Learning from the history of Conservatism:
Main Trails and Less-Travelled Paths
By Allan C. Carlson,
This essay is adapted from a lecture given to a
Regional Leadership Conference convened by The Intercollegiate Studies Institute
and held at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 8 November 2008. Dr.
Carlson is president of The Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society.
By training, I am an historian. I love the
discipline and believe that historical mindedness — the ability to see and
understand the grounding of current institutions, issues, and events in the
complex matrix of the past — this is the superior way to make sense of reality.
All the same, I have been troubled for over a decade by the
growing interest of American conservatives in the history of their cause.
This is not to criticize fine books such as George Nash’s The
Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945.
Nor is it to imply that ignorance is the better strategy for guiding a
cultural, political, and intellectual campaign. Nor is it to
deny that any movement calling itself “conservative” must, by definition, have a
healthy — even determinative — regard for the past.
My concern is over a kind of triumphalism that has crept into
American conservatism, a neo-Hegelian view that sees this cause rising out of
the intellectual rubble of the Truman era, destined by the spirit to history to
create mass publications, to control the radio airwaves, to found great think
tanks, and to dominate a political party. This version of
history sees the apotheosis of the movement in the creation of FOX News.
This has actually tended, I believe, toward a narrowing of thought, and a
closing off of healthy debate.
Well, I am not a Hegelian and I have agreed to speak about
“Learning from Conservative History,” so let me turn to that.
I will first examine four “Main Trails” that converged over the last
sixty years to form American conservatism. I will then
examine the legacy of the conservative ascendancy. Finally I
will explore several “less-travelled paths,” forms of conservatism largely
abandoned along the way.
The oddest thing about modern American conservatism is that it
emerged during the late 1940’s and 1950’s, a time of perhaps unparalleled
American power, economic expansion, and social order. The
United States came out of World War II with an unprecedented military machine,
and an astonishing global presence. The American industrial
economy was the wonder of the world. The Bretton Woods
agreement delivered stability to international finance and opened markets to
American goods. American capitalists, demonized during the
1930’s, were heroes again, patriots all, and relatively humble in their
compensation claims. Every year, hundreds of thousands of
American families moved up into the middle class, becoming homeowners in the
burgeoning, optimistic suburbs. The American welfare state,
organized around the New Deal’s social security, was modest in its claims and
popular. The national debt was manageable, and shrinking as
a percentage of Gross National Product. Most unexpectedly,
negative family trends of a century’s duration had all reversed.
A marriage boom commenced; the average age of first marriage fell to 22
for men and around 20 for women: records both.
By age 40, 95 percent of American adults were married.
More dramatic was the Baby Boom. Overall, the U.S.
fertility rate nearly doubled between 1940 and 1957. Defying
a law of sociology, the greatest rise in fertility was among women who had
attended college. Following a post-war spike, even the
divorce rate fell steadily through the 1950’s. Church
construction was booming; the Sunday schools were bursting at the seams with
little Christians. As LIFE
magazine summarized in 1960, “the American people did all these things and more.
They did them under the benign and permissive Eisenhower sun,” an era “in
which so many age-old visions of the good life first became real.”
So, just what was the problem?
One set of answers came from a group of economists, loosely
called the libertarians. A number of them had been raised
and trained in Europe, only to become refugees from Nazism or Communism.
Perhaps this grounding in Old Europe gave them a stronger sense of
history, a deeper perception that allowed them to see beyond certain
superficialities. They were vividly aware of how near the
destruction of all human freedom had recently come. In 1940,
Bolshevism and its collectivist economy dominated the earth’s greatest land
mass, the Soviet Union. National Socialism in Germany was
proving to be a remarkably effective vehicle for building racial empire through
an economy planned for conquest. Other fascist variations —
also harnessing the power of strident nationalism to socialist forms — were
popping up around the globe: most effectively, the Japanese
militaristic model. Historian John Lukacs has suggested that
the United States and the British Empire, by themselves, could probably not have
prevailed over this descending darkness.
Economist Friedrich Hayek’s masterpiece The Road to Serfdom,
written in 1942 (but published after the war), ably captures the time.
Pointing to both German Nazi and Russian Soviet examples, he concludes
that “the cry for an economic dictator is a characteristic stage in the movement
toward planning.” And economic planning was the great trap.
Only Adolf Hitler’s remarkable invasion of the Soviet Union — a
war of choice on his part — and the consequent troubled alliance of Great
Britain and America with the USSR, only those things allowed democracy to
survive in Western Europe. However, victory over one
totalitarian system quickly gave way to new problems: an expansive and again
belligerent Communist Russia; and a newly emboldened Democratic Socialism.
Even in Britain and America, many now believed that “democratic” economic
planning had been vindicated by the war. In Great Britain,
the Labour Party swept to power with a program of socialist planning.
In America, Keynesianism — the demand-side theories of John Maynard
Keynes — became the new orthodoxy. In liberated Europe,
other political leaders turned to economists such as the social democrat Gunnar
Myrdal of Sweden, who served as the Executive Secretary of the influential
Economic Commission for Europe.
Hayek and other “Austrian economists” such as Ludwig von Mises
settled in America. They raised their banner against
Keynesianism, arguing instead for liberty, including a free economic system
involving deregulation and faith in market forces. While
building on somewhat different assumptions, American-born economists at the
University of Chicago — notably Milton Friedman and George Stigler — agreed with
the Austrians that Keynesian economics rested on contradictions that hampered
efficiency, limited growth, and encouraged unhealthy “rent seeking.”
They warned that the American prosperity of the 1950’s was precarious,
the result of historical accidents that would not last.
Another set of warnings came from
writers usually labeled “traditionalists.” In his 1948 book
Ideas Have Consequences, rhetorician Richard Weaver argued that the true
Western philosophical consensus had dissolved. Practical men
— “those in charge of states, of institutions, of businesses” — now faced the
task of persuading “to communal activity people who no longer have the same
ideas about the most fundamental things.” With the then
ubiquitous Life magazine especially in mind, Weaver said that
vested interests now tried to maintain traditional values artificially.
They had constructed what he called the “Great Stereopticon,” a medium,
which projected “selected pictures of life in the hope that what is seen will be
imitated.” Moreover, these “metaphysicians of publicity”
pressed the idea that the goal of life was “happiness through comfort.”
Weaver believed, however, that the true result was “a sickly metaphysical
dream,” too weak to sustain anything more burdensome than easy abundance.
Russell Kirk of Michigan also had no illusions about the
American miracle of the 1950’s. A ruralist himself, he held
no sympathy for the burgeoning suburbs. Referring to Long
Island, he wrote:
During the late fifties..., I watched
...the devastation of what had been a charming countryside....To make room for a
spreading population was necessary, but to do it hideously and stupidly was not
Elsewhere, he called “this brutal destruction of the very
landscape...a belligerent repudiation of what we call civilization.
It is a rejection of our civilized past.” So much for
the creature comforts of Levittown.
Kirk’s essential project was to recover and animate an American
conservative philosophy. His great teacher in this respect
was the British statesman Edmund Burke. From him, Kirk
adopted the concept of “moral imagination,” which he described as an intuitive
human power to perceive ethical truths and a natural law within the apparent
chaos of experience. He traced the legacy of Burke’s “moral
imagination” through American philosophers and poets, including Paul Elmer More,
Irving Babbitt, and T. S. Elliot.
Kirk called “traditions” the “wisdom of the [human] race; they
are the only sure instruments of moral instruction..., and they teach us the
solemn veneration of the eternal contract which cannot be imparted by pure
reason.” He defined traditions as “presumptive social
habits, prejudices, customs and political usages, which most people accept with
little question, as an intellectual legacy from their ancestors.”
Kirk readily acknowledged that change must and would occur.
Yet such reform had to take place within sound tradition.
Moreover, while Kirk praised free enterprise as “the most productive and
most [generous] economic arrangement conceivable,” he cautioned that a market
economy could only survive within a web of custom, religion and community.
Libertarians and Traditionalists:
these were the two strands of a proto-conservatism that emerged in the
late 1940’s and early 1950’s. William F. Buckley, a son of
Yale University, took on the task of unifying them — fusing them — in the
journal National Review, launched in 1955. “Ordered
liberty” became the catch phrase. Early results, though,
were not encouraging. Friedrich Hayek, for example, saw no
grounds for cooperation. And while he regularly wrote for
National Review, Kirk turned down an invitation from Mr. Buckley to
become an editor.
It was from Frank Meyer, who did serve as an editor at the
magazine, that fusionism gained theoretical coherence. His
book In Defense of Freedom described
conservatism as an embrace of “the Christian understanding of the nature and
destiny of man”; while “reason operating within tradition” formed the core
principle of the West. Meyer argued that the American
founders had adopted the “fusionist” scheme of James Madison, instead of the
“authoritarian” ideas of Alexander Hamilton or the “libertarian” approach of
Still, many traditionalists and libertarians refused to buy into
fusionism. Politicians, however, found it immensely useful.
As Senator Barry Goldwater explained in his 1960 book The Conscience
of a Conservative, the conservative
approach “is nothing more or less than an attempt to apply the wisdom and
experience and the revealed truths of the past to the problems of today.”
Freedom and order became his catchwords. In his
acceptance speech at the 1964 Republican convention, Goldwater declared:
“This party...has but a single resolve, and that is freedom — freedom
made orderly for the nation by our constitutional government; freedom under a
government limited by the laws of nature and of nature’s God; freedom — balanced
so that order, lacking liberty, will not become a slave of the prison cell;
balanced so that liberty, lacking order, will not become the license of the mob
and the jungle.” So did fusionist conservatism reach into the Republican Party.
Of course, the golden days, the “happy days”, of the 1950’s did
come to an end. Actually, the year 1964 is an excellent
choice to mark the advent of the notorious “60’s”. Some wag
once said that if you can remember the 1960’s, you weren’t there.
Whatever the case, over a ten-year period, the Potemkin village that had
been Eisenhower’s America mostly crumbled. The
counter-culture, the drug-culture, the New Left, bra-burning feminism, the
political assassinations, the sexual revolution, the blood claimed by a land war
in Asia: these and more tore through American culture,
leaving it disfigured. By 1974, America was in global
retreat, with the fate of South Vietnam soon to be sealed.
The American economy was in serious recession; the Keynesian bromides no longer
worked. The divorce rate was soaring; the marriage rate
tumbling; the Baby Bust was in full swing; and abortion-on-demand was the law of
These disorientations actually generated two new elements of the
emerging American conservative coalition: the
neo-conservatives; and the Religious Right.
Neo-Conservatives and the Religious Right
A neo-conservative has been
defined as “a liberal mugged by reality.” There is truth
here, but the ideological origins of the neo-conservatives were more complex.
Some such as Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell emerged out of the radical
politics centered around the City University of New York during the 1930’s,
where as young men they had tried on Marxism. Others such as
Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Jeane Kirkpatrick were Roman Catholics disturbed by
the liberal utopianism and irrationality of the New Left.
Concerning domestic politics, they used social science to counter ambitious
radicalism, a recurrent theme in the late journal The Public Interest.
They also defended the limited New Deal welfare state as necessary to
social peace. In foreign affairs, they advocated a strong
anti-Communism, and they defended the state of Israel from New Left criticism.
More broadly, they believed that the United States must continue the role
of global policeman, lest chaos ensue. In economics,
neo-conservatives such as Michael Novak became exuberant cheerleaders for what
they called Democratic Capitalism.
The Religious Right was a product of the 1970’s.
Its first manifestation came in 1972 as Phyllis Schlafly of Illinois
launched her remarkable and successful campaign to stop the feminist-inspired
Equal Rights Amendment. When the U.S. Supreme Court issued
its Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, creating a right to abortion, most evangelical
Protestants actually were unconcerned. Some prominent
evangelical figures even welcomed the decision as an advance of religious
liberty, against Roman Catholic machinations. However, over
the next several years, Protestant writers including Francis Schaeffer and
Harold O.J. Brown reawakened the evangelical conscience over abortion.
In 1977, the new Jimmy Carter Administration launched a series of bizarre
initiatives against American churches. The Carter regime
wanted to regulate religious fundraising, to strip some Christian schools of
their tax exemption, and to otherwise narrow religious exemptions from Federal
oversight. Carter’s promised White House Conference on The
American Family became instead a conference on “American Families,” where
concerns over soaring levels of divorce, abortion, and illegitimacy were
displaced by a strange celebration of unmarried mothers and other “new family
forms.” All these developments led to new organizations,
ranging from the poorly named, short-lived, but influential Moral Majority to
the formidable Focus on the Family. Centuries-old suspicions
between conservative Protestants and orthodox Catholics definitely gave way to a
new spirit of practical alliance.
The Reagan Coalition
Ronald Reagan drew these four strands — libertarianism,
traditionalism, aggressive anti-Communism, and Christian activism — together in
his successful run for the Presidency in 1980. In declaring
his candidacy, he famously announced:
A troubled and afflicted mankind looks
to us, pleading for us to keep our rendezvous with destiny; that we will uphold
the principles of self-reliance, self-discipline, morality — and above all —
responsible liberty for every individual; that we will become that shining city
on a hill.
Well, as of early November, the Reagan Era is over.
The conservative political coalition that kept the California governor,
his Vice President, and that V.P.’s son in the White House for 20 of the last 28
years, and that brought Congress under Republican control for a dozen years:
that coalition was pretty well drubbed.
There had always been tensions within:
• Traditionalists were
troubled by the libertarians’ lack of respect for the transcendent moral order
and by what they saw as the neo-conservatives’ messianic view of foreign policy.
Libertarians distrusted the traditionists’ call for order, the neo-Conservative
faith in government, an activist foreign policy, and war, and the Religious
Rights’ insistence on a normative family structure.
Neo-conservatives were put off by what they considered the musty Toryism of the
traditionalists, by the libertarian faith in a spontaneous international order,
and by the anti-intellectualism of the religious Right.
The Religious Right saw libertarians as “libertines” and constantly found
Christian “Main Street” values subordinated to “Wall Street” priorities.
These tensions became more visible as the “glue” of
anti-Communism faded away after 1990; but the coalition soldiered on, most
recently under John McCain, to the dawn of the Age of Obama.
Where are we now?
In foreign affairs, the United States is caught in two Middle
Eastern wars. While matters have surely improved in Iraq —
more through short-term deals cut with tribal sheikhs and ethnic leaders than
through military victories — while Iraq is better, the situation in Afghanistan
And in economics, the United States is in an odd and oddly
crippling recession, triggered by financial speculation in American housing and
insurance markets and reverberating around the globe.
Fairly or not, American conservatism as defined by the Reagan
coalition appears to be taking the ideological fall, so-to-speak, for these
circumstances, particularly for the consequences of the Bush Doctrine in foreign
affairs and of deregulation in the economic sphere. As
conservatives reassemble in the post-Reagan era, I suspect that a new variation,
a different kind of coalition, may be necessary. What might
it look like? Alas, that is the arena of the futurist, not
the historian. However, there have been other “conservative”
possibilities in the past, paths that were not followed.
Perhaps one or more of these might help provide a more coherent response to the
new circumstances of our time.
One less-travelled path could be
labeled Distributism, American style. In 1934, a young
American journalist and historian — Herbert Agar — wrote a long essay for the
American Review, entitled “The Task for Conservatism.”
It reflected the six years he had just spent in England, working as a junior
editor at G.K.’s Weekly, the journal published and edited by G.K.
Chesterton. While embracing the label “conservative,” Agar
stated that it had been thoroughly “discredited,” twisted by what he called the
apostles of plutocracy into a defense of “gamblers and promoters.”
He now wanted to save the term, by appealing to “another, and an older,
America,” a time when there was virtue in and a moral plan for the nation.
Central to this plan, Agar insisted, was “the widest possible
distribution of property.” Among some of the American
founders, such as Jefferson, “this [had] meant agrarianism,” or self-sufficient
farming. To others, such as John Adams, “this [had] meant an
interdependent community” of farmers and modest merchants, with government
maintaining the balance. Agar insisted that all the founders
believed that “a wide diffusion of property...made for enterprise, for family
responsibility, and in general for institutions that fit man’s nature.”
But America, he continued, had lost its way over the course of
the 19th Century. The natural wealth of the nation tied to
the industrial revolution had raised “the rewards for a successful raid on
society to dangerous heights.” Protestant Christianity went
into decline, proving incapable of restraining economic “buccaneers.”
Property grew concentrated; the sharecropper replaced the yeoman; the
renter replaced the homeowner; factory workers fell into dependence on an hourly
wage; democracy degenerated toward mob rule.
Could the situation be reversed? Agar
thought it possible that trends had gone too far in the wrong direction.
“If Americans have come to believe that a wage is the same thing as
freedom; if they prefer such a wage, with its appearance of security, to the
obvious danger and responsibilities of ownership, then they cannot be saved from
the servitude which awaits them.” Yet, he concluded that a
“redistribution of property” could still be accomplished; this would be “the
root of a real conservative policy for the United States.”
The ownership of land, machine shop, store, or a share of “some necessarily huge
machine” needed to become the normal thing, to set the moral tone for society.
Such a system, though, was not in line with existing trends.
“It must be produced artificially,” Agar said, “and then guarded by
favorable legislation.” He argued for differential taxation
on business profits and corporate-held property, to favor the small, family-held
Following Chesterton and his sometime collaborator Hilaire
Belloc, Agar also warned against an informal merger between Government and the
great Banks and Corporations. In this scheme, financiers
would continue their speculations and consolidations, while the state would
confirm workers in their dependent status through a minimum program of social
insurance and welfare, tied to wage labor. The result would
not be socialism, Agar explained, but what Chesterton called the Business
Government or what Belloc labeled the Servile State.
A second less-travelled path was
conservative communitarianism, a defense of society’s little platoons, a
suspicion of all big entities, including the great corporations and the national
security state. While prefigured in Burke and also to be
found in Russell Kirk, this orientation received full expression in the work of
sociologist Robert Nisbet. His 1953 book Quest for
Community focused on “the individual uprooted, without status,
struggling for revelations of meaning, seeking fellowship in some kind of moral
community.” Nisbet dissected what he called the “ideology of
economic freedom” falsely built on an atomistic view of human nature.
He argued that “the so-called free market never [really] existed at all
save in the imaginations of the rationalists.” The 19th
century capitalist system seemed to work, Nisbet asserted, only because it had
inherited the moral capital of truly natural communities — the family, the
village, the church — “which had nothing whatsoever to do with the essence of
capitalism.” Direct social affiliation alone brought
acceptable order: “Not all the asserted advantages of mass
production and corporate bigness will save capitalism if its purposes become
impersonal and remote, separated from the symbols and relationships that have
meaning in human life.”
Nisbet said something similar about the national security state.
In an essay entitled “Uneasy Cousins” he compared and contrasted
libertarianism and traditionalism, here called conservatism:
He reported: “...there is a common dislike of war and, more
especially, of the war-society this country knew in 1917 and 1918 under Woodrow
Wilson and again under FDR in World War II.” Nisbet noted
that opposition to America’s modern wars, from the Spanish-American conflict on,
“...came from those elements of the economy and social order which were
generally identifiable as conservative — whether ‘middle western isolationist,’
traditional Republican, central European ethnic, [or] small business....”
These were persons “closely linked to...church, local community, family,
and traditional morality.” Nisbet concluded:
“This was the element in American life, not the miniscule libertarian
element, that both Woodrow Wilson and FDR had to woo, persuade, propagandize,
convert, and, in some instances virtually terrorize in order to pave the way for
eventual entry by U.S. military forces in Europe and Asia.”
A third less-travelled path is
the original cultural pessimism of the neo-conservatives. An
exemplary expression of this was Daniel Bell’s 1976 book, The Cultural
Contradictions of Capitalism. In brief, Bell
argued that the frenzied economic impulse of capitalism had long been held in
check by Puritan restraint and the Protestant ethic. While
these checks permitted great capital accumulation, they also limited sumptuary
or extravagant consumption. “One worked because of one’s
obligation to one’s calling, or to fulfill the covenant of the community.”
“Being moral meant being industrious and thrifty.”
“If one wanted to buy something, one should save for it.”
Alas, according to Bell, the Protestant ethic of vocation and thrift was done in
by capitalism itself. He wrote:
The greatest single engine in the
destruction of the Protestant ethic was the invention of the installment plan,
or instant credit. Previously one had to save in order to
buy. But with credit cards one could indulge in instant
The creative trick here was to avoid the word “debt,” while
emphasizing the word “credit,” allowing everyone to live beyond their
means...for a time.
Irving Kristol, the “godfather” of neo-conservatism, also linked
“the decline of the bourgeois ethic” to the “drainage of legitimacy out of the
business system” in his 1978 book, Two Cheers for Capitalism.
Crafting a sharp critique of Friedrich Hayek, Kristol charted the
transformation of the United States from “a capitalist, republican community,
with shared values and a quite unambiguous claim to the title of a just order”
into “a free, democratic society” where “the will to success and privilege had
been severed from all moral moorings.” In short, “the
dynamics of capitalism itself,” especially the building of a system of easy
consumer credit, subverted both virtue and justice, bringing the whole system
Dismantling the Servile State, building a true Distributist
property state, defending small communities of virtue from mega-systems,
exposing within capitalism the corrupting influence of a culture of debt:
these paths once less-travelled may be of greater appeal to a future
William F. Buckley and to the next American conservatism.
This essay originally appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of The
Intercollegiate Review, a publication of the Intercollegiate Studies
Institute. It appears here with permission.
was an unusual free-market economist working in a difficult time.
I believe that we should see him, first of all, as a product of 1914, the
year which launched what he called “the devastation on so gigantic a scale to
which mankind, then having gone mad, dedicated itself.”
Mustered to war as a young man, Roepke served in the trenches on the Western
Front. He concluded that a civilization “capable of such
monstrous depravity must be thoroughly rotten.” Roepke
pledged that if he “were to escape from the hell” of the Great War, he would
devote his life to “preventing the recurrence of this abomination.”
He also resolved that war “was simply the rampant essence of the state,”
collectivism run amuck, and he launched his life-long “struggle against economic
nationalism..., monopolies, heavy industry and large scale farming interests,”
all of which he believed had given encouragement to the terrible conflict.
starting point for his economic views was Christian. A descendent of
German Lutheran pastors, Roepke held to that concept which “makes man the image
of God whom it is sinful to use as a means” and who embodies inestimable value
as an individual. Noting that the idea of liberty had appeared uniquely in
Christian Europe, he concluded “that only a free economy is in accordance with
man’s [spiritual] freedom and with the political and social structures ...that
The key pillar of that social structure, Roepke maintained, was
the natural family. Along with religion and art, he held
that the family did not exist for the state, but was “pre-statal, or even
supra-statal.” In its essence, family life was “natural and
free,” while the “well ordered house” served as the very foundation of
civilization. Derived from “monogam[ous] marriage,” he said
that the family was “the original and imperishable basis of every higher
community.” The “centre of gravity” for planning and living
one’s life should be in that “most natural of all communities — the family
unit.” The autonomous family also stood first “in
opposition to the arbitrary tendencies of the state.”
Indeed, the natural family became the touchstone of his quest for a truly Humane
And yet, despite this strong affirmation of the natural family
as critical to free society, Roepke’s analysis also led him to several
conundrums or dilemmas surrounding family life. For example,
he avoided discussing ways in which certain incentives of a free economy might
tend to weaken family bonds. Surprisingly, Roepke was also
hostile both to the American “Baby Boom” and to the new suburbs in which the
young Boomers lived. He criticized the creation of large
families, although these were in practice a common and fairly natural product of
happy home life. For related reasons, he frequently fretted
about population growth. Meanwhile, he encouraged public
policies that actually had pro-natalist, or pro-birth effects.
What were the sources of these conflicting views?
The Humane Economy, Family Style
We should start by examining in
more detail the family nature of — or the place of the family in — his desired
Humane Economy. Emerging from the Great War, Roepke
found himself engaged in an intellectual battle on two fronts.
As he later reported: “I sided with the socialists in
their rejection of capitalism, and with the adherents of capitalism in their
rejection of socialism.” By capitalism, Roepke did not mean
the free market. Rather, the term “capitalism” embodied for
him “the distorted and soiled form which market economy assumed” in the period
between about 1840 and 1940. The liberal quest for
economic liberty had gotten off track in this era, he asserted, producing
effects that would pave the way to socialist collectivism; specifically:
increasing mechanization and prolitarization, the agglomeration and
centralization, the growing dominance of the bureaucratic machinery over men,
monopolization, the destruction of independent livelihoods, ...and the
dissolution of natural ties (the family, the neighborhood, professional
solidarity, and others).
The task facing the modern economist, Roepke said, was to
eliminate “the sterile alternative” between a return to 19th Century
laissez-faire and 20th Century collectivism. The needed
“free economic constitution,” as he phrased it, would embrace certain basics:
“the market, competition, private initiative, a free price structure and
free choice of consumption.” Roepke praised the true
market economy as the only system “which releases the full activity of man so
natural to him while, at the same time, [curbing] his hidden tigerish tendencies
which, unfortunately are no less natural to him.” A system
of free economic competition alone could deliver “discipline, hard work,
decency, harmony, balance and a just relation between performance and
payment.” It was also the only system compatible with
protection of the free personality, which offered men and women the liberty to
tackle challenges in the domains of culture, the intellect, and religion.
All the same, a market economy was not easy to achieve.
As Roepke explained, “it is an artistic construction and an edifice of
civilisation which has this in common with political democracy:
it demands and presupposes... the most strenuous efforts.”
Among other needs, the free market required a “high degree of business
ethics together with a state ready to protect competition.”
Looking to the failures of the 19th Century, Roepke was relentless in
exposing the “sins” of monopoly, including:
exploitation, ...the blocking of capital, the concentration of power, industrial
feudalism, the restriction of supply and production, the creation of chronic
unemployment, the rise in living costs and the widening of social differences,
lack of economic discipline, [and] the transformation of industry into an
exclusive club, which refuses to accept any new members.
He favored legal devices such as the Sherman Anti-Trust Act
found in America to protect competition from these disorders.
Roepke was also
an enthusiastic champion of free international commerce. A healthy
economy, he insisted, “does not place collectivist shackles on foreign trade.”
Efforts to build high tariff walls, he believed, actually “impoverished”
small-scale producers. He consistently called for “a liberal and
multilateral form of world trade with tolerable tariffs, most-favored-nation
clauses, the policy of the open door, the gold standard, and the elimination of
closed compulsory [trading] blocks.”
of private property was also central to Roepke’s vision. The antithesis to
socialist or collectivized man was the property holder. Roepke explained
that competition was only one of the pillars of a free economy. The other
was personal and familial “self-sufficiency.” Accordingly, expansion of
the sphere of competition should be balanced by enlarging what he called “the
sphere of marketless self-sufficiency.” This meant “the restoration of
property for the masses,” a “lengthy and circumspect” program that would
discourage the accumulation of big properties, use “progressive death duties” to
break up large estates, and redistribute land to propertyless families on
favorable terms. As Roepke wrote: “the industrial worker...can and
ought to become at least the proprietor of his own residence and garden...which
would provide him with produce from the land.” This alone would render
each family “independent of the tricks of the market with its wage and price
complexities and its business fluctuations.”
Indeed, Roepke held an almost religious faith in the
transformative power of the private garden. As he wrote, the
keeping of a family garden “was not only ‘the purest of human pleasures’ but
also offers the indispensable natural foundation for family life and the
upbringing of children.” In praising the “Magnetism of the
he told the story of a friend who was showing the family gardens of several
workers to a “dogmatic old-time liberal;” some think this was Ludwig von Mises.
In any case, Roepke continued: “on seeing these happy people spending
their free evenings in their gardens,” the laissez-faire liberal “could think of
nothing better than the cool remark this was an irrational form of vegetable
production.” Roepke retorted: “He could not get it into his head
that it was a very rational form of ‘happiness production’ which surely is what
acknowledged that it was not certain “that people really want to possess
property.” Actually, “to hold” land presupposed much more: “frugality,
the capacity to weigh up the present and the future, a sense of continuity and
preservation, the will to independence, [and] an outstanding family feeling.”
task, he said, was broader still: a “deproletarization” that would take
industrial workers who lacked roots in “home, property, environment, family, and
occupation” and transform them into free men. This meant, in Roepke’s
mind, “rendering the working and living conditions of the industrial worker as
similar to the positive aspects of the life of the peasant as possible.”
Beyond his praise for family garden homes, the economist celebrated businesses
like Switzerland’s Bally Shoe Company which actively assisted its workers in
acquiring houses and land and supported their small agricultural endeavors with
ploughing services, fertilizers, locally adapted seeds, and special animal
stock. All of these initiatives were designed, Roepke said, “to save
[these families] from their proletarian existence.” The result would be
the citizen free of the vagaries of the business cycle “who, if necessary can
find his lunch in his garden, his supper in the lake, and can earn his
potato-supply in the fall by helping his brother clear the land.”
To heal the distortions of human life wrought by 19th Century
laissez-faire Capitalism, Roepke even sought to undo — in some degree — the
urban-industrial revolution. Writing in The Social Crisis
of Our Time, he called for nothing less
than the “drastic decentralization of cities and industries, [and] the
restoration of some more ‘natural order’.” He labeled the
modern big city a “monstrous abnormality,” a “pathological degeneracy” that
devitalized human existence, adding: “the pulling down of
this product of modern civilisation is one of the most important aims of social
reform.” Relative to the decentralization of industry, he
urged that “the artisan and the small trader” receive “all the well-planned
assistance that is possible.” He also saw promise in the
rise of the “tertiary,” or service sector. Moreover, Roepke
believed that recent technological advances — electric motors, the internal
combustion engine, compact machine tools — these lent new competitive advantages
to small enterprises. Anticipating Prairie Home
Companion’s Garrison Keillor (who has said that you buy local products at
Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery in Lake Wobegon instead of at the Mall in St. Cloud,
because Ralph is your neighbor), Roepke urged that consumers “should not shrink
from the sacrifice of a few cents in order to carry out an economic policy of
their own and support [local] artisans to the best of their ability and for the
good of the community.”
This process of
“deproletarization” also meant restoration of a peasantry: a countryside
of small family farms. Roepke called the peasantry “the very cornerstone
of every healthy social structure” and “the backbone of a healthy nation.”
Sounding here like Thomas Jefferson, or the Southern Agrarians of the 20th
Century, he continued: “A peasant who is unburdened by debt and has an
adequate holding is the freest and most independent man among us.” The
peasant household also showed “that a type of family is possible which gives
each member a productive function and thus becomes a community for life, solving
all problems of education and age groups in a natural manner.” Given these
qualities, Roepke held that “a particularly high degree of far-sighted,
protective, directive, regulating and balancing intervention [by the state in
agriculture] is not only defensible, but even mandatory.” He looked with
particular admiration to the relatively advanced peasant farming systems then
found in Switzerland, Scandinavia, Holland, Belgium, and France, and he looked
with particular hope to the prospects for specialized production in dairy, eggs,
meats, fruits and vegetables.
Another component of the Humane Economy would be a limited, but
real welfare or social security system. Roepke did condemn
the cradle-to-grave approach of Great Britain and Scandinavia, where “a large
part of private income is continually being fed into the pumping station of the
welfare state and redistributed by the state, with considerable wastage in the
process.” He stressed the corrupting effects on the broader
economy of this “everything in one pot, everything out of one pot” scheme,
including the suppression of capital investment, the loss of individual
initiative, and inflation. Moreover, such a system was
like “a powerful machine that has neither brakes nor reverse gear,” ever
encroaching “upon the area of self-providence and mutual aid” so that “the
capacity [and willingness] to provide for oneself and for members of one’s
All the same,
Roepke acknowledged the need for “a certain minimum of compulsory state
institutions for social security.” There must “naturally be room,” he
said, for public old-age pensions, health and accident insurance, widow’s
benefits, and unemployment relief in a “sound...system in a free society.”
The imperative was to keep the scheme limited, providing only a floor of
support. He had special praise for the Swiss and American social security
systems, circa 1960, which recognized and defended these necessary limits.
Roepke called his whole program a “Third Way,” one which would
reconcile “the immense advantages of the free market economy with the claims of
social justice, stability, dispersal of power, [and] fairness.”
This program favored “the ownership of small- and medium-sized
properties, independent farming, the decentralization of industrial areas, the
restoration of the dignity and meaning of work, the reanimation of professional
pride and... ethics, [and] the promotion of community solidarity.”
This Third Way also sought “the organic building-up of society from
natural and neighborly communities...starting with the family through parish and
county to nation.” Alone, this Third Way rendered “possible
a healthy family life and a non-artificial manner of bringing up children.”
Indeed, “simple, natural happiness” would come from placing humans “in the true
community that begins in the family” and exists “in harmony with nature.”
The Costs of Family Decay
Viewing the Western world in the
middle decades of the 20th Century, Roepke identified the negative consequences
of “spiritual collectivism, proletarization,...and centralization,” the “most
serious” of which was “the disintegration of the family.”
Usually propertyless and without productive function, the modern family was
“degraded to a mere consumers cooperative...often without children...or without
the possibility of bestowing on them more than a summary education.”
Along with this “disruption of the Family” went “the loss of a sense of
‘generations’ [where] the individual loses...his sense of the continuity of time
and the relationship of the dead to the living and [of] the living to their
Things were “fundamentally wrong,” Roepke said, in those nations “where the most
natural actions of man like...caring for his family, saving, creating new things
or raising children must be instigated by propaganda...[or] moralizing.”
And yet, Roepke’s analysis of and prescription for the social
crisis of his age involved troubling paradoxes or dilemmas over the natural
family. For example, where his contemporary Joseph
Schumpeter and later analysts such as Daniel Bell argued that certain incentives
within the market economy tended to weaken family bonds, Roepke seemed
unconcerned. Notably, he largely ignored the market’s latent
demand for the labor of married women. He did argue that
family was “the natural sphere of the woman” and that the decay of autonomous
homes made “the female half of society” into real victims, but he apparently did
not see this in any way as the result of legitimate market incentives.
Instead, Roepke seemed to blame the “bad” capitalism of the 19th Century
for this result.
It was true, of course, that equity feminism — a common
companion to a free labor market — had made little headway into his model domain
of mid-20th Century Switzerland. Most married women there
still were hausfrauen, or housewives; indeed, women did not even gain the vote
in that Alpine land until 1971, five years after his death.
Roepke simply assumed that the male breadwinner/ female homemaker family would
prevail in the Humane Economy.
Roepke was also direct witness to the burgeoning American
suburbs of the 1940’s and 1950’s, where young adults fled the overcrowded cities
to create child-centered homes, each complete with housewife, lawn, and garden.
And yet, instead of praising this process as an aspect of
decentralization, he condemned these new creations. At the
more objective level, he pointed to “the danger that [such] decentralization
will become a mere extension of the big city into the country along the main
roads.” This would amount “to a mere decentralisation of
sleeping quarters whereas the big city would still remain the centre of work,
shopping and pleasure.” Meanwhile, he predicted that
traffic problems derived from suburbia would grow insoluble, creating a “hell of
At a more
viscereal level, Roepke objected to the superficial charm and
hyper-”gregariousness” of the new American suburbs. “Everybody is forever
‘dropping in’ on everybody else,” he complained. “The agglomeration of
people [in the suburb] stifles all expression of individuality, any attempt at
keeping to oneself; every aspect of life is centrally ruled.” Roepke
especially indicted the “pressure...to take part in [suburban] communal
life,...unless [one] wants to be known as a spoilsport.” He concluded that
trying “to escape from the giant honeycombs of city dwelling, into the suburbs
is to jump from the frying pan into the fire.”
More curiously, this great champion of the “natural family”
showed an emotional dislike of human numbers, involving direct and implied
condemnation of the large family. In A Humane Economy, for example,
Roepke complained about “the visible crowdedness of our existence, which seems
to get irresistibly worse every day,” the “masses of people who are all more or
less the same,” the “overwhelming quantities of man-made things everywhere, the
traces of people,” “this deluge of sheer human quantity,” and the emergence of
humankind as the “parasite of the soil.”
Roepke did recognize on occasion the reality of anti-natalist
tendencies in modern life. In his 1932 work, What’s Wrong
With the World?, he linked the global
agricultural depression of the prior decade to “the slowing up of the growth in
He acknowledged that birth control “techniques which permit the separation of
sexuality and procreation” spread ever more widely. He continued:
“Old mores have succumbed to new attitudes until the practice of birth control
has become increasingly a simple matter of habit.” Roepke attributed the
use of birth control, in part, to “deliberate selfishness” and concluded that
“the modern rationalist spirit” could “drag down both the birth rate and the
moral health of the nation.” He even acknowledged that “the birth
rate...can theoretically fall to zero...resulting in an absolute diminution of
However, his more usual message was a condemnation of those
economists who defended population growth as a good. Roepke
denounced the “blindness,” the “criminal optimism,” and the “strange mixture of
statistics and lullabies” which overlooked the dangers of expanding human
numbers. He denied the “bold theory” that it was population
growth “which imparts dynamism to the industrial counties.”
He mocked the argument that “the more cradles there are in use, the greater is
the demand for goods, the higher is the investment,...the more vigorous is the
boom.” He labeled it “a degradation of man and of the great
mystery of creation to turn conception and birth” into vehicles for economic
expansion. Roepke considered the formation of a large family
to be an irresponsible act. He pointed to the Baby Boom in
America, fueled by an average family size of about four children, as
particularly “new and disturbing.”
He concluded: “Every thinking person must...admit that, sooner or later,
it will become necessary to restrain such population increases.... So why
not sooner than later?”
How might we explain these views? To begin
with, Roepke advanced the unusual argument that the processes of
industrialization, centralization, and proletarization were in fact the
consequence of too many children. During the 19th Century,
he explained, birth rates in Europe had remained high while death rates fell,
producing “the swamping effect of the incredible increase of population.”
Roepke noted that each new generation is like a horde of little
barbarians. If parents could not tame them, disaster
Now since this
increase in population took place largely in circumstances and among classes in
which this taming, i.e., cultural assimilation was less and less successful, we
have been obliged in effect to experience a barbarian invasion out of the lap of
our own nation.
of the earth with a “mass” was “bound to stamp its mass character” on the whole
civilization. It had produced an “orgy of technology,” “mammoth
industries,” “bloated big cities,” a “materialist and rationalist life without
tradition,” “the undermining of everything permanent and rooted,” and “the
subjugation of the whole globe by a mechanical, positivist civilization.”
Roepke asserted that it would be impossible to build a humane economy “when the
industrial nations of the West are improvidently taking a new demographic
upsurge for granted.”
embraced an analytical Malthusianism premised on the calculation of an optimum
population for each nation. While the Reverend T. R. Malthus had failed as
immediate prophet, Roepke said, the Anglican priest had correctly asked why
every economic gain achieved by “the labors and ingenuity of the existing
population” should be immediately “claimed by millions of new individuals
instead of serving to increase the well-being of those now on earth.”
And third, like
many other mid-century analysts, Roepke grew mesmerized by population growth
projections which counted 300 Billion inhabitants on the Earth by the year 2300.
In such an anthill existence, he asked, what would happen to those “unbought
graces of life”: “nature, privacy, beauty, dignity, birds and woods and
fields and flowers, repose and true leisure.”
Roepke insisted that “a stabilisation of population” was “an
indispensable prerequisite of the restoration to health of our society.”
Yet he was vague in explaining how to reach this goal.
In one passage, he suggested that the three-child family would allow for
“a healthy and normal family life” while “in no way” opposing “the stabilisation
In another place, though, he implied that “overpopulation” in Europe would
require a two- or even one-child family system to restore economic equilibrium.
we can see that Roepke greatly over-estimated the procreative potential of late
20th Century Western peoples. The surge in numbers during the 19th Century
was over by 1920. Indeed, fertility had been falling throughout Europe,
North America, and Australia-New Zealand since at least 1880; and in France and
the United States, since 1820. Post-World War II “baby booms” were fragile
events, the products of unique social forces that would not last.
Post-family attitudes, closely linked to a strange combination of democratic
socialism with secular individualism, eventually carried the day. As would
be clear by the year 2000, below-replacement fertility and depopulation
represented the real Western future.
In his public advocacy, Roepke posed still other dilemmas
regarding the natural family. For example, his plan to
resettle industrial families in semi-rural homes, complete with a vegetable
garden and simple animal husbandry, ran counter to his demographic goals.
As he was well aware, such an existence would give “the family with many
children those conditions which transform a heavy burden to be endured...into
something natural, stimulating and immediately worthwhile.”
As an economist, Roepke should have realized that this would in turn
create incentives for more children, for larger families.
Put another way, his goal of fertility limitation would have been best achieved
by leaving families in large cities where children became ever more costly
contradiction emerged in his advocacy regarding social security. As noted
earlier, Roepke urged creation of a limited system of public pensions, “putting
a floor” under the feet of “the weak and helpless” and preventing their fall
“into bitter distress and poverty; no less, no more.” Such a system, he
insisted, should not drive out other forms of old-age support, including private
savings and annuities and the aid provided to aging parents by grown children.
right in seeing such a system as possible and socially constructive.
Ironically, though, new research shows that moderate-sized public pensions such
as found in the United States during the 1950’s actually have a positive effect
on fertility: that is, they encourage larger families. Indeed, it
appears that the pre-1965 American system of limited state pensions was a
contributing factor to the Baby Boom.
Conversely, it has been fairly clear since the late 1930’s that
large, publicly-funded pensions discourage fertility and larger families.
Explained briefly, such a system socializes the “insurance value” of
children, so punishing parents who raise the young while rewarding their
“free-riding,” childless neighbors. Once again, if a
decline in fertility was his primary goal, Roepke should have encouraged ever
larger state pensions.
Roepke as Successful Prophet
Fortunately, though, Roepke’s priority lay elsewhere.
While raising the matter in the context of the population question, he
had a larger purpose in asking:
to man and his soul? What happens to the things which cannot be produced
or expressed in monetary terms...but which are the ultimate conditions of man’s
happiness and of the fullness and dignity of his life?
In finding answers, Roepke was — and is — correct in trying to
rehabilitate social life by returning human beings to decentralized, autonomous,
self-sufficient, functional homes, where education and real work would be
reintegrated into the daily flow of family living. Toward
this end, he correctly saw mid-20th Century Switzerland to be a model state.
“As the common enterprise of freedom-loving peasants and burghers,” he
wrote, “it has offered the world a living example of the harmonious integration
of [rural] and city culture.”
He described a real village of about 3000 people with nearby farmsteads in the
Bern Mittelrand, a place which combined artisan shops, small factories, a
brewery, a dairy for cheese, a “highly tasteful” book store, and “a great
collection of obviously thriving crafts and craftsmen.” He added “that the
whole place is remarkable for its cleanliness and sense of beauty; its
inhabitants dwell in houses which anyone might envy; each garden is lovingly and
expertly tended; [and] antiquity is protected.... This village is our
ideal translated into a highly concrete reality.”
Roepke’s analysis also points toward ways to achieve this ideal
in our new century.
goal of “genuine decentralization” through “the creation of fresh small centres
in lieu of the big city” anticipates the New Urbanism of our day, where
attention to the physical settings of real neighborhoods combines with a
reattachment of work and retail sites to family residences.
Roepke’s reminder that certain technological innovations may support the broad
dispersal of productive work gains new importance in the age of the home
computer and the extraordinary economic democracy of the internet. Indeed,
the German-Swiss economist had challenged technologists “to serve
decentralisation instead of centralisation, rendering possible the greatest
possible number of independent existences and giving back to human beings as
producers and workers a state of affairs which would make them happy and satisfy
their more elementary and most legitimate instincts.”
Roepke’s attention to “tertiary production,” or the service sector, as a growing
sphere for human labor again enhances the prospects for small and medium
businesses which might support household independence.
• And Roepke’s insights regarding the
competitive advantages held by small family farms in the production of specialty
crops gains new relevance in the age of organics. Indeed,
here in America at least, the last decade has witnessed an explosive growth in
farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture, and independent organic
farms, with farm income soaring. As the editor of Small
Farmers’ Journal recently declared, “There has never been a better time to
be a farmer.”
These are the areas where Roepke succeeded as both analyst and
prophet. He was also prophetic in seeing
that the civilizational crisis of the Christian West derived from “a cultural
retreat,... a squandering of our inheritance” linked to “a continuous process of
secularization.” He wrote that the core of “the malady
from which our civilization suffers lies in the individual soul,” adding that
this disease would also only be “overcome within the individual soul.”
Here, too, we can safely conclude that Wilhelm Roepke was altogether
1 Wilhelm Roepke, What’s
Wrong with the World? (Philadelphia: Dorrance & Company,
2 Wilhelm Roepke, “The Economic
Necessity of Freedom,” Modern Age 3 (Summer 1959):
3 Roepke, “The Economic
Necessity of Freedom,” p. 233.
4 Wilhelm Roepke, “The Place of
the Nation,” Modern Age 10 (Spring 1966): 129.
5 Wilhelm Roepke, A Humane
Economy: The Social Framework of the Free Market (Wilmington, DE:
ISI Books, 1998): 40, 177.
[Hereafter, Humane Economy.]
6 Wilhelm Roepke, The Moral
Foundations of Civil Society (New Brunswick, NJ:
Transaction Publishers, 1996): 133.
[Hereafter, Moral Foundations.]
7 Wilhelm Roepke, Welfare,
Freedom and Inflation (Birmingham: University of Alabama
Press, 1964): 42.
8 Roepke, Moral Foundations,
9 Roepke, “The Economic
Necessity of Freedom,” p. 231.
Moral Foundations, p. 27.
11 Wilhelm Roepke,
The Social Crisis of Our Time (New Brunswick, NJ:
Transaction Publishers, 1992): 176.
[Hereafter, Social Crisis.]
Moral Foundations, p. 32.
13 Wilhelm Roepke,
The Problem of Economic Order (Cairo: National Bank
of Egypt, 1951): 13.
Social Crisis, p. 182.
Moral Foundations, p. 28.
Social Crisis, pp. 227-228.
pp. 209, 242.
Moral Foundations, p. 159.
20 Ibid., pp. 159-60.
Social Crisis, p. 224.
Moral Foundations, p. 156.
Social Crisis, pp. 221, 226.
Moral Foundations, pp. 161-162.
Social Crisis, pp. 214-217.
Social Crisis, pp. 201-216.
Welfare, Freedom and Inflation, pp. 37-41.
29 Wilhelm Roepke,
Against the Tide (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company,
Humane Economy, pp. 175-180.
31 Roepke, The
Problem of Economic Order, p. 38.
32 Wilhelm Roepke,
Economics of the Free Society (Chicago: Henry Regnery
Company, 1963): 257.
Moral Foundations, p. 154
34 Roepke, “The
Economic Necessity of Freedom,” p. 235.
Social Crisis, pp. 15, 32.
Moral Foundations, pp. 134-135.
37 Roepke, The
Problem of Economic Order, p. 13.
Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (New York:
Harker and Brothers 1962 ); and Daniel Bell, The Cultural
Contradictions of Capitalism (New York: Basic Books,
Social Crisis, pp. 15-16.
Moral Foundations, p. 162.
Humane Economy, p. 40.
pp. 39, 42, 44.
What’s Wrong With the World?, p. 24.
Economics of the Free Society, p. 55.
Humane Economy, pp. 42-48.
Economics of the Free Society, p. 62.
Moral Foundations, pp. 135-136.
Social Crisis, p. 13; Roepke, Humane Economy, pp. 45-46.
Economics of the Free Society, pp. 56-60.
Humane Economy, pp. 44, 49.
Moral Foundations, p. 136.
Humane Economy, p. 49.
Allan Carlson, Fractured Generations (New Brunswick, NJ:
Transaction Publishers, 2005): 15-34.
Moral Foundations, pp. 159-160.
Welfare, Freedom and Inflation, pp. 24-25.
56 Berthold U. Wigger, “Pay-as-you-go financed public pensions in a model of endogenous growth
and fertility,” Journal of Population Economics 12 (1999): 625.
Gunnar Myrdal, Population: A Problem for Democracy
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1940):
197-200; Charles F. Hohm, et al., “A Reappraisal of the
Social Security-Fertility Hypotheses: A Bidirectional
Approach,” The Social Science Journal 23 (1986): 163;
and Isaac Ehrlich and Francis T. Liu, “Social Security, the Family, and Economic
Growth,” Economic Inquiry 36 (July 1998):
Humane Economy, p. 48.
Social Crisis, p. 25.
Moral Foundations, p. 31.
pp. 173, 178.
64 Lynn Miller,
“Inside the Circle,” Small Farmers’ Journal 31 (Summer 2007):
5. More broadly, see: Allan
Carlson, “Agrarianism Reborn: On the Curious Return of the
Small Family Farm,” The Intercollegiate Review 43 (Spring 2008):
Social Crisis, p. 7.
66 Roepke, “The
Economic Necessity of Freedom,” p. 236.