Good essay by Historian Allan Carlson:
Wilhelm Röpke was an unusual free-market economist working in a difficult time. I believe that we should see him, first of all, as a product of 1914, the year which launched what he called “the devastation on so gigantic a scale to which mankind, then having gone mad, dedicated itself.” Mustered to war as a young man, Röpke served in the trenches on the Western Front. He concluded that a civilization “capable of such monstrous depravity must be thoroughly rotten.” Röpke pledged that if he “were to escape from the hell” of the Great War, he would devote his life to “preventing the recurrence of this abomination.” He also resolved that war “was simply the rampant essence of the state,” collectivism run amuck, and he launched his life-long “struggle against economic nationalism . . . , monopolies, heavy industry and large scale farming interests,” all of which he believed had given encouragement to the terrible conflict.
A second starting point for his economic views was Christian. A descendent of German Lutheran pastors, Röpke held to that concept which “makes man the image of God whom it is sinful to use as a means” and who embodies inestimable value as an individual. Noting that the idea of liberty had appeared uniquely in Christian Europe, he concluded “that only a free economy is in accordance with man’s [spiritual] freedom and with the political and social structures . . . that safeguard it.”
The key pillar of that social structure, Röpke maintained, was the natural family. Along with religion and art, he held that the family did not exist for the state, but was “pre-statal, or even supra-statal.” In its essence, family life was “natural and free,” while the “well ordered house” served as the very foundation of civilization. Derived from “monogam[ous] marriage,” he said that the family was “the original and imperishable basis of every higher community.” The “centre of gravity” for planning and living one’s life should be in that “most natural of all communities—the family unit.” The autonomous family also stood first “in opposition to the arbitrary tendencies of the state.” Indeed, the natural family became the touchstone of his quest for a truly Humane Economy.
And yet, despite this strong affirmation of the natural family as critical to free society, Röpke’s analysis also led him to several conundrums or dilemmas surrounding family life. For example, he avoided discussing ways in which certain incentives of a free economy might tend to weaken family bonds. Surprisingly, Röpke was also hostile both to the American “Baby Boom” and to the new suburbs in which the young Boomers lived. He criticized the creation of large families, although these were in practice a common and fairly natural product of happy home life. For related reasons, he frequently fretted about population growth. Meanwhile, he encouraged public policies that actually had pro-natalist, or pro-birth effects. What were the sources of these conflicting views?