A Man for Our Century

Wilhelm Roepke (1899-1966) is one of the most original, yet least recognized, economic thinkers of the 20th century.  One of the reasons for his relative obscurity is that he does not fit well into the prevailing capitalist/socialist dichotomy.  Roepke borrows from both capitalism and socialism, yet he goes beyond defining economics in abstract terms and brings it down to the human level.  Thus Roepke, along with E.F. Schumacher, is the chief architect of what can broadly be termed the humane, or social, market economy.  This Third Way defends basic market principles while grounding economic practices in the moral framework established by family, community, and religion.  For Roepke, this formulation most closely approximates the free-market ideal, as the market flourishes best when it is protected by tradition and local prejudice against the predations of the state and big business.

John Zmirak’s book chronicles the intellectual development of Roepke, who started out as an Enlightenment liberal who believed in social progress and ended up a critic of the damage wrought by the excesses of modernization.  Roepke spent most of his career in Geneva, where he fled to escape Nazi persecution in his native Germany in the 1930’s.  This long exile profoundly influenced Roepke’s thinking.  He admired the Swiss for their fierce political independence, which was founded upon a tradition...

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