Verein für Socialpolitik

[Note: Part of the HET Website.  This page is not related to or endorsed by the Verein für Socialpolitik  or any other organization. See the official Verein für Socialpolitik website]

The Verein für Socialpolitik (literally, "Association for Social Policy") is a professional organization of German-speaking economists.  It was originally founded in 1873, as a bastion of the German Historical School.

Its roots are in a series of studies written around 1870-71 by several German academics - notably Gustav Schmoller, Adolph Wagner, Albert Schäffle, Gustav von Schönberg and Lujo Brentano - examining the impact of industrial capitalism and free trade on the social order.  The academic studies called for State intervention to mitigate the pernicious effects of competition on the working classes and vulnerable members of society.   Their studies faced immediate hostility from the German liberal parties and press, who denounced their proposals as nothing short of socialism.  Surprised by the vigor of the assault, the academics tried to reply and a vigorous controversy raged in the German press.  The German Historicists earned their appellation as Kathedersozialisten ("Socialists of the (professorial) chair") during this controversy - a moniker apparently coined by the liberal publicist H.B. Oppenheim.

In this initial round of polemics, the academics were no match for the established political parties and their newspapers, and realized they must also organize if they hoped to reach public opinion.  The initiative came out of discussions between Hamburg publicist Julius von Eckhardt and Berlin professor Adolph Wagner, who roped in Gustav Schmoller (then at Halle) to do the legwork.    A group of 22 academic economists invited by Schmoller met at Halle in July 1872, and agreed they needed a forum where they could explain their ideas better.  The result was the conference in Eisenach on October 6-7, 1872 bringing together most of the academic economists in Germany, as well as representatives of trade unions, political parties and businesses, for a debate on the "Social Question" ("die soziale Frage"). It was arguably the first time academics scattered across Germany had come together, into direct contact with each other, and agreed to form an association to better coordinate with each other, to answer their critics and push for social reforms.  The next year, at another conference in Eisenach (Oct 12-13, 1873), the Verein für Socialpolitik was formally launched.

[Note: although the Verein is sometimes dated as founded in 1872, its formal foundation was a year later, in 1873; the two Eisenach conferences should not be confused.  Note also that the original spelling of the organization - "Socialpolitik" - is retained to this day as a historical legacy, even though modern German spelling would have rendered it "Sozialpolitik".]    

Among the economists at the founding meeting were Gustav Schmoller (now at Strasbourg), Adolph Wagner (Berlin), Lujo Brentano (Breslau), Johannes Conrad  (Halle),  Georg F.. Knapp (Leipzig), Karl Knies (Heidelberg), Adolf Held (Bonn), Erwin Nasse (Bonn), Friedrich Julius Neumann (Freiburg), Gustav von Schönberg  (Tubingen) and Ernst Engel (Berlin Statistical Bureau).  Rudolf von Gneist (Berlin) was elected the first chairman of the Verein.  Conspicuous in their absence were academics from outside of the the German Reich - notably the Vienna professors Albert Schäffle and Lorenz von Stein.  Although, in principle, the Verein was open up to any German-speaking economists, including those in Austria-Hungary and Switzerland, it was widely perceived as an exclusively Prussian-German thing, particularly given its political interface with the Bismarckian government in newly-unified Germany.  Despite repeated invitations, most Austrians refused to join - believing the Verein both "too Socialist and too Prussian" for their tastes.

It has been argued that the Verein  für Socialpolitik was the first professional organization of economists in the world.  Although prior organizations dedicated to, or at least intersecting with, economics already existed in Britain, France and even Germany itself, they were not quite as academic.  The Verein's chief competition in Germany was the Volkwirthschaflich Gessellschaft zu Berlin ("Economic Society of Berlin", f.1858), the most prominent regional subsidiary of the Kongreß deutscher Volkswirte ("Congress of German Economists").  The VG was the successor of the Deutscher Freihandelsverein, the free trade association launched in 1846 by the English-born laissez faire activist John Prince-Smith.  The VG not only preceded the Verein, but also outnumbered it for quite some time. . 

Nonetheless, the Verein was more academic, and focused on using research and publications to influence policy at the top, rather than by ground-roots political organization, public debates and dissemination of propaganda.  But the Verein did not initially see itself as a purely professional or academic affair, but rather the kernel of a political movement, with the explicit goal to affect public policy. It promoted active government social policy as a "third way" between Manchester school laissez faire liberalism (advocated by the VG and parties like the DFP) and outright socialist revolution (advocated by Marxists and parties like the SPD).  In many respects, the Verein were the academic cheerleaders (if not the voice) of the Bismarckian government's economic policies.  After the liberals were split and socialists banned in 1878, Bismarck pushed protectionism and a groundbreaking slate of social welfare institutions through the German Reichstag during the 1880s.  After the policies were in place and the controversies died own (the VG was defunct by 1885), the Verein became a larger tent for academics of various shades of opinion, only notionally retaining its overall goal for social reform.

The Verein set the model and was the direct inspiration for organizations like the Italian Associazone per il progresso degli studi economici (f.1875),  the American Economic Association (f.1885) and, more distantly, the British Economic Association (f.1890). 

 

 

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Resources on the Verein für Socialpolitik

  • Verein für Socialpolitik official site
  • Proceedings of first (1873) conference: Verhandlungen des Vereins für Socialpolitik am 12. und 13. October, 1873 [bk] [list of participants]
  • "The Verein für Sozialpolitik from its foundation (1872) until World War I" by Harald Hagemann, 2001, in M.Augello and M. Guidi, editors, The Spread of Political Economy and the Professionalisation of Economists [bk].
  • Wikipedia

 


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