Between 1776 and 1815, Britain was at peace for just 10 years, and reading the Scottish defense of free trade without this in mind is a mistake.
Whenever the conservative movement loses its way, it’s only a matter of time before some turn for guidance to the figure most associated with modern Anglo-American conservatism’s emergence. More recent intra-conservative debates have addressed Edmund Burke’s views on topics ranging from natural law to the nation.
Some of today’s deepest conservative divides revolve around economics. The Burke admirers who have reservations about market economies have always had to consider that his most detailed treatment of economics, his Thoughts and Details on Scarcity memorandum of 1795, robustly defends what we would call “market liberalism.”
Some view this text as out of step with Burke’s general philosophy. They regard the memorandum’s forceful appeals to economic logic and the laws of nature and God as contradicting the philosopher/statesman’s oft-expressed suspicion of abstraction and his accent on prudence and consciousness of circumstances.
Deeper immersion in Burke’s thought and practice, however, indicates that a commitment to the extension of commercial freedom is part and parcel of the regime of ordered liberty which he spent his life promoting and then defending. It’s often forgotten that Burke—who was, after all, a Whig—was as much concerned with improvement and reform as he was with emphasizing tradition’s importance. To be sure, his case for the market is not that of a utilitarian, let alone a contemporary laissez-faire globalist. But it is consistent with the particular brand of thought developed by Burke.
A Conservative Liberalizer
Burke’s status as a conservative icon often draws attention away from that portion of his political career spent trying to reform the British state and empire. Part of that agenda involved trade liberalization. From the beginning of his parliamentary career in December 1765, Burke sought to open the empire to greater internal and foreign trade to foster greater economic prosperity for all its subjects.
Burke invested considerable energy in promoting the first Rockingham ministry’s Free Port Act of 1766. This law created several free trade ports in British Caribbean colonies. It also diminished the scale of trade regulation between Britain’s North American possessions and British, French, and Spanish colonies in the West Indies. This represented a significant shift away from the mercantilist doctrines that had dominated British policy.
The support Burke gave this legislation was not rooted in a desire for greater economic efficiency for its own sake. Trade liberalization, he believed, was in Britain’s interests. “The trade of America,” he wrote, “was set free from injudicious and ruinous Impositions—Its Revenue was improved, and settled on a rational Foundation—Its Commerce extended with foreign Countries; while all the Advantages were extended to Great Britain.” Burke never made the mistake of confusing the monopolies controlled by politically-connected merchants with Britain’s economic health.
Equally noteworthy is Burke’s retrospective claim, in his 1796 Letter to a Noble Lord, that he would have liked to have gone further “if more had been permitted by events.” He was intensely aware of how invested so many British merchants in Britain and the West Indies were in the mercantile system and their influence on Parliament. That’s one reason why the 1766 Act preserved some preexisting regulations in place.
Market liberalism, Burke-style, was thus tempered by a consciousness of political realities and a willingness to compromise. This is hardly the position of an ideologue. What’s more, it cohered with Adam Smith’s advice in Book IV, Chapter II of The Wealth of Nations (1776) to liberalize trade gradually to give people time to adjust to the inevitable disruptions experienced by once-protected industries.
The same approach to nurturing wider economic liberty manifested itself in Burke’s efforts to free up Anglo-Irish trade throughout the 1770s. In his Two Letters to gentlemen in the city of Bristol (1778), Burke, as Member of Parliament for Bristol, explained to some of his angry business constituents why he supported liberalizing trade between the Britain where he had made his career and the Ireland where he had been born and educated.
Trade liberalization, Burke stated, would benefit both nations. It was an error “to see our own certain ruin, in the possible prosperity of other people.” Instead, “the prosperity which arises from an enlarged and liberal system improves all its objects; and the participation of a trade with flourishing Countries is much better than a monopoly of want and penury.”
Interestingly, Burke invokes philosophical and religious language to make what amounts to a realist case for free trade. He urged those who saw trade in zero-sum terms to recognize that free trade represented “a way of thinking more rational, more just, and more religious.” In his 1780 Speech at Bristol Previous to Election, Burke deployed similar phraseology. Free trade between Britain and Ireland, he said, was about adhering “to the instructions of truth and nature.”
Burke’s point is that the case for opening up trade is grounded on an appreciation of economic logic but also certain unchanging aspects of the human condition. In Two Letters, he stressed that Ireland could only make larger contributions to the revenue required by Britain and the empire if it became more prosperous. But greater Irish economic prosperity required more economic liberty for Irish merchants:
To bear more [Ireland] must have more ability; and in the order of nature, the advantage must precede the charge. This disposition of things, being the law of God, neither you nor I can alter it. So that if you will have more help from Ireland, you must previously supply her with more means. I believe it will be found, that if men are suffered freely to cultivate their natural advantages, a virtual equality of contribution will come in its own time, and will flow by an early descent, through its own proper and natural channels.
This passage helps explain why Burke invokes religion to support his position. It is by God’s design, according to Burke (and, for that matter, Thomas Aquinas), that different peoples and individuals possess different abilities, skills, and resources. That is why trade is natural, necessary, and good—at least in the aggregate—for nations over time. This position closely tracks with Smith’s observation that it is better for countries to specialize at what they are good at doing rather than trying to do everything mediocrely.
Again, however, Burke saw this as a goal for prudent legislators to work towards. Several acts passed in 1779 and 1780 removed some trade restrictions from Ireland, but not all. For as soon as British merchants had gotten wind of the impeding reforms, Burke relates, “A good many of the trading towns, and manufactures of various kinds, took alarm.” Hence, he claims, his objective was to
obtain gradually, and by parts, what we might attempt at once, and in the whole, without success—that one concession would lead to another—and that the people of England discovering by a progressive experience that none of the concessions actually made were followed by the consequences they dreaded, their fears from what they were yet to yield would considerably diminish.
This is how you would expect a reforming parliamentarian of conservative disposition to proceed. Instead of attempting to realize his objectives in one fell swoop (which would have sparked overwhelming opposition), the conservative legislator introduces some changes. He then counts on time and experience to assuage people’s fears. That creates opportunities for further steps in the same direction.
A Prudent Anti-Interventionist
A similar attention to prudence and empirical information is at work in Burke’s Thoughts and Details. The memorandum was addressed to Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger at a time when Pitt was wrestling with some very practical challenges (two poor harvests, rising food prices, and deteriorating economic conditions for agricultural workers) in the midst of Britain’s global war against Revolutionary France.
Burke knew that Pitt was a disciple of Smithian economics, yet he also recognized that the prime minister was supremely pragmatic. Theory was not going to be enough to convince Pitt to refrain from regulating the grain trade or instituting a minimum wage for agricultural workers.
On one level, Thoughts and Details does draw upon emerging economic thinking to explain, for instance, the negative effects of government interference with the free formation of prices. The marketplace, Burke argues, is the optimal setting for establishing the price of goods and services, including the price of labor. Attempts by the state to manipulate prices undermine the market’s unique ability to coordinate the supply and demand of goods, services, capital, and labor over the long term.
In a sense this is theory. Yet Burke’s argument is hardly detached from reality. It reflected knowledge derived from the empirical inquiry laid out systematically in Smith’s Wealth of Nations as well as Burke’s own detailed study of the workings of Britain’s economy.
At the same time, Burke’s position was influenced by what he thought it wise or unwise for legislators to do in light of the human condition. Trying to impose wage levels upon the agricultural sector from the top down, Burke stated, underestimated the sheer complexity of farming life. He pointed to the many different forms of agricultural employment as well as the “thousand nameless circumstances” that affect the preferences of tens of thousands of farmers and laborers. Far better to leave such matters to what Burke called “tact.” By this, he meant people negotiating economic agreements with others based on their own knowledge of their particular skills and circumstances.
There is nothing dogmatic about this. Burke was simply underscoring the real limits to what governments can know about people’s economic preferences. Governments that instead engaged in a “kind of officious universal interference” in the economy “ended always,” Burke wrote, “in contemptible imbecility.”
This outlook fits with a key part of Burke’s famous 1790 critique of the French Revolution, where he excoriates the revolutionaries’ confidence that they possessed all the information needed to fundamentally redesign France via state fiat. Only God, Burke believed, possessed that type of knowledge. It was far better, he thought, to allow people to make their own decisions in the context of the rule of law, a rich associational life, and a political and moral order which, for Burke, was derived from experience, custom, tradition, common law, natural law, religion, and Revelation. All these factors informed the workings of “tact” inasmuch as they brought a range of influences to bear upon people’s pursuit of self-interest in the marketplace, thereby ensuring that their economic choices were never purely economic.
These are classic Burkean insights. They bring together reference points that conservatives typically esteem: attention to empirical observation and human nature, experience of what governments can and cannot do well, and a concern for the nation’s long-term good rather than sectional interests. It surely behooves any contemporary conservative considering how to approach economic policy along Burkean lines to take such insights seriously.