Ropke on Income Distribution

As I was sorting through some old boxes of books I came across my copy of Wilhelm Ropke’s Economics of the Free Society. In flipping through the pages I was surprised to discover a great deal of underlining and some marginal notes that I must have made several years ago when I was still enraptured by libertarianism lite. This paragraph, which I had bracketed, jumped out at me (pg. 210):

As a last resort, there is available the extra-economic correction of the distribution of income. This consists in the state awaiting the results of the economic distribution of income as they are crystallized in the market processes, and then correcting these results by taxing the rich and spending for the poor. As a matter of fact, a considerable portion of the public finances is devoted to such rectification, supplemented by the efforts of private welfare groups. Obviously, there are certain limits here which may not be overstepped if paralyzing effects on the process of production are to be avoided. It is, of course, clear that the state can go much further in employing such corrective measures the smaller are its expenditures for other purposes.

It’s almost impossible to note smile at such a bold statement on behalf of “statism” given Ropke’s status as a darling of libertarianism, particularly variants of Christian libertarianism. Then again, Ropke has long been, and remains, a problematic figure for both the so-called “Austrian School” of economics from which he emerged and third-way advocates such as Distributists. Hardcore “Austrians” (and how many of them aren’t hardcore?) dislike Ropke’s “unscientific” appreciation of the social aspects of the economy while Distributists remain suspicious of Ropke’s heavy reliance on the market process to build a just socio-economic ordo. While I will not pretend to speak for the libertarians who are uncomfortable with Ropke, I do wonder at times if Christians, specifically Catholics, who ought to be broadly sympathetic to the aims set forth in Ropke’s A Humane Economy are too dismissive of his thinking on the rather superficial ground that no friend (or child) of “Austrianism” can be a friend of theirs. None of this is to say that there aren’t elements — perhaps many elements — of Ropke’s thinking which demand criticism and correction in the light of Catholic Social Teaching, but perhaps some go too far in making him out to be an opponent rather than an ally (albeit a distant one).