save ourselves only if more and more of us have the unfashionable courage to take counsel with our own souls and, in the midst of all this modern hustle and bustle, to bethink ourselves of the firm, enduring, and proved truths of life. . . . [T]he ultimate source of our civilization’s disease is the spiritual and religious crisis which has overtaken all of us and which each must master for himself. Above all, man is Homo religiosus, and yet we have, for the past century, made the desperate attempt to get along without God, and in the place of God we have set up the cult of man, his profane or even ungodly science and art, his technical achievements, and his State. We may be certain that some day the whole world will come to see, in a blinding flash, what is now clear to only a few, namely, that this desperate attempt has created a situation in which man can have no spiritual and moral life, and this means that he cannot live at all for any length of time, in spite of television and speedways and holiday trips and comfortable apartments. We seem to have proved the existence of God in yet another way: by the practical consequences of His assumed non-existence.

If Röpke is right, then the last thing that we need is more of Rand. We should also draw a critical eye to the materialist answers of consumerism, which today corrodes our society and numbs us to the realities around and within us as surely as does socialism.

We need “to take counsel with our own souls and . . . bethink ourselves of the firm, enduring, and proved truths of life.” We’ve tried economics without reference to God, and no one’s better for it.

Socialism is a dead end, one that represses human freedom. But I don’t need Rand to tell me that. Rand’s critique is unnecessary and ultimately unhelpful because it is undergirded by an atheistic, anti-Christian philosophy. Our choice isn’t between socialism and Rand. We would be far better served by giving more space to people like Wilhelm Röpke.

To read more of Röpke, click here for a free PDF of The Humane Economy.

About Joel J. Miller

I'm the author of Lifted by Angels, a look at angels through the eyes of the early church. Click here for more about me or subscribe to my RSS here.

  • http://outofegyptblog.wordpress.com/ Fr. James Guirguis

    Thanks for this article. I had never heard of Ropke, but I’m looking forward to reading his work now.

    • http://joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      I’ve wrestled off and on with Röpke for a long time now. I was once a much bigger fan of Rand’s. At some point I came to see her atheism as so foundational to her scheme, that even her defense of the free market was spoiled.

      But Röpke was more conservative than I liked. As I’ve read him more (and matured), I think that’s more a virtue than I previously did. Röpke’s main reminder to us is that there is more than supply and demand to supply and demand. Economics hangs on virtues and values that transcend economics. If those are ignored, we create problems for ourselves.

      It’s bit of a tangent, but a friend emailed me today something that speaks to the tradition of economics that grew out of primarily Catholic Spain. “The Late Scholastics,” as they are called, could likely teach us as well.

  • http://outofegyptblog.wordpress.com/ Fr. James Guirguis

    Thanks for this article. I had never heard of Ropke, but I’m looking forward to reading his work now.

    • http://joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      I’ve wrestled off and on with Röpke for a long time now. I was once a much bigger fan of Rand’s. At some point I came to see her atheism as so foundational to her scheme, that even her defense of the free market was spoiled.

      But Röpke was more conservative than I liked. As I’ve read him more (and matured), I think that’s more a virtue than I previously did. Röpke’s main reminder to us is that there is more than supply and demand to supply and demand. Economics hangs on virtues and values that transcend economics. If those are ignored, we create problems for ourselves.

      It’s bit of a tangent, but a friend emailed me today something that speaks to the tradition of economics that grew out of primarily Catholic Spain. “The Late Scholastics,” as they are called, could likely teach us as well.

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  • Rottweiler

    Thank you Joel. I am a big fan of Ran but was troubled by some of her anti-christian leanings. I am looking forward to reading more.

  • Rottweiler

    Thank you Joel. I am a big fan of Ran but was troubled by some of her anti-christian leanings. I am looking forward to reading more.

  • Mike Rapkoch

    Thank you Mr. Miller for the link to the article on medieval economics. Economics has a clear connection to the pivotal writings and thought of Thomas Aquinas. This article will help much in my research on the Catholic Church and economics.

  • Joe

    Once again, the author can’t make sense. I mean that literally. He abdicated reason as a guide by eschewing Rand (everything Rand wrote was reasoned) and claiming faith as a beacon for reaching conclusions on economics. Once that happens, it’s like paddling with one oar, around and around in circles.

    Rand used reason as a guide. From that, she logically developed her whole belief system. Part of that was realizing the fact there are no gods. But that’s just a minor part. Starting with each man’s right to life, a whole philosophy of freedom follows. It is a philosophy of Beauty that shows us mankind can lead happy, prosperous, peaceful lives on this earth in reality in present day. What could be wrong with that? The political/economic extension of that is capitalism. EVERYTHING she believed was 100% consistent with everything else. There was no using logic sometimes and turning it off at others like religious people do. Because of this, the religious are. Obviously threatened by her because they literally have no answer. Rather than facing the shaky foundation for their beliefs and perhaps reconsidering, the religious tend to demonize her, attack her, etc, and she’s someone who only wrote as mankind’s biggest advocate. Kind of sad.

    If you want eloquent defenses of capitalism that are well researched and well written, try the austrain school economists like Ludwig Von mises. Religion doesn’t play any part in any of the works, like it shouldn’t. Religion is for one to deal with on ones own time and should have no bearing on politics, economics, or government as those fields require clear thinking and logic, not mysticism and faith. If that works for you on your own time, great, but it’s pitiful and fruitless to try to apply faith-based belief to logical fields, as this article makes plain.

    • Joel J. Miller

      It’s hardly as cut and dried as you make it. Röpke was an Austrian economist, and the digital copy of The Humane Economy linked above is provided by the Mises Institute.

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  • http://arcticpilgrim.com Justin

    Yes, Rand can go.

    There is no difference whatsoever between Rand’s objectivism and the “ethics” of Anton LaVey’s “church of Satan.”

    Justin

    • Joel J. Miller

      Not only is there no difference, but LaVey’s “church” actually credits Rand for some of its views. See here for details.

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  • John Carter

    I support capitalism but I think posing socialism and free market as sole alternatives is another false dichotomy. For example, public libraries and roads are kind of socialistic and they don’t take away our liberties … unless you believe that taxation is theft. I think that is entitlement thinking. We want all the resources of society … as a handout. When I go to Dillons for groceries, I don’t think it is a violation of my freedom if I have to pay for them. But we have compartmentalized our social awareness to the point that a child five minutes before delivery is a carrot and five minutes after, a person with “rights”. Apparently, Iraq, Afghanistan and all of Africa is populated by fetuses and carrots. Point being, the same compartmentalization that gives us the stance that a woman must be free and therefore has no responsibility to a life she bears if she doesn’t want it is the compartmentalization we have with free market fundamentalism. We may not wish to recognize our kinship with other human beings but it is there nonetheless.

  • Richard_L_Kent

    I am all for dumping Rand. But we need an American to answer her. Not another German with an umlaut….. German philosophy has been the bane of the West for 350 years…..


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