In his book The Ethics of Rhetoric, Richard Weaver explains different types of argumentation. The most effective type is the argument from definition, which forces one’s attention on values and demands either assent or rejection of those values. In Lincoln’s arguments on slavery, to follow Weaver’s example, the Negro was either a man or not a man. But if the former, then, by virtue of what the definition entails, he ought not to be a slave. In this way Lincoln pinned his opponent, Stephen A. Douglas, on the horns of an either/or dilemma—to Lincoln’s rhetorical advantage.
Much of the national policy debate today also involves trying to avoid being pinned on the horns of a dilemma. For conservatives this means trying to avoid being labeled a “socialist,” a supporter of expansive government. As a result, conservative policy positions are significantly influenced by conventional market considerations and by what may be called a “market ideology,” the view that assigns a disproportionate role to economics and allows it to take the center stage of public policy concerns.
Clearly, this poses a problem for the cultural conservative. While some defenders of culture have smelled a rat here, all too many have felt compelled to adopt the rhetoric, if not always the substance, of the market ideologue’s position. Yet even yielding to the rhetoric can be damaging because it makes the conservative play on his opponent’s turf. The either-you-are-a-laissez-fairist-or-a-socialist argument divides issues up wrongly. It is a false dilemma. It is as though the laissez-fairist confused chastity with celibacy and so believed its only alternative was promiscuity. That a third alternative exists that retains chastity without celibacy or promiscuity—i.e., marriage—remains inconceivable to him.
Adherence to a “Third Way,” which is neither libertarian nor socialist, allowed German economist Wilhelm Roepke to avoid the traps of false dilemmas in the arena of political economy. He accomplished this by observing the sharp distinctions between essentials and incidentals, between the enduring foundations and the variable superstructure deformed by history in considering the nature of the competitive market. He is conservative with respect to the former and radical in jettisoning the latter. What are the essentials? Private property and free markets in the sphere of economies; the personal, the local, and the small—a closeness to nature—in the broader sphere of sociology. The deformities of historical capitalism include: excessively large industries and cities, the “socially blind development of technology,” and a general commitment to the “cult of the colossal.”
Roepke’s basic question is much like Francis Schaeffer’s: How should we then live? His answer is that we must decentralize the economy, not just government, and humanize it. That means we have to reform our society according to a human scale rooted in traditional values, which is different from the acceptable content of modern economics. He understood that economics is not only one of means—often an excuse for promoting license and social irresponsibility—but a moral discipline whose practitioners must take account of ends. The economist must recognize the spiritual, moral, inner life of man. Bemoaning the loss of this ability in the social sciences, he writes: “The effects of this process of [moral and intellectual] disintegration have, however, been particularly striking and disastrous in the case of science, for, influenced by inward instability it has increasingly become a prey to the misunderstanding that all opinions whatsoever and all decisions based on concepts of value are incompatible with the dignity of science.” Not willing to share in this dereliction of duty, Roepke uses economics and other social sciences to analyze the disease of the West and to offer a therapy.
Regarding the diagnosis, modern society is sick with the cancer of “collectivism,” which destroys the social structures of genuine communities. It is an attack on all intermediary levels of authority in favor of direct national (or international) control over otherwise structureless masses. Vermassung, or “enmassment,” is another name for the same process. Families, churches, neighborhoods, local communities, and traditional patterns of work with all their human particularities are undermined in an effort, not always intentional, to produce the faceless, abstract, “free individual.”
The cancer appears in many forms. While Roepke spends a great deal of effort tracing the nuances of the disease, it will suffice here to name four shapes it can assume. First, Roepke argues that explosive population growth in the last century so overwhelmed traditional social structures that it was like an avalanche on fertile soil. It was an invasion of hordes which existing institutions could not property assimilate and enculture. Second, the “socially blind development of technology” destroyed healthier patterns of life and work, replacing them with those of the big cities, urban sprawls, and alienating and unsatisfying occupations. The intermediate cushions of space and time, distance and geographic barrier, are destroyed by modern technology in the name of convenience; the moods of nature are exchanged for those of the market and the big city; emotional stability is exchanged for modern neurosis. Third, the growth of centralized government intrudes more and more into private lives and lower levels of political and communal authority. And fourth, commercialization often encourages an opportunism increasingly devoid of conscience.
This diagnosis sheds light on the needed therapy. A humane economy provides people with economic security and stability through a limited self-sufficiency. Competition and the market, though part of the natural order of human communities, are not their only pillars: “[T]he economic order of a free society presupposes competition only in as far as that economy is a market economy dependent on the division of labor. Competition, therefore, is only one of the pillars on which such an order rests, while the other is self-sufficiency. We are, therefore, free to modify the competitive character of the economy in full harmony with the principles of our economic order, by enlarging the sphere of marketless self-sufficiency. . . . This is a new and important point illustrating the inestimable importance of sustenance faring and the ‘rurification’ of the industrial proletariat.”
Roepke therefore argues for the restoration or expansion of a “peasantry” or “yeomanry” where a large number of men work the land. Others, such as inhabitants of towns and cities, may still grow some of their foodstuffs in garden plots. In this way, a significant volume of economic goods is taken out of a market that is subject to the boom, bust, and fizzle of the business cycle. And people’s lives are improved emotionally by closer contact with nature; “A peasant who is unburdened by debt and has an adequate holding is the freest and most independent man among us; neither food problems nor the threat of unemployment need worry him, and the subjection to the moods of nature which he exchanges for that of the market and the business cycle usually ennobles a man instead of embittering him. His life, from whatever angle we view it, is the most satisfying, the richest and the most complete in terms of human needs.”
This vision is likely to surprise those who are used to seeing Roepke quoted as the staunch anticommunist, defender of free markets, critic of welfare programs, or technical economist discoursing on interest rates, investments, and foreign trade. It is a testament to the willful blindness of some conservatives that this view of Roepke is little known and seldom quoted. It is not the Roepke they wish to promote. And yet this “peasantry” is at the very heart of Roepke’s vision of a humane economy. It is the cornerstone upon which rests the entire structure of the good society. Peasantry understood in the continental sense is the essence of the Third Way, as Roepke himself said.
But peasantry is only a beginning. Beyond this we need to restore and expand the number of small and medium-sized businesses. Small traders and small capitalists help reestablish a humane economy because “they afford a form of life and work which permits a high degree of self-determination, the enjoyment of purposeful work, the warmth of social contact and a well-integrated family life.”
Craftsmen and artisans need to become the prime movers of production. But they will need help through public policy initiatives to combat their historical disadvantages. Help will be necessary to establish these more humane industries by directing technical innovations that serve their needs. Such developments depend on extra-technical social aspects such as the specific problems that technical expertise is given to solve. These problems can just as well be those of traditional craftsmen and artisans as those of large corporations.
It will also be necessary to reestablish small communities where the local, the personal, and the neighborly grow organically. Modern market ideologues speak much of the freedom and spontaneity of the market, but true liberty and spontaneity are local, personal, and small. They occur in communities with continuity and tradition and not abstract and anonymous conglomerations of concrete, computers, strip malls, and ever-expanding highways. One cannot have affection, as Richard Weaver reminded us, for that which is always changing. These considerations lead Roepke to focus on the need for optimum sizes of cities and industries and on economic life that is stable and secure. But Roepke is not the pie-eyed romantic. His reasonings are hardheaded, based on solid economic analysis and real-world experiences. He refers to actual examples of people living the kind of life he recommends, the Switzerland of his day serving as a good model.
Modern man’s insensitivity toward collectivist evils reflects the level of our barbarity. When we lost the instinctive sense of what to honor and what to condemn, we were well along the road to collectivism—and mere freedom from big government will not restore good health. Roepke understood that the deep reforms needed were religious in nature and points to “the spiritual and moral change indispensable to a lasting improvement.” But he also knew that there is a mutual effect between the spiritual and the social, and therefore merely dealing with the one is not enough.
In the early days of the post-World War II conservative movement, the concept of “fusionism” as advanced by Frank Meyer gained some adherents. It shows the intellectual dilemma of the conservative movement when faced with two apparently disparate schemes of political economy. The one emphasizes tradition, culture, the permanent things, and the life of the spirit while the other stresses free markets, trade, individuality, and material property. Fusionism was an effort to put the two together to form a harmonious whole, not just as a front against communism, but as a permanent and coherent way of thinking and living. In Roepke’s vision we find such harmony not as a result of a welding of two disparate parts but as a natural flowing of its organic nature. Roepke’s Third Way is not fusionism, but it does fulfill the needs that fusionists want to satisfy.
But for every benefit there is a cost. For conservatives in general, the harmonious integration of private property and free markets into the vision of the humane economy and culture entails sacrificing some of the secularizing tenets that for one reason or another have crept into their thinking. Foremost among these sacrifices is the myth that free markets never fail except by government interference. Aside from some technical reasons for market failures, Roepke gives a moral explanation for the general tendency of a free market system to fail if based strictly on self-interest and competition: it is not in the interest of any particular participant to remain faithful to the rules of the game. Someone will always yield to the temptation to manipulate public policy in his favor. As if writing for the benefit of public choice advocates, Roepke writes: “But if one tells the various group interest nothing else than that loyal observance of the rules of the competitive price mechanism is in the interest of all and if no strong moral forces are at the same time working to curb their appetites, one must not be surprised by the disappointing results.”
A second sacrifice is the myth that technology and material “growth” are always consistent with traditional values. Roepke deplores as “disastrous” the “blindness and even the smugness with which one gave free rein to an industrial development, which, with sovereign disdain for the vital instincts of man and for his most elementary spiritual needs has, thanks to the forms of life and work in the industrial giant cities, reduced the existence of the masses to something completely unnatural.” Nor is it likely that computers and videos will improve things.
Human nature can not bear a pattern of life driven solely by supply and demand, market and technology, for the cost is too high: “The sum total of the material goods at our disposal may increase through this process, and the often cited living standard may reach those heights which intoxicate a naive social philosophy, but at the same time this leads to a rapid diminution of the sum of that immeasurable and inexpressible simple happiness which men feel in doing satisfying work and leading purposeful lives.” And only through a proper balance of private property, competitive markets within small and stable communities, and a wide distribution of productive land ownership did Roepke believe basic happiness could be restored. This is clearly similar in important ways to the Southern Agrarians and Chestertonian Distributists.
Ultimately, Roepke asks: Does a humane social and economic order require a predominantly agrarian culture? Can character, honor, moral decency, etc., be uprooted from their native soil and flourish in the modern megalopolis? Roepke’s answer is clear. He shares the deep-rooted experience and ancient wisdom extending from Xenophon, Horace, and Aristotle to Thomas Jefferson, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and all others who agree that the relation of “culture” to “agriculture” is not a merely philological one. A true culture has a physiognomy of social and economic particularities that cannot be changed willy-nilly without adverse effects.
Those modern, mainstream economists who disagree suffer from what Roepke called “techno-scientific rationalism.” They implicitly treat values and virtues the way economists treat supply and demand and a few other variables: these are subjected to a simplifying method, excessively formalized and abstract, which removes them from the particularities of real-world connections and foundations. Other important dimensions are lost as well. For example, Roepke differed from modern mainstream economists in insisting that agriculture is not simply an industry just like any other. Anyone who “restricts his thinking to the rational and technical field of the agricultural engineer and concentrates on artificial fertilizer, tractors and maximum yield, is bound to pass blindly by the sociological problem posed here.” He realized that there are special problems peculiar to agriculture that have always made it the problem child of modern capitalism.
Economics wrongly extends this concept of interchangeability and substitutionism to include any number of social structures, habits, or patterns of living. It is a kind of professional promiscuity that treats its subject matter like those therapists who discuss human sexuality in purely clinical terms while leaving out the moral, the spiritual, and the poetic, so that, abstractly speaking, it makes no difference which partner is doing what with whom. For this reason, Roepke—the scion of generations of German country physicians—speaks of society not as a machine with interchangeable parts but as an organic whole with a distinctive morphology and biology.
It is this sin of substitutionism, aided and abetted by science and technology, which, first applied to farming, later spread like weeds to other objects of economic interest. It makes a difference whether the Sabbath is treated like any other day of the week; it makes a difference who is the primary breadwinner in the family; it makes a difference whether parents or daycare centers take care of children. These are not interchangeable substitutes. But the doctrine of substitutionism in economic theory and in political practice contributed to opening the floodgates of commercialization from which nothing is safe, neither the Sabbath nor the human body, to which unspeakable savageries are now performed in the name of reproductive science. This is the essence of the inhumane that creeps in through capitalism and a free market as well as through big government or communism. Wilhelm Roepke’s humane economics deliver us from such evils.