20 June 2003

Wilhelm Roepke's humane economic vision

I cannot call myself an unadulterated conservative for reasons given at some length in my book. But I must admit that, among the varieties of professed conservatives in North America, I have some sympathy for Russell Kirk -- certainly more than for the libertarians who are such a major part of the conservative movement in the US. Kirk recounts an incident related to him by his favourite economist, Wilhelm Roepke, in 1957:

During the Second World War the city of Geneva [Switzerland] had allocated garden plots along the line of the vanished city walls to citizens wishing to grow their own vegetables in a time of food shortages. This use of public land turned out to be popular; the city continued the allocation of plots after the war.

Roepke heartily approved of this undertaking, which both enabled people to obtain independently part of their own sustenance and provided the satisfaction of healthy achievement outside factory walls. When [libertarian economist] Ludwig von Mises came to visit Roepke at Geneva, Roepke took his guest to inspect those garden plots.

Mises sadly shook his head: "A very inefficient way of producing foodstuffs!"

"But perhaps a very efficient way of producing human happiness," Roepke told him (Kirk, The Sword of Imagination, pp. 204-205).

Roepke's economic priorities were similar to those of the English distributists, such as G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. All were united in championing small property-holders and opposing both bureaucratic socialism and the corporate economy.

Belloc's The Servile State is definitely worth reading.

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