Tuesday, 10 August 2010

From the Austrian Archives

I have become interested in the work of Wilhelm Röpke, one of whose books I quoted below. Here is another interesting passage, this time from 'A Humane Economy'. He is looking back on the lessons from the first fifteen years after the Second World War, giving a lesson on the follies of socialism and a stout defence of liberty ...

What has been the impact of this experience and of its interpretation on a man like myself? Perhaps the one thing I know most definitely is something negative: I can hardly describe myself as a socialist in any meaningful or commonly accepted sense. It took me a long time to become quite clear on this point, but today it seems to me that this statement, properly understood, is the most clear-cut, firm, and definite part of my beliefs. But this is where the problem begins. Where does a man of my kind take his stand if he is to attack socialism because he believes it to be wrong?

Is the standpoint of liberalism the right one to deliver his attack? In a certain sense, yes, if liberalism is understood as faith in a particular "social technique," that is, in a particular economic order. If it is liberal to entrust economic order, not to planning, coercion, and penalties, but to the spontaneous and free co-operation of people through the market, price, and competition, and at the same time to regard property as the pillar of this free order, then I speak as a liberal when I reject socialism. The technique of socialism-that is, economic planning, nationalization, the erosion of property, and the cradle-to-the-grave welfare state--has done great harm in our times; on the other hand, we have the irrefutable testimony of the last fifteen years, particularly in Germany, that the opposite-the liberal-technique of the market economy opens the way to wellbeing, freedom, the rule of law, the distribution of power, and international co-operation. These are the facts, and they demand the adoption of a firm position against the socialist and for the liberal kind of economic order.

The history of the last fifteen years, which is that of the failure of the socialist technique all along the line and of the triumph of the market economy, is indeed such as to lend great force to this faith. But, if we think it through, it is much more than simple faith in a social technique inspired by the laws of economics. I have rallied to it not merely because, as an economist, I flatter myself that I have some grasp of the working of prices, interest, costs, and exchange rates. The true reason lies deeper, in those levels where each man's social philosophy is rooted. And here I am not at all sure that I do not belong to the conservative rather than the liberal camp, in so far as I dissociate rnyself from certain principles of social philosophy which, over long stretches of the history of thought, rested on common foundations with liberalism and socialism,. or at least accompanied them. I have in mind such "isms" as utilitarianism, progressivism, secularism, rationalism, 'optimism, and what Eric Voegelin aptly calls "immanentism" or "social gnosticism."!

In the last resort, the distinction between socialists and nonsocialists is one which divides men who hold basically different views of life and its true meaning and of the nature of man and society. Cardinal Manning's statement that "all human differences are ultimately religious ones" goes to the core of the matter. The view we take of man's nature and position in the universe ultimately determines whether we choose man himself or else "society," the "group," or the "community" as our standard of reference for social values. Our decision on this point becomes the watershed of our political thinking, even though we may not always be clearly aware of this and may take some time to realize it. This remains true in spite of the fact that in most cases people's political thinking is by no means in line with their most profound religious and philosophical convictions because intricate economic or other questions mask the conflict. 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. There remains the hope that one may be able to make them aware of their error and persuade them by means of irrefutable, or at least reasonable, arguments that their choice in the field of economic and social order may have consequences which are diametrically opposed to their own philosophy.

As far as I myself am concerned, what I reject in socialism is a philosophy which, any "liberal" phraseology it may use notwithstanding, 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. 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 highsounding 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. These, I believe, are the reasons why I so greatly distrust all forms of collectivism.
From 'A Humane Economy' by Wilhelm Röpke; cap 'Reappraisal after fifteen years', page 2.

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