Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Be Erhard!

Rick and I took our Louisville visitors to the financial district yesterday, starting with Wall Street. And look at what we saw there, this huge sign for Ludwig Erhard. (Click on picture for larger view.) I bet this is a man no one has thought of for a long time. Well, Goethe Girl was not born yesterday, and he was very much a familiar figure when she was a student in Germany. It is to Ludwig Erhard that the German economic recovery after World War II is attributed. 

Back in those far-off student days, when I was contending with that coal stove (of which I have written) in my small basement room in Marburg, there were signs that Germany was taking off. People spoke then about the "Wirtschaftswunder," or economic miracle, the rapid reconstruction of the economies of West Germany and Austria after World War II.

And here we were on Wall Street, in the year 2009, where it was suggested that the world could benefit from the lessons of the German economic success initiated by Ludwig Erhard, namely, the social market economy. Thus, the promotion, "Ludwig Erhard at Wall Street," which included a lookalike of the portly former economics minister and chancellor wandering in the canyons of the financial district.

No doubt there are lessons that the "social market economy" can offer in the current financial crisis (has anyone thought about not spending for a change? living within our means?), though I am always suspicious when people suggest that America should follow the model of another country. Every country, as Herder reminded us, has its own history, especially its own institutional history, and it is not as easy as the idealists imagine to transplant an idea into a lived reality. True, democracy was transplanted to Germany after World War II (and also to Japan), but the Western world in any case was behind this venture. Not to mention the presence of 250,000 Allied soldiers in Germany. The world was a much different place back then. Fifty years later, the transplanting of Western institutions, as we are learning in Iraq, is much more difficult, and it might even be said that we should not have tried.

I am of two minds. One part of me says, let the Middle East go its own destructive way. Unfortunately, its destructive ways are not limited to the countries within its own geographical scope. We would have to draw up the bridges, so to speak, like a medieval castle a thousand years ago. No, this is the year 2009, and the other part recognizes that the world economies are interconnected. Even if the Middle East itself produces very few of the products that are on the shelves of our supermarkets or on the racks of department stores, the ordinary folks living in the Middle East would like to participate in the economic processes that have brought the West such a good standard of life. Those processes, however, have a long-established institutional structure and legal protection, both of which are lacking in many parts of the world, not only in the Middle East. I'm not sure that Ludwig Erhard would have had a solution for this problem, but I much enjoyed seeing his figure on Wall Street.

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