Front Page Titles (by Subject) Roepke: Laissez faire and Social Order - Literature of Liberty, Winter 1980, vol. 3, No. 4
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Roepke: Laissez faire and Social Order - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Winter 1980, vol. 3, No. 4 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Roepke: Laissez faire and Social Order
“Wilhelm Roepke and the Problems of Contemporary International Political Economy.” World Affairs 14(Spring 1979):307–312.
Since the end of World War II, we have seen a flood of proposals for avoiding another depression. Postwar federalists, functionalists, “neo-functionalists,” and other theorists of integration and interdependence have propounded views concerning the most feasible paths to world order.
Recent critics have pointed out the deficiencies of these schools of thought. Their utilitarian tendencies, mechanistic dynamics, naive optimism, and idealistic predelictions have been exposed in numerous studies—some produced by disillusioned exponents of the former optimism. Stressing the consumerist “need-gratification” of atomistic individuals, much early postwar thought predicted the rise of more rational forms of political organization in the wake of the nation-state's inability to solve urgent economic problems, problems which had already led to chaotic depression and world war.
Diametrically opposed contemporary trends have revived the term “international political economy.” The phrase emphasizes the importance of the political framework of trading relationships in a more harmonious world order. Wilhelm Roepke has made a key contribution to the effort to rediscover the extra-economic bases of international and national order. He has sought to defend laissez-faire liberal ideals, but, in so doing, he has emphasized the holistic, social factors without which, he claims, the market economy could not survive.
Laissez-faire capitalism, Roepke writes, “implies the existence of a society in which certain fundamentals are respected and color the whole network of social relationships: Individual effort and responsibility, absolute norms and values, independence based on ownership, prudence and daring, responsibility for planning one's own life, proper coherence with the community, family feeling, a sense of tradition and the succession of generations combined with an open-minded view of the present and future ....”
Roepke thus rejects a “social rationalism” which views the market economy as a mechanical technique of an invisible hand, transferable into any spiritual or social setting. It might in fact work harm in an unsuitable context. “Individuals who compete on the market and there pursue their own advantage stand all the more in need of the social and moral bonds of community without which competition degenerates most grievously.”
With his holistic conceptions of political order and social adhesion, Roepke's thought along with that of other conservative thinkers offers a potentially rich source of speculation on the processes of global integration. Besides many standard classics (Polanyi, Pirenne, Rostovtzeff, Roepke), Prof. O'Leary cites a growing literature (Gilpin, Tucker, Keohane and Nye, Calleo, Kindleberger) that discusses whether a truly liberal and harmonious world economy is attainable. Nevertheless, Wilhelm Roepke most clearly articulates the paradoxical tenet that a basically free world economy requires a prior framework of agreed and enforceable codes.