Wagner, Adolf

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Wagner, Adolf



Adolf Heinrich Gotthelf Wagner (1835-1917), German political economist, was born in Erlangen, the son of a professor of physiology. He grew up in Gottingen and studied jurisprudence and political economy in Heidelberg and Gottingen. Between 1858 and 1870 he held teaching positions in Vienna, Hamburg, Dorpat, and Freiburg im Breisgau. In 1870 he was appointed to a chair of political economy at the University of Berlin, which he held for 46 years. This coincided almost exactly with the life-span of the new German Empire, 1871-1918, of which Wagner was an ardent supporter, mentor, and occasional critic. He exerted a powerful influence as a writer of textbooks, monographs, and policy pamphlets and as a teacher of two generations of Prussian higher civil servants.

Social philosophy . Wagner’s historical importance rests perhaps not so much on his contributions to technical economics, although he earned international fame in the field of public finance, as on his position as a leading representative of a particular social philosophy. This philosophy has been variously labeled “state socialism,” “socialism of the academic chair” (Katheder-sozialismus),“conservative socialism,” and, perhaps most appropriately, “social conservatism.” He applied this philosophy with considerable coherence, energy, and success to the theory as well as the practice of the political economy of his time. An “Old Prussian” by choice, Wagner rejected, primarily on ethical grounds, the teachings of the laissez-faire, or Manchester, school as well as Marxism and other variants of socialism proper. He agreed with much of the criticism of the emerging industrial-commercial capitalism made by socialists and semisocialists like Sismondi, Rodbertus, Las-salle, and A. Schaffle, but from a conservative point of view. In Franz Oppenheimer’s words, Wagner became “the social-political conscience of Germany.” Although he accepted a social and economic order based primarily upon private property and a large measure of private decision making, Wagner assigned to the state a major, positive role in social and economic affairs, hoping thus to achieve a morally satisfactory and stable reconciliation of individualistic and socialistic principles. The state, he believed, should not merely redefine property and contractual rights and obligations but should also own and manage certain sectors of the economy (for example, railroads). Furthermore, it should intervene correctively in economic processes, for instance, through protective tariffs, progressive income and inheritance taxes, and social insurance schemes. Thus, Wagner paved the way for, or at least seconded, the economic- and social-reform policies of Bismarck and his successors, policies in which concern for a measure of social justice and social stability was fused with, and in effect subordinated to, the goal of preserving and strengthening the domestic and foreign power of the German imperial state and its backbone, Prussia. Using religious (i.e., Protestant), ethical, strongly nationalistic, and anti-Semitic arguments (the last becoming somewhat attenuated toward the end of his life), Wagner supported the ultimately futile attempt to form an alliance between the large landowners, the state bureaucracy, and the underprivileged working classes, in opposition to the rising industrial, commercial, and financial interests.

Wagner asserted his social-reform conservatism most publicly and actively during the period 1870-1885. In 1872 he was, with his colleague G. Schmoller, one of the founders of the Verein fiir Sozialpolitik. Most German economists—and social scientists generally—belonged to this professional organization, which sponsored many empirical studies of economic social conditions and became a strong force behind many reform measures. Around 1877, however, Wagner’s active participation in this association decreased because the majority of its members preferred more moderate or even social-liberal views to Wagner’s state socialism. In 1881, Wagner joined Adolf Stacker’s illfated anti-Semitic Christian-Social party, serving as its first vice-president; increasingly disappointed, he left the movement in 1896. During the years 1882-1885 he served as a conservative member in the lower house of the Prussian Diet. From 1885 on, Wagner largely curtailed his public activities in favor of his academic work, with two exceptions: he was the first president and always an active member of the Evangelical-Social Congress founded in 1890, and in 1910 he was awarded lifetime membership in the upper house of the Prussian Diet.

Economic theory. Especially in the second half of his long career, Wagner devoted much effort to the elaboration and teaching of what he called Grundlegungen, or principles. He saw these as providing a framework of basic concepts and clas-sificatory schemes rather than a method of economic analysis proper. His chief service to economic theory was to keep it alive against the preponderant power of Schmoller’s historical, or in-stitutionalist, school at a time in Germany when, in sharp contrast to developments abroad, there was virtually no vigorous discussion or creative advance in economic theory. In the famous Metho-denstreit between Schmoller and Menger, Wagner maintained an eclectic position; his sympathies, however, were much more with Menger than with Schmoller. In his own system of principles, Wagner followed, with some modifications, older “classical” lines. Among theorists he especially admired Ricardo and Rodbertus, but he recognized the contributions of Alfred Marshall, Frank W. Taus-sig, and even the Austrians.

Wagner’s modifications of classical theory pertained chiefly to economic sociology—that is, to generalizations about social-economic data rather than to the development of economic theory in the narrow sense. They consisted chiefly of an unusually careful differentiation of kinds of property and a detailed analysis of economic motivation. Because of his legal training and the influence of Rodbertus, Wagner made one major concession to the institutionalists: he stressed the importance of “historical-legal” categories in economic life, especially with regard to the distribution of wealth and income. In conjunction with his basic social philosophy, this historical-legal approach provided the theoretical basis for a comprehensive system of economic, social, and fiscal policies by which the state was to cure, prevent, or compensate for the specific evils of a modern industrial and commercial private economy.

Applied economics. Wagner’s most successful application of the historical-legal approach and of his views on policy was in public finance. His Finanzwissenschaft (1871-1872) was an outstanding success in terms of both scholarship and practical effects. It was filled with well-ordered statistical materials and historical and contemporary comparative descriptions, and in later editions it was increasingly based on a system of principles. The book broke with older and narrowly “fiscal” or “cameralistic” views, integrating public finance with the whole of economic and social conditions and policies. In particular, Wagner taught that a system of taxation should not merely aim at efficient provision for public revenue but should also fulfill the second and ultimately superior social-political purpose of correcting distributional injustices of the market system in the direction of greater equality. Thus, progressive income and inheritance taxation—and generally the taxation of “unearned gains”—would be squarely based on criteria of distributive justice. This idea, although often qualified today by the use of other criteria, is still one of the foundations of modern progressive tax and public expenditure systems. Assigning to the state a remedial distributional function means, of course, an expansion of the public sector of the economy. One of Wagner’s empirical “laws” of historical development asserts that state functions and public expenditures constantly expand with the progress of civilization. Although this generalization was based on a very limited set of rather crude data and although exceptions and reversals may be found, it has not, on the whole, been refuted by later developments. The policies that Wagner himself recommended with regard to public finance and social legislation contributed to the trend asserted in his “law” but these policies were based at least as much on moral-political choice as on historical necessities.

Wagner’s second most important group of works on the border line of theory and practical economics—in point of time they were written first —dealt with monetary and banking theory and policy. Both in his Gottingen dissertation (1857) and in his book on the money and credit theory of Peel’s Bank Act (1862), he sympathized strongly with the Banking school, exalted the merits of Thomas Tooke, and exhibited a distrust of “paper money.” His ideas about the dangers of an inelastic money supply, expressed in these and in later voluminous writings, appear to have had some influence upon the legislation for the new German central bank (Reichsbank) of 1875. Other problem areas to which Wagner made significant contributions include public transportation, social insurance, tariff policies, urban rents, “moral statistics,” and even the (nonmathematical) theory of statistical regularities.

Influential as Wagner was among his contemporaries, his fusion of ethical-political and scientific concerns and his “socialism of the academic chair” inevitably aroused strong opposition. During the Weimar period, Wagner’s works, with the exception of his Finanzwirtschaft, seem to have been largely forgotten. After Hitler came to power, Wagner was both celebrated and condemned as a precursor of National Socialism and even as a full-fledged National Socialist. While similarities and affinities are undeniable, there remain fundamental differences between the social conservatism of the nineteenth-century Prussian scholar and Hitler’s totalitarianism. Much, if not all, of Wagner’s work now appears dated. Even his best professional achievements, for example, his contributions to the field of public finance, have largely been incorporated into or superseded by later work. His policy recommendations, intended to preserve and renew Prussia in the face of revolutionary economic, social, and political change, had a limited, temporary success but were ultimately time-bound and doomed to fail. His basic social philosophy certainly produced no satisfactory synthesis of individualism and socialism. Nevertheless, a closer study of Wagner’s state socialism and of imperial Germany might still prove valuable for the understanding of at least one area of social and economic development: it might provide some useful positive and negative lessons for some of the newly developing countries, all those that are trying both to find a position somewhere between capitalism and socialism and to reconcile the old order with the forces and demands of modernity.

Gerhard Meyer

[For the historical context of Wagner’s work, seeeconomic thought; laissez-faire; and the biographies of Marshall; Menger; Ricardo; Rodbertus; Schmoller; Taussig; Tooke.]


1857 Beiträge zur Lehre von den Banken, mit besonderer Rücksicht auf England. Leipzig: Voss.

1862 Die Geld- und Credittheorie der Peel’schen Bankacte. Vienna: Braumiiller.

1864 Die Gesetzmdssigkeit in den scheinbar willkuhrlichen menschlichen Handlungen vom Standpunkte der Sta-tistik. 2 vols. in 1. Hamburg: Boyes & Geisler.

1870a Die Abschaffung des privaten Grundeigenthums. Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot.

(1870b) 1873 System der deutschen Zettelbankgesetzge-bung. 2d ed. Freiburg im Breisgau: Wagner.

(1871-1872) 1877-1901 Finanzwissenschaft. 4 vols. Leipzig and Heidelberg: Winter. First published as a revision of K. H. Rau’s Lehrbuch der Finanzwissenschaft. Volume 1: Einleitung; Ordnung der Finanz-wirthschaft; Finanzbedarf; Privaterwerb. 3d ed., 1883. Volume 2: Theorie der Besteuerung; Gebiihrenlehre und allgemeine Steuerlehre. 2d ed., 1890. Volume 3: Specielle Steuerlehre; Ergdnzungsheft: Die britische und franzosische Besteuerung. 2 vols. in 1. 1898., Volume 4: Specielle Steuerlehre; Die deutsche Besteuerung des 19. Jahrhunderts …Nachtrage, 2 vols. 1899-1901.

1872 Rede iiber die soziale Frage. Berlin: Wiegandt & Griebe. → For an abbreviated translation, see pages 489-506 in Social Reformers: Adam Smith to John Dewey, edited by Donald O. Wagner; published in 1935 by Macmillan.

(1876) 1892-1894 Grundlegung der politischen Oekono-mie. 2 vols. 3d ed. Lehr- und Handbuch der politischen Okonomie, Section 1. Leipzig: Winter. → First published as a revision of K. H. Rau’s Lehrbuch der politischen Okonomie under the title Allgemeine oder theoretische Volkswirtschaftslehre.

1881 Der Staat und das Versicherungswesen. Tubingen: Laupp.

1883 Uber Verstaatlichung der Eisenbahnen und iiber soziale Steuerreform: Zwei Landtagsreden. Berlin: Luckhardt.

1886 Systematische Nationalbkonomie. Jahrbilcher fur Nationalbkonomie und Statistik New Series 12:197-252. → For a partial translation, see “Wagner on the Present State of Political Economy,” Volume 1, pages 113-133 of the Quarterly Journal of Economics.

1891 [A Book Review of] Marshall’s Principles of Economics. Quarterly Journal of Economics 5:319-338.

1895 Vortrag gehalten am 29 Mdrz 1895 iiber Sozialismus, Sozialdemokratie, Katheder- und Staatssozialismus. Berlin: Vaterlandische Verlagsanstalt.

1900 Vom Territorialstaat zur Weltmacht. Berlin: Harr-witz.

1901a Wohnungsnot und stiidtische Bodenfrage. Berlin: Harrwitz.

(1901b) 1902 Agrar- und Industriestaat. 2d ed. Jena: Fischer.

1907-1909 Theoretische Sozialokonomik. 2 vols. Leipzig: Winter.

1911 Staat in nationalokonomischer Hinsicht. Volume 7, pages 727-739 in Handworterbuch der Staatswissen-schaften. 3d ed. Jena: Fischer.

1912 Die Strbmungen in der Sozialpolitik und der Katheder- und Staatssozialismus. Berlin: Volkstiimliche Bucherei.


Berckenhagen, Friedrich 1923 Die Lehre Ad. Wagners vom sozialpolitischen Zweck der Steuer und die Reichs-finanzreform von 1919-1920. Dissertation, Univ. of Königsberg.

Büurger, G. 1929 Adolph Wagner als Statistiker. Deut-sches statistisches Zentralblatt Supplement no. 11.

Clark, Evalyn A. 1940 Adolph Wagner: From National Economist to National Socialist. Political Science Quarterly 55:398-411.

Meitzel, C. 1928 Adolph Wagner. Volume 7, pages 876-879 in Handwörterbuch der Staatswissenschaften. 4th ed. Jena: Fischer. → Contains a complete listing of Wagner’s books and articles.

Neumann, Franz leopold (1942) 1963 Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, 1933-1944. 2d ed. New York: Octagon.

Oppenheim, Heinrich B. 1872 Der Kathedersozialis-mus. Berlin: Privately printed.

Oppenheimer, Franz (1918) 1928 Adolph. Wagner. Volume 2, pages 302-314 in Franz Oppenheimer, Gesammelte Reden und Aufsdtze. Munich: Hueber.

Rendu, Andre 1910 La loi de Wagner et Vaccroissement des depenses dans les budgets modernes. Paris: Rousseau.

Schneider, Walter 1923 Adolph Wagner’s Beziehungen zum Sozialismus. Dissertation, Univ. of Giessen.

Schöne, Erich 1923 Adolf Wagners Anschauungen iiber die Statistik. Dissertation, Univ. of Halle.

Schumacher, H. 1928 Adolph Wagner. Pages 173-193 in Deutsches biographisches Jahrbuch. Volume 2: 1917-1920. Berlin: Deutsche Verlagsanstalt.

Thier, Erich 1930 Rodbertus, Lassalle, Adolph Wagner: Era Beitrag zur Theorie und Geschichte des deutschen Staatssozialismus. Jena: Fischer.

Vleugels, W. 1935 Adolph Wagner: Gedenkworte zur hundertsten Wiederkehr des Geburtstages eines deutschen Sozialisten. Schmollers Jahrbuch für Gesetzgeb-ung, Verwaltung und Volkswirtschaft im Deutschen Reiche 59:129-141.

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