An explanatory look at the economic thought of Edmund Burke, our namesake. Particular attentions is paid to natural law, lassez-faire, charity and free trade. A great read for anyone interested in learning more about the father of conservatism.
Edmund Burke was not primarily an economic thinker, although as he approached the end of his life, he prepared a brief treatise, Thoughts and Details on Scarcity (1795), which is now our chief indicator of his economic positions. According to Canavan (1999), it was Burke’s intention to expand this work, which began life as an extended memorandum to Britain’s Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, into a book-length exploration of economic topics. With only a year and a half of his earthly life remaining, however, a combination of worsening health and a preoccupation with Britain’s war against Revolutionary France prevented him from ever completing this revision of On Scarcity.
Whilst Burke’s economic thought is not as developed as that of his contemporaries, many of his ideas bear a striking resemblance to that of the Scottish economist Adam Smith and his ‘classical school’ of economic thought. Burke and Smith became cordially acquainted, and Smith is known to have remarked that “[Burke is] the only man I ever knew who thinks on economic subjects exactly as I do, without any previous communications having passed between us” (Norman, Edmund Burke, p. 199).
The foundation of Burke’s economic thought can be traced to the English natural law philosophical tradition.
We, the people, ought to be made sensible [aware], that it is not in breaking the laws of commerce, which are the laws of nature, and consequently the laws of God, that we are to place our hope of softening the Divine displeasure to remove any calamity under which we suffer, or which hangs over us. (Misc. Writings, p. 81)
The principles of natural law, which is distinct from positive law (imposed by human authorities), operates upon the redemption of inequity. Burke is able to link natural law to ‘the laws of God’ on account of that culturally ubiquitous mantra (and, of course, of Jesus) ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’, or the law of empathy. The Robinson Crusoe economy is often used as an example of natural law applied in an economic sense (Hoppe, 2004):
When Crusoe awakes on a desert island, with no recollection of how he got there, the first thing he does is to acquire property. He uses natural resources available to him to sustain himself, by acquiring food and using the resources available to make tools. When the native, Man Friday, arrives, there is inevitably a conflict. If Man Friday claims the resources of Crusoe as his own, and yet Crusoe considers those resources to belong to him (that is to say, to Crusoe), then there is a dispute. Man Friday might claim that Crusoe has taken resources which by rights belonged to him; Crusoe might answer that he found those resources unused and made good use of them. The only just way in which Man Friday and Crusoe can interact is by either trading their respective possessions, or by making a gift of them from one to another. If both parties insist upon absolute ownership of an item which cannot reasonably belong to both, or one goes one step further and takes it by force – then there is here an inequity. In uncivilised society, the response to inequity is to counteract it by equal or greater force; in civilised society, states of inequity are referred to arbitration by a judge, where the pleas of each side can be heard. This, very briefly, is an overview of natural law.
We can see, therefore, that when applied to economics, the belief in natural necessitates the absolute existence of private property, and of the freedom for individuals to interact without coercion – with the means of independent arbitration existing at the sidelines in order to prevent violence.
Laissez-faire and Charity
Burke writes harshly against any notion that the government ought to have a role in the conduct of business or distribution of wealth. Presumably in a veiled attack upon the dirigisme (centralised economic policy) of the French Revolutionary government, Burke writes ‘To provide for us in our necessities is not in the power of Government’ (Misc. Writings, p. 61). Perhaps more strikingly, he ridicules the notion that redistribution of wealth will alleviate poverty:
That class of dependent pensioners [those who receive an allowance, either from inheritance or profit] called the rich, is so extremely small, that if all their throats were cut, and a distribution made of all they consume [spend] in a year, it would not give a bit of bread and cheese for one night’s supper to those who labour, and who in reality feed both the pensioners and themselves. (p. 62)
The coercion model, or socialist model, is under attack from Burke here. If a rich person is coerced (in Burke’s example in the extreme – by being killed!) into the redistribution of his wealth, there is a contravention of the natural law. Many problems ensue: as Burke points out, the wealth recovered will likely not be sufficient to properly alleviate every suffering of the poor, not to mention the sense of entitlement which it will foster in the recipients of wealth, and the resentment in those who lose it: ‘having looked to Government for bread, on the very first scarcity they [the poor] will turn and bite the hand that fed them’ (p. 81).
Burke suggests charity as the best means of helping the poor, and calls it an ‘obligatory duty on all Christians’ (p. 72). Burke considers charity to yield greater ‘satisfaction’ than coercive redistribution – it permits a moral exchange (it is essentially a form of ‘gifting’ as described above), and it grants moral satisfaction to the donor, and a sense of gratitude and care to the recipient.
In a sense Burke makes a clear distinction between private and public business. That which is private must remain the prerogative and right of the individual, whilst those things which are public – ‘public peace, public safety, public order, and public prosperity’ – are the things to which the State ought to confine itself (p. 90).
Burke also uses the language of natural law to speak of free trade. Rather than offering a utilitarian justification, he writes: “free trade … [is] founded in justice” (p. 32). Presumably this reflects the natural law principle that taxes on free trade (tariffs and other protectionist measures) hamper the just interactions of economic agents.
Edmund Burke is, of course, writing for an 18th century audience – not even that, but an 18th century political audience, and his views reflect the constitutional and social structure of Britain in the 1790s.
It is difficult to reflect upon how Burke’s economic thought might be applied to contemporary nations. Charity is no longer primarily conducted via private individuals and the Church, for example, but has become corporatised in of itself. Whether we may like or not, the government-directed redistribution of wealth already takes place on a grand scale, and quite possibly for good reason given the decline of the sort of charity mentioned above.
Nevertheless, the big business capitalism of today was not the capitalism of the age of Edmund Burke. Such being the case, there are important contributions which Burke and the wider natural law economic school can offer to contemporary debates surrounding the failure of modern ‘crony capitalism’. If natural law is truly valuable, then the real debate the economic thought of Edmund Burke must spark is how it can be effectively applied in a modern world with very different priorities and very different governments.
Edmund Burke, F. Canavan (ed.), Miscellaneous Writings (Liberty Fund, 1999); available online
H. H. Hoppe, The Ethics and Economics of Private Property (10/15/2004), https://mises.org/library/ethics-and-economics-private-property
J. Norman, Edmund Burke: The Visionary Who Invented Modern Politics (HarperCollins, 2014)