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Burkean Economics in the Right-Wing Realignment

Pragmatism learned from experience, a passion for true freedom, and a deep traditionalism make Burke the perfect model for conservative reformers.

Statue of Edmund Burke at Trinity College Dublin. (By Fabian Junge/Shutterstock)

Commerce and Manners in Edmund Burke’s Political Economy, by Gregory M. Collins, (Cambridge University Press, 2020), 564 pages.

As the much-heralded conservative realignment on economic policy gains steam, the battle for a usable past is likely to begin heating up. Conservatives of most stripes, after all, pride themselves on their regard for history, and every conservative re-invention has been accompanied by an effort to deck out the heroes of the conservative pantheon in the fashionable new garb. Now that a rising chorus of conservatives has dared to question last generation’s orthodoxy that conservatism stands for doctrinaire free trade and free markets, many have gone scrambling back to the sources to see where the conservative stalwarts of yore stood on questions of political economy. In this quest to retrieve a conservative identity, Gregory Collins’s Commerce and Manners in Edmund Burke’s Political Economy is an indispensable resource.

I should caution at the outset that this is not a volume for the faint of heart. Collins is to be admired for his dogged determination to mine every forgotten corner of Burke’s immense trove of speeches, pamphlets, and treatises for nuggets of economic theory or policy, and to dutifully present his findings in great analytic detail. Although Collins is a clear writer, and quick to reflect on the wider significance of his findings, this methodical study is hardly a page-turner, even for readers with an eager interest in these subjects. Still, any thoughtful conservative should invest the time to engage with this crucial and comprehensive study of conservatism’s greatest apologist, whose thought remains startlingly relevant today. To grapple with the tensions and ambiguities in Burke, after all, is to grapple with the tensions and ambiguities that continue to bedevil conservative thought a quarter of a millennium on.

At the outset of his work, Collins squarely confronts the heart of the tension:

How can a political community conserve the strength of culture and religion while securing the right to pursue profit? How can it relax the strains in the simultaneous attempt to preserve political stability and encourage economic change? Does market activity fuel unbounded individualism? If so, how can societies temper the self-destructive consequences?

Burke’s thought has often been invoked on both sides of this conservative fusion between traditional order and market liberty. On the one hand, his 1790 Reflections on the Revolution in France offers a classic statement of a traditionalist conservatism suspicious of change, rationalism, and individualism, and dedicated to the maintenance of order, hierarchy, and virtue. On the other hand, his 1796 pamphlet Thoughts and Details on Scarcity reads like a gospel tract for laissez-faire liberalism, trumpeting the need to unleash the creative destruction of markets driven by rational self-interest and to clear away well-meaning but ultimately short-sighted traditionalist curbs on market liberty. Accordingly, Collins bookends his work with very close readings of both texts, revealing nuances in each that soften the apparent contrast highlighted by earlier generations of Burke scholars. The intervening chapters fill out the picture with a rich and complex sketch of Burke’s lifetime of forays into the then-developing discipline of political economy, most of them emerging in the context of practical politics during his three-decade service in Parliament.

What emerges from this mosaic is a portrait of a man who was a true friend of market liberty, sharing many of the convictions voiced concurrently by Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations, but also a prudent statesman who understood that the market served society, not society the market. Burke’s conservative traditionalism, far from contradicting his market liberalism, flowed from the same basic intuition about human finitude and the need to learn from experience. Just as political wisdom was derived from the collected judgments of centuries, so economic wisdom was more likely to be found diffused throughout the multitude of private economic agents responding to market signals than in centralized, top-down efforts to fix prices or quotas.

Collins compellingly argues that we should read Burke as holding with remarkable steadiness to broadly consistent principles throughout his long career as a writer and politician, while also recognizing that he was a true statesman, not an armchair philosopher. Sometimes this meant yielding to established interests when there was no way around them, or accepting piecemeal reforms in place of sweeping overhauls; but such pragmatism, after all, was part and parcel of Burke’s brand of conservatism. It also meant a fine-grained attention to empirical reality rather than allegiance to abstract principle. Thus for instance Burke supported necessary and beneficial foreign trade monopolies like the East India Company and intellectual property monopolies in the form of copyrights or patents, while as a general rule excoriating monopoly as a sacrifice of economic efficiency and the public good to private interest. He rejected public granaries as an unwieldy solution to crop shortages in the UK, while endorsing them as good policy in Geneva. Perhaps most importantly, he drew a firm distinction between internal trade—on which he was as ardent a champion of free trade and market liberalization as Adam Smith—and foreign trade, on which he carefully subordinated the arguments for free trade to considerations of national security, national interest, and national honor. Aptly summarizing Burke’s trade philosophy, Collins comments: “The wealth of nations was a worthy aspiration, but the honor of nations was an even nobler aim.”

Evidence such as this demonstrates that in Burke, we do not find ourselves dealing with a market fundamentalist of the Reaganite variety, much less a Malthusian or Randian devotee of the iron laws of supply and demand. After all, Collins notes, Burke frequently violated these laws through his numerous acts of charity to friends and tenants, and insisted that public laissez-faire must be complemented by strong obligations of private charity. Indeed, Burke sought to model in private life his conviction that we must not behave as if markets are everything: “He reduced rents to a sum affordable to the estate’s existing tenants, rather than discard them and bring in more affluent tenants who could pay higher rates.” More generally, Burke strongly contended, particularly in his critique of the French revolution, against the over-extension of market logic into other areas of life. He was scandalized, for instance, by the French expedient of stimulating the economy by auctioning off previously illiquid church lands. “If societies permit the principles of market exchange to dictate all social relations, Burke warns, the human essence will be crushed by the soft tyranny of temporary and convenient social partnerships.”

In this, thinks Collins, Burke has a great deal to offer to conservative political economy today. Most crucially, Burke recognized that the virtues of free markets rest upon an underlying foundation of traditional order and virtue, without which markets will grind to a halt or run off the tracks. Commerce depends on manners, and manners depend on religion, custom, tradition, and good laws. As he wrote in the Reflections: “Even commerce, and trade, and manufacture, the gods of our oeconomical politicians, are themselves perhaps but creatures; are themselves but effects which, as first causes, we choose to worship. They certainly grew under the same shade in which learning flourished. They too may decay with their natural protecting principles” (quoted on 490).

A true conservative, then, must learn how to cherish the offspring—free markets—without allowing it to devour the mother—traditional virtues:

If the morality that preceded transactional exchange was destroyed, and if the essence of man was a rationalist calculator, then human relationships would melt into a swamp of political instrumentality.… Men and women would associate merely for instant self-satisfaction, not out of friendship and affection. Families and communities would be tied together—if they were tied together at all—by heartless utility and speculation rather than warm sympathy and compassion. The value of man would be measured ultimately by those with raw power.

Great though Burke may have been as a thinker and statesman, we should beware of overstating his accomplishment. Collins concedes that Burke’s economic reflections are scattered and occasional, and, even making allowances for the demands of practical circumstances and political alignments, not always as consistent as we might like. Indeed, as a reader, I couldn’t help wishing that Collins had humanized Burke a bit more by drawing out some of these inconsistencies more fully, rather than noting them with a sense of apologetic awkwardness and hastening on. Moreover, Collins notes several ways in which Burke was less attentive to market realities than we might wish. For instance, whereas Adam Smith was alive to the many ways in which merchants and manufacturers could try to manipulate prices to their advantage, Burke speaks with comparative naïveté about the price system, ignoring pervasive sources of market failures that are the basis for many regulations which conservatives should support.

We might also wonder whether Burke’s almost-sacred respect for property rights was consistent with his otherwise cogent critiques of abstract theories of natural rights. Burke was sometimes apt to see any government meddling with property as a slippery slope to the abolition of all private property, rather than simply a recognition of the fact that property is defined by human law and custom, and always limited in myriad ways for the common good. On a related note, we can take Collins to task for taking too much at face value Burke’s sometimes somewhat sensationalist account of the French Revolution, which comes across as a prelude of the Bolshevik Revolution’s assault on private property, rather than as a largely bourgeois affair determined to uproot the vestiges of feudalism.

Despite these relatively minor weaknesses in Collins’s presentation and Burke’s own thought, the great Irishman emerges from this study with his reputation well intact as a giant of conservatism. More importantly, he emerges as a powerful resource for the current conservative rethink on matters of political economy. Burke is clearly a friend of free markets, as conservatives today should continue to be. But he is no blinkered dogmatist. He recognizes that just as markets have nuances, policy must as well, and good policy must always balance strictly economic interests against other crucial aspects of national life. Burke also had no interest in shrinking government down into something that you could drown in the bathtub, offering instead “a resolute defense of the state as a necessary, and noble, ornament of civil society,” as something that “should be fortified by an element of public reverence.” Above all, Burke shows that those who support free markets must be attentive students and tireless advocates of those preconditions that make free markets possible: bonds of trust, charity, and mutual obligation, self-restraint and submission to law, strong ties of community and tradition, and religion as a wellspring of public and private virtue.

In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis jokes of a “famous Irishman who found that a certain kind of stove reduced his fuel bill by half and thence concluded that two stoves of the same kind would enable him to warm his house with no fuel at all.” Although Burke was an Irishman much too shrewd to fall for such a trick, conservatives since have been trying to drive just this bargain, and reaping the consequences. After centuries of ill-conceived regulations, the liberalization of markets seemed to offer greater liberty and greater prosperity, without sacrificing the virtue on which both depended. So why not double the dose of economic liberty? Only now in the early twenty-first century are we learning that the result is less liberty, less prosperity, and less virtue. There can, it turns out, be too much of a good thing. May Edmund Burke, and other great statesmen of the past, point our way back toward the kind of freedom in moderation that is the source of true and durable prosperity.

Brad Littlejohn is a Senior Fellow of the Edmund Burke Foundation, where he researches and writes on the intellectual lineage and contemporary renewal of Anglo-American conservatism.

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