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Burke’s Political Economy Reconsidered

There has been a noticeable revival of interest in the economic thought of Edmund Burke in light of contemporary debate among conservatives and liberals over the role of markets in civil society. This essay will clarify the dimensions of Burke’s political economy that have been discussed recently by a number of commentators, including Samuel Gregg, Ralph Ancil, and Kai Weiss, and briefly draw out their implications for the current political moment.

Scholars have observed that Burke’s passionate endorsement of market economies in Thought and Details on Scarcity, his primary economic tract, and his belief that the “laws of commerce” reflected the “laws of nature” and the “laws of God,” appear to violate his otherwise warm embrace of prudence and moderation. Most recently, Ralph Ancil, representing this line of reasoning, writes that Thoughts and Details is “especially shrill in its arguments, unlike the moderate and balanced tone in so many of his other speeches and writings.” I have addressed this matter in a previous article, in which I attempted to show that Burke’s communication of his ideas often dripped with emotion, even though his political thought was indeed marked by a conception of prudence, well-understood; his apprehensions over government interference in internal markets validated his suspicion of the rational organization of social affairs; and his support for market liberty in the domestic grain trade spanned back to his earliest days in Parliament.

Ancil writes that Burke was “unable to see” the large difference “between agricultural labour and that of trades and manufacturing. Indeed, for him, it was a commodity like any other.” In Thoughts and Details, Burke certainly argues that the agricultural labor market should be guided by the laws of supply and demand. But he also perceived a key distinction in his political life between the domestic agricultural economy and broader commercial markets, which is why he conveyed steady support throughout the eighteenth century for the corn bounty—a government incentive to grow corn—for the purpose of aiding farmers and the landed interest. In the early 1770s, Burke actually helped draft one of the most influential laws regulating the bounty in eighteenth-century Britain.

More importantly, Burke did believe that some land should not be left open to the strict dictates of unfettered markets, as illustrated by his defense of the hereditary aristocracy and of primogeniture and entail. (Adam Smith, we should note, criticized these laws for frustrating optimal commercial development.) In the face of mounting attacks on the aristocracy throughout the late 1700s, Burke maintained that this order preserved an element of permanence in a commonwealth, which helps explain his sympathy for the corn bounty. Ancil spotlights this aspect of his thought as a sanction for exploitation by the elites at the expense of the small landed proprietor, but this conclusion obscures Burke’s reasoning for supporting primogeniture and entail.

He believed that such practices, for various reasons, established the stable foundation for the steady expansion of commercial activity; because they allowed families, including those from modest pedigrees, to build wealth throughout generations; and because they helped create firm layers of authority between the government and different social classes, thereby discouraging the Crown from encroaching upon the property of landed proprietors of all backgrounds. As Burke observed, the French Revolution laid bare the ghastly consequences when these layers were eliminated.

Ancil claims that Burke’s economic thought called for the “promotion of monopolies” and that he was “blind to the dangers of monopoly and concentration of economic power.” Burke’s beliefs on monopoly are complex and require additional elaboration, which I provide in my forthcoming book on his economic thought, but Ancil is vastly overstating and oversimplifying the case. Burke certainly defended an individual’s right to a monopoly of capital, as Ancil notes, as a shield against state infringement upon private property rights. But he was quite aware of the dangers of monopoly and the concentration of economic power. Burke’s famous condemnations of Warren Hastings’ rule in British India included a variety of speeches and parliamentary reports that outlined in great detail the harsh repercussions that the British East India Company’s control of economic resources generated in local Indian markets. For Burke, the possession of one’s private capital that was earned in a competitive market posed a far less hazardous threat to society than the government’s public monopoly of local goods.[1]

There is also a temptation to presume that Thoughts and Details defines the heart of Burke’s conception of political economy. This proclivity has led contemporary interpreters to conceive his economic thought through modern doctrines, such as classical liberalism, libertarianism, spontaneous order, and capitalism, a tendency of which I was guilty when I first started drafting my book on the subject. Kai Weiss, for instance, writes that Burke had a “precursory version of the idea of a spontaneous order.” In this context, one of the most obvious affinities to Burke is F.A. Hayek, who, much like the British philosopher-statesman, highlighted the constraints of the human intellect in regulating the flow of finite resources.

We must be exceedingly cautious before blurring distinctions between Burke’s political economy and these modern doctrines, however. Beyond the difficulties in drawing transhistorical comparisons between thinkers, we must remember that Burke was a vigorous supporter of the state-backed Church of England, as well as the hereditary aristocracy, as mentioned, and that he harbored a grave distrust of trendy contractarian notions of civil society that were summoned by prominent Brits in his age, and by classical liberals and libertarians today, to justify the emancipation of commerce from the state.

In regard to Hayek, the Austrian economist did believe that a common moral code was necessary for a thriving political community, but he maintained that this moral code should be constantly tested in the competitive marketplace of ideas and institutions. Burke, however, held that some social institutions and social goods should always remain beyond the reach of supply and demand. Spontaneous order could generate public riches, but civil society required sturdier sources of stability that could withstand the vagaries of market activity, such as the church and the nobility. Indeed it is difficult to reconcile Burke’s defense of the Church of England, the hereditary nobility, the Navigation Acts (more on this below), and primogeniture—all conscious attempts by the state to secure particular social, political, and economic privileges—with the concept of spontaneous order. In addition, particular strands of classical liberalism and libertarianism, with their heavy stress on the maximization of individual liberty and creation of wealth as the defining marks of a flourishing society, press against Burke’s understanding of the deeper religious and cultural foundations of the growth of civilization that channel the acquisitive spirit toward higher ends.

Applications

Burke held that the incentive structure of voluntary contracts and the wizardry of the competitive price system tend to promote a synthesis of interest between transacting parties, specifically in the domestic economy. He displayed a heightened level of sympathy toward market exchange that contemporary conservatives such as Patrick Deneen, Patrick Buchanan, R.R. Reno, and Claes Ryn do not, and defended middlemen with a vigor that is typically communicated in contemporary libertarian circles.

We must be careful, however, in using Burke as a prop to rationalize pro- or anti-economic liberty arguments today. For his economic thought draws attention to prevailing tensions between conservatism and classical liberalism, such as those discussed by Yoram Hazony, that illuminate varying conceptions of the importance of market freedom in the promotion of human flourishing. Although the distinctions between the two intellectual traditions are threaded with too fine a needle at times, they do reflect key differences between Burke’s embrace of commercial exchange and other proponents of market liberty and contractarian social thinking in the early modern period. Unlike the latter thinkers during this time, and many classical liberals and libertarians today, he did not conceive of man as an individual who entered civil society merely to preserve his natural rights to liberty and property; nor as a mere instrument for the maximization of utility; nor as a someone whose moral commitments extended only to the fulfillment of the terms of voluntary contracts.

Rather, Burke understood exchange economies to play an important role, but by no means an overwhelming role, in the growth of civilization and the nourishment of social relations. Religious institutions (including monasteries as well as established churches); the aristocracy; patronage; families; and social associations all comprised an ethical fabric that could temper commercial excess and provide enduring support for the fluxes of exchange economies. The diffusion of wealth was a worthy aim, but the cultivation of man’s social bonds through faith, moral sentiment, and chivalry was an even nobler imperative—and this could not be achieved simply through a system of mutual economic transactions. We would do well to heed this lesson.

Similarly, on the matter of free trade, Kai Weiss and Samuel Gregg have appropriately alerted readers to Burke’s fondness for the promotion of commercial intercourse between nations. This is certainly true in the case of Ireland and the British West Indies, as I have explained in my article on the subject. Once again, however, we must resist the inclination to conflate Burke’s views on free trade with those of other proponents of market exchange in the early modern period and of many classical liberals and libertarians today. These groups often employ the doux commerce thesis, commonly associated with Montesquieu and the Scottish Enlightenment, to argue that free trade will promote peaceful relations between antagonistic nations, and that the advantages that flow from global exchange outweigh its disadvantages.

Burke was quite mindful of the limits of such reasoning.[2] He defended the older system of the Navigation Acts, which helped build and fortify the Anglo-American commercial partnership in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, knowing full well that control of the seas meant control of one’s security interests, as well as commercial interests, in the face of global rivals. Even more, he opposed the Anglo-French Commercial Treaty of 1786, which called to ease commercial restrictions between Britain and France, and supported the Traitorous Correspondence Bill of 1793, which would have discouraged economic activity between the two nemeses.

Championing the virtues of free trade with Ireland was one thing, for Ireland shared a common tongue and imperial security interests with England. As Burke understood, however, France, England’s most formidable adversary throughout the 1700s, was quite a different species, especially in the late eighteenth century. The French Empire had made conscious attempts throughout this century to weaken the commercial and naval capabilities of the British Empire; and, of course, the French Revolution’s imperial ambitions in the 1790s posed a menacing threat to the integrity of Britain herself. Burke’s positions on these legislative proposals were informed by a keen recognition that the promotion of commerce between rivals who did not share a common language and culture—not to mention security concerns—should be met with extreme caution in times of tension and conflict.

This is particularly the case when economic thought pierces the dense medium of foreign policy in the practice of statecraft. I will not go so far as to insist that Burke would or would not have supported the Trump administration’s trade wars with China. Nevertheless, I will say that the idea that trade can, and should, be used as an instrument of leverage and power against hostile foreign countries—such as those, like China, that wage economic warfare and cyberwarfare against you—was not anathema to Burke’s economic thought, and in fact could be quite compatible with it. As his broad conception of political economy suggests, it was the responsibility of prudent statesmen to determine when the wealth of nations should submit to the honor of country.

[1] The case of the Company’s monopoly on English trading privileges in the East Indies was of a different matter.

[2] Montesquieu and the Scots, we should add, were also aware of the limits of the doux commerce thesis.

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