Stefan Kolev, 2019-20 HOPE Center Fellow

He prefers the old term for economics, does Stefan Kolev, for in his view the “political” is just as important as the “economy.”

“I’m a septic economist. I like to get my hands dirty.”

And he did, running in the summer of 2019 in Germany for the state parliament of Saxony as the Free Democratic Party candidate.

Stefan, a 2019-20 HOPE Center fellow whose research up until now has largely concerned German-language liberal political economy in the generation of Friedrich Hayek, is here to remake himself as a scholar of Max Weber—to rediscover notions that were common in the generation before Hayek.

Weber, as Stefan explains, saw the economy as of a piece amid other institutions such as law, religion, science, and government. Together, those institutions established the rules of the game, as it were—rules that, when followed, allowed the economy and the other societal orders to follow their distinct logics and thus allowed bourgeois society to thrive.

Such a view is known as ordoliberalism. Historically, ordoliberalism is the German variety of neoliberalism that emerged in the 1930s—but not neoliberalism as the term is usually understood these days.

“The original neoliberalism or ordoliberalism very much sees a crucial role for government,” Stefan says. “For liberty to thrive, it needs to exist in a good framework, a good set of rules, rules that people accept as fair. That’s where government, but also civil society, comes in.” He is organizing a one-day conference in January at Duke University on that topic.

Stefan saw firsthand the suffering that the absence of such rules can produce. He grew up in the 1990s in Bulgaria, which had been a member of the Soviet bloc.

“We were excited that communism ended. But the wrong guys got rich in the process, and they got rich in the wrong way. The old communist elites set up in the early 1990s a pseudo-Western state that granted privileges like banking licenses to their own buddies from the communist age. Yes, we were now free. But it was an unordered freedom, an anarchic jungle.”

He and other Bulgarians began asking questions that looked to the past and the future. What was “the West” really about? What was democracy? What could Bulgaria become? Is the rule of law possible in a country that had only brief exposure to it during the early 20th century?

That sense of urgency has continued to animate Stefan’s work. The interdependent trio of democracy, the rule of law, and the market economy that for him constitutes “the West,” he reminds people, is often fragile. And this fragility has become increasingly evident in recent years.

“The question is no less than this: How do we as scholars and citizens prevent today’s world from falling apart? Scholars have a moral obligation to address that issue and to be relevant in the eyes of the citizen, as historians and economists.”

Stefan will return to his home institution, the University of Applied Sciences at Zwickau, in March.