I find myself captivated by this new entry into the Austrian Study Guide: a very rare treatise indeed. It is International Economic Disintegration by Wilhelm Roepke, from 1942. He explains how the world unraveled the 1930s from a combination of protectionism and monetary destruction. But he can’t get very far with this analysis without relating what seems to be an epiphany for him: there are non-economic reasons the world collapsed. The rise of nationalism frightens him. The old code of morals and manners, even the code of honor among people, seems to have been shredded. People long for more than prosperity; they want cultural and social coherence and stability, and states with a mission. The market cannot provide this. It must come tradition or religion or something else.
Observing this, he seems to suggest that the old liberal creed failed: we must speak of more than individualism and utility; we must begun speaking of goodness and right and truth. We must revive honor and civility.
Whether the collapse of the economy fed the cultural decline or the reverse is a question that he examines in detail. But his whole analysis keeps the reader rather suspended, mainly because you suspect something rather awful is at work in his brain: he seems to be losing a bit of trust in the idea of freedom. But reading it can be frustrating because he is never quite clear on what he regards as the foundational cause of nationalist warmongering and social decline. But as we approach the end of the book, he seems rushed to find an answer and it is here where he seems to take the path that we had long suspected he is headed. He denounces materialism, mass behavior, individualization, and consumerism–not always in those exact words but in some variation of them.
But is he really suggesting that capitalism itself, as versus the state, contributed to the decline and disintegration? No, he never quite says this. But the reader can come away with the view that he has begun to believe it.
My own analysis is that we have here an intellectual in shock, reaching for straws, tired of the old liberal faith in reason, exasperated that nations would so gladly destroy themselves, despairing at the prospect of a cure, and scoffing at the notion that all we need are free markets. He observes a deep pathology at work in the world, one that must be repaired by much more radical change than merely adopting free trade and sound money.
This is a troubled intellectual. He seems to lack stamina in this book, and certainly he was nowhere near the giant in understanding and intellectual courage that Mises was. Roepke seemed confused and disoriented by the horrors he saw around him. What’s interesting is that he never really seemed to gain his footing again after this book. His works are packed with insight, and they are so challenging to read. He is quite brilliant. And yet, he behaved pretty much as we might all behave: his attachment to science grew weaker and he sought some sort of refuge in something else. Roepke never gave up his liberalism but he seems to come very close here.
This book is particularly interesting to read in light of the way many libertarians let 9-11 shake them up. Imagine what living through war and depression would do! All the more reason to admire Mises, truly.