Wilhelm Röpke seems to have been thinking about death when he wrote A Humane Economy, which was his final book.  He wrote at the beginning of the book that he was a “coeval” of the twentieth century but “he cannot hope to see its end.”  He seems to have wanted his readers to consider their own deaths as well.  While those acquainted with Röpke’s thought will be familiar with his emphasis on the moral conditions of the market, perhaps some have not noticed the recurring theme of mortality in A Humane Economy.  Röpke was not arguing for some persistent, morbid contemplation of mortality.  Neither does this brief essay argue such a thing.  Instead, I only seek to point out something that readers of Röpke’s book might have heretofore missed, and to suggest that Röpke believed that it merits attention.

When it first appeared in 1958, A Humane Economy was published under the title Jennets von Angebot und Nachfrage (Beyond Supply and Demand).  The conditions necessary, Röpke argued, for the perpetuation of the free market lie “beyond supply and demand.”  Those things beyond supply and demand that make life worth living are what he called the “vital things.”  Money cannot buy all that we need to live: “Man simply does not live by radio, automobiles, and refrigerators alone, but by the whole unpurchasable world beyond the market and turnover figures, the world of dignity, beauty, poetry, grace, chivalry, love, and friendship, the world of community, variety of life, freedom, and fullness of personality.”  No free enterprise exists without property rights, the rule of law, and free prices, but these institutional features of the free market depend upon something deeper – a cultural commitment to certain vital things that matter more than prices and which themselves can have no price.

That recurring phrase in the book, “vital things,” refers to those “which give meaning, dignity, and inner richness to life,” a definition that renders odd, perhaps, the inclusion of death itself in his list of vital things.  The word “vital” itself makes it odd: death seems to be necessary for good life.  Why?

The most immediate economic consequence of the forgetting of death is that it seems to erode the moral norms that preserve a healthy market.  John Maynard Keynes’ (in)famous line that “in the long run, we are all dead,” says Röpke, “reveals an utterly unbourgeois unconcern for the future, which has become the mark of a certain style of modern economic policy and inveigles us into regarding it as a virtue to contract debts and as foolishness to save.”  Delayed gratification becomes rare, impatience the norm.

By contrast, Röpke writes that a healthy society is one in which one seeks to “live one’s life as a consistent and coherent whole extending beyond death to one’s descendants rather than a series of brief moments of enjoyment followed by the headaches of the morning after.”  Such a society embodies certain salutary habits such as “individual effort and responsibility, absolute norms and values, independence based on ownership, prudence and daring, calculating and saving, responsibility for planning one’s own life…a sense of tradition and the succession of generations combined with an open-minded view of the present and the future, proper tension between individual and community, firm moral discipline, respect for the value of money, [and] the courage to grapple on own with life and its uncertainties.”  

Not a morbid obsession with death but a cultural consciousness of it seems to be among those vital things that encourage those salutary habits.  But birth, sickness, and finally death often no longer take place in the places that we live but instead in hospitals.  Ropke scorned “distant cemeteries” as “human refuse heaps… prudently removed” from daily life.  Yet in much of the modern west, with smaller families and the modern phenomenon of the nuclear family, many of us see death more rarely in our youths than most people once did.  What’s more, our society pleasantly guards us from death with various circumlocutions (“passed on”) and with various means of sterilizing the agony and suffering of life (“prudently removed” cemeteries).

Röpke therefore opposed what he called “the asymmetry of the market” – that is, the tendency of market society to bleed market forces into areas of life which contain an intrinsic goodness and which should be free of those forces.  The vital things – those things beyond supply and demand – often resist monetary valuation, and as such, they atrophy in the absence of a vigilant preservation of them.  A proper regard for the meaning of death seems to be one such item.  


Bill Reddinger has been a professor of political science at Regent University since 2010. Prior to that, he taught political science at Wheaton College in Illinois and at South Texas College. He received his undergraduate degree from Grove City College in Pennsylvania before completing his M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science at Northern Illinois University, where his studies focused on the history of political philosophy and American political thought. You can also find Reddinger’s posts in the OLL Reading Room.