Of Markets and Gentlemen: Burke's Economics

If there is any moment which marks modern conservatism’s beginning, it is the publication of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Central to Burke’s critique of the events occurring across the Channel was his insistence that France’s revolutionaries were seeking to construct a new world based on abstractions deeply at variance with the hard-won wisdom of experience. That has become the standard interpretation of Burke offered by admirers and critics alike. It is, however, at variance with Burke’s most extensive economic treatise. His Thoughts and Details on Scarcity (1795), written as a private memorandum to Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, invokes many of the same highly-theoretical ideas articulated by eighteenth-century thinkers on both sides of the Channel in favor of economic liberalization and against the mercantilist systems which dominated the European world.

In Commerce and Manners in Edmund Burke’s Political Economy (2020) Gregory M. Collins takes this apparent paradox as the starting-point for a thorough exploration of Burke’s economic thinking as expressed in Thoughts and Details but also numerous letters, commentaries, and speeches written during his long public career. Refreshingly devoid of ideological agendas, Collins refrains from trying to shove Burke’s economic ideas into contemporary categories. The result is the definitive account of Burke’s economic thought, one which shows how Burke’s political economy displays “an underlying coherence that incorporated elements of prudence, utility, and tradition.”

According to Collins, the apparent conflict between Burke’s belief in universally-knowable economic principles, and his defense of tradition and the particularities which it embodies, evokes a broader clash. This is between modernity in the form of markets, economic liberty, and other freedoms, and that which is often treated as pre-modern—inherited customs, orthodox religion, a neutral-to-suspicious view of commerce, etc. Today we see this played out in tensions and outright conflicts between particular forms of classical liberalism and conservatism’s traditionalist and communitarian expressions.

Much of Collins’ analysis is framed by his exploration of this “Das Edmund Burke Problem.” It somewhat parallels what mid-nineteenth century German thinkers called the “Das Adam Smith Problem.” This alleged a contradiction between the moral philosophy underlying Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and the economic thought expressed in his Wealth of Nations. Collins’ ultimate conclusion is that there is no essential conflict in Burke’s thought “between traditional virtue and modern economies that could not be integrated and reconciled.”

Theory matters

Collins places Burke’s economic thought in the context of his biography. He underscores Burke’s deep interest in commercial questions long before he entered politics. Part of this was motivated by Burke’s consciousness of the poverty prevailing in his native Ireland. But even as a student at Trinity College Dublin, Burke enjoyed grappling with the intellectual complexities of topics like the relationship between commerce and virtue as well as specific issues like the causes of monopoly. As a legislator, Burke approached economic issues in the context of addressing political questions such as how to resolve the conflict between Britain and its American colonies. But Collins stresses how much Burke integrated theoretical insights into his thought about these subjects.

This should not surprise us. Though famously distrustful of excessive abstraction, Burke was not hostile to the methods of Enlightenment social science, particularly of the Scottish variety, which sought to identify universally true insights into the human condition. Burke also maintained, Collins establishes, an uncommonly deep interest for his period in the empirical information conveyed (albeit in then-rudimentary ways) via numbers and statistics. Over time, Burke developed a sophisticated appreciation of the relationship between supply and demand, the importance of incentives and economic self-interest, how competitive prices worked, and the intricacies of public finance.

Burke’s interest in theory also embraced how rationality functioned in the marketplace. That was especially evident in his reflections upon free exchange and contracts in agriculture and the labor market. There were significant limits, Burke argued, to what government officials could know about all the different factors considered by the various parties to an exchange. Burke consequently concluded that, once they went beyond deterring and punishing force, fraud and collusion, government interventions were likely to have many unforeseen negative effects. Such awareness of what would later be called the knowledge problem was rare at the time.

Neither an economist nor an “oeconomist”

If this was the full story of Burke’s economic thought, he might be classified as somewhat of a proto-libertarian in his economic views. Collins, however, argues that such a conclusion is not just ahistorical; it does not do justice to the full character of Burke’s economic reflections or the ends to which they were directed.

In the first place, Burke did not regard himself as a type of professional economist. Such a designation, Collins points out, hardly existed in the eighteenth century. More significantly, like most of the period’s leading minds, Burke was free of the excessive specialization that distorts much academic inquiry today. Second, Burke studied these questions with a view to understanding and critiquing prevailing practices and promoting reforms (Burke was, after all, a Whig) which facilitated what Enlightenment thinkers called “improvement.”

Third, and perhaps most importantly, Collins highlights how Burke recognized that the general principles underpinning the case for broadening commercial liberties were never applied in a political vacuum, a morality-free zone, or culturally-empty settings. Those who thought such considerations could be ignored when it came to policy design were the people that Burke had in mind when he used the word “oeconomists” negatively in his 1790 Reflections. Context was not everything to Burke, but it did matter.

Fourth, there is the question of how Burke viewed his responsibilities as a legislator. He certainly believed that this included protecting and promoting commercial liberties. But such obligations went beyond that. A desire to fulfill these duties often underlay those small number of cases in which Burke believed that the state should engage in extensive economic intervention. One notable example was the slave trade. Burke publicly and privately criticized slavery as violating what he called “the principles of true religion and morality.” Rather than calling for its outright abolition, Burke urged such extensive state regulation of the practice that, Collins writes, “it would smother the incentive to deal Africans.” This is an example of Burke’s ethics being brought together with an understanding of incentives and supply and demand to realize slavery’s elimination via legislation in an era in which few envisaged this possibility.

The most important political context informing Burke’s economic views were the manifold challenges facing the eighteenth-century British Empire. These problems were, Collins shows, intimately connected to Burke’s struggle to preserve Britain’s constitutional arrangements that protected hard-won liberties while simultaneously addressing the question which preoccupied all eighteenth-century statesmen: how to raise sufficient revenue to maintain a functioning government in a world of competing nation-states.

Burke insisted that commercial liberties needed to be embedded in what Collins calls “pre-commercial pillars of religious instruction, social affection, and aristocratic moderation.” 

The subject of trade featured prominently in Burke’s treatment of these issues. But as Collins reminds us, the idea of free trade was far more fluid in Burke’s time than ours. Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations had dealt powerful intellectual blows to the arguments underpinning mercantilist trade policies. But the implications of reducing impediments to trade within and between nations were only starting to be worked out. The contradictions between empires and free trade, for example, were by no means as self-evident to eighteenth-century thinkers as they are today.

On the one hand, Collins notes, Burke unambiguously affirmed the economic advantages and prosperity associated with a growing liberalization of commerce between nations. He made this point repeatedly: so much so that it brought him into direct conflict with those merchants who resented competition. Burke was deeply skeptical of mercantilist vehicles of empire like the East India Company which epitomized an unhealthy blending of the commercial and the political. They were, Burke believed, of little benefit to Britain and contributed significantly to the corruption of British politics. Burke was also remarkably free of the obsession with bullion that underpinned mercantilist conceptions of wealth and which had fueled the expansion of Spain’s empire in the Americas.

At the same time, Burke’s brand of economic statesmanship was profoundly shaped by what Collins denotes as “the wider imperatives of British imperial order, the foremost being its security and integrity.” For Burke, Britain’s empire was a political given. While he did not pretend it was perfect, Burke nevertheless regarded the empire as playing a role in spreading the benefits of liberty. Burke was also deeply conscious that it was an empire under perpetual challenge from France, the other eighteenth-century Great Power, whether led by Bourbon absolutists or ideologues like Robespierre.

Burke wasn’t in the business of denying geopolitical realities, and this background, Collins convincingly demonstrates, explains the character of Burke’s efforts to liberalize trade within the British Empire while simultaneously trying to open up trade with other nations in ways that did not endanger Britain’s security. Many would assess these endeavors as haphazard and often marked by contradictions. Such assessments may well be true. Burke, however, was never one to make the perfect the enemy of the good.

Manners maketh commerce

There was, however, another dimension to Burke’s economic thought which Collins’ book brings into full focus. Burke insisted that commercial liberties needed to be embedded in what Collins calls “pre-commercial pillars of religious instruction, social affection, and aristocratic moderation.” Here we find what Collins calls the “manners” part of Burke’s political economy.

On one level, this implied the wealthy embracing the Jewish and Christian teaching that they had concrete responsibilities to the poor. In many places, Burke emphasized the political and economic dysfunctionalities associated with delegating these obligations to the state. But he also maintained that declining to privately assist those in genuine need was morally wrong and corroded those more-than-contractual bonds which bound communities together.

For Burke, commercial societies needed to embody decidedly non-commercial imperatives, many of which stemmed from what we would call pre-modern ideas and institutions. If they didn’t, Burke feared, people’s horizons would become degraded and enfeebled by the single-minded pursuit of lucre. Such moral and intellectual corruption could not be magically confined to the private sphere. There was no way to cordon it off from public life.

Part of Burke’s complaint against mercantilism was how it had facilitated widespread venality in British political life. Members of Parliament and the King’s ministers became very susceptible to undue influence from merchants seeking the monopolies and privileges which were integral to mercantilist policies. He also understood, Collins illustrates, that what was denoted as “economy in government” reduced incentives for such behavior.

Unless people also behaved in accordance with what the eighteenth-century Anglo-American world associated with what Burke called “the gentleman,” commercial societies would come undone. By “gentleman,” Burke had more than mind than noblesse oblige; it also involved civility, cultivation of the virtues, generosity, a commitment to improvement, and “a fidelity to helping others.” This idea of the gentleman and the mixture of pre-modern and Enlightenment expectations which Burke invested in it will seem quaint to some people today. For others, it smacks of paternalism. Nonetheless it was indispensable, to Burke’s mind, for the long-term sustainability of commercial societies.

I, for one, agree.

Conservative or Classical Liberal?

Where, then, does Collins’ portrait of Burke’s political economy leave us, especially vis-à-vis contemporary debates on the right? I suggest it indicates the following.

If you are the type of conservative who is suspicious of markets and economic liberty more generally, holds business in low regard, prefers protectionist, guild, or corporatist economic arrangements, and nurse a hostility to modernity, Burke is not your man. Advocacy of the expansion of commercial liberty is a consistent thread of Burke’s thought. He believed that commercial society conferred great material, political, and moral advantages upon nations which embraced these freedoms and the limits to state power which they implied.

By the same token, if you are the type of classical liberal who cannot see beyond the lens of economic categories, is nervous about associating freedom with any conception of truth beyond the empirical, embraces hedonist ethics, or despises orthodox religion, then Burke is really not your man either. For to be an “oeconomist,” in the way that Burke’s Reflections used this word, is to detach yourself from these important realities. From Burke’s standpoint, this was to make the same mistake as the men in Paris busy pursuing dreams that would end in the guillotine and war.

Integrating equally strong commitments to liberty and virtue is hard at the best of times. Frequently, the integration does not hold. But Burke’s attempt to keep commerce, liberty, and the pursuit of the good together are, Collins establishes beyond doubt, central to understanding Burke’s political economy. It also indirectly illuminates some of the very real challenges confronting classical liberals and conservatives in our own time and which study of Burke’s economic thinking helps us to answer. That may be the most significant result of Collins’ (I reiterate) definitive treatment of this much misunderstood topic and thinker.