“To provide for us in our necessities is not in the power of Government.”
“Nobody has observed with any reflection what market is, without being astonished at the truth, the correctness with which the balance of wants is settled.”
“That to which I attached myself the most particularly, was to fit the principle of a free trade in all the ports of these Islands, as founded in justice, and beneficial to the whole.”
“… the laws of commerce, which are the laws of nature, and consequently the laws of God.”
Who could have possibly said such things? The obvious conclusion is some “market fundamentalist,” some evil “laissez-faire economist” who believes blindly in capitalism.
But they actually come from none other than the “father of conservatism,” or, as one observer put it, “the classic conservative against whom all other conservatives must measure themselves to prove their authenticity,” Edmund Burke, the Anglo-Irish thinker and statesman of the late 18th century.
That many conservatives have abandoned free trade and the market economy is well-known. They have announced liberalism’s—that is, classical liberalism’s—demise. They have celebrated protectionism and trade wars. They have argued for a bigger role for the government in the economy, from an industrial policy to significant intrusions in domestic trade to specifically targeted welfare programs that will allegedly strengthen social institutions. Christian socialism, even Bernie Sanders socialism, are suddenly viable alternatives.
This shift to economic nationalism and domestic interventionism has not only taken place in the United States but across the West. It is in America, however, where it is most stunning, for the U.S. has always has been a country based on liberal economic ideas—it is steeped in the “liberal tradition,” contrary to many European nations.
Almost all the advocates of this new big government conservatism would view Edmund Burke as one of their forebears, one of their heroes. The recent National Conservatism Conference in Washington, D.C., for instance, was organized by no other than the Edmund Burke Foundation.
Perhaps, then, it would be useful for Burkean conservatives to look at what Burke actually thought about economic issues. They would find that he was a strong and lifelong defender of the economic system many of them are now abandoning.
Throughout his career in the House of Commons, Burke argued against obstacles to free trade. In 1778, for instance, he declared that free trade should reign between England and Ireland, as “the world is large enough for us both.” He saw clearly that trade is not a zero-sum game, but that all countries would profit from it. Though “it is hard to persuade ourselves that every thing which is got by another is not taken from ourselves,” Burke said, it is clear that “England and Ireland may flourish together.” In addition, he was a strong proponent of keeping government spending in check, complaining about the “beggarly account of empty boxes” in some royal houses.
Most radical of all, in his last published work, Thoughts and Details of Scarcity, he flat-out rejected any government-sponsored welfare. Despite a famine hitting England, he argued that private charity, “a direct and obligatory duty upon all Christians,” should be the solution, not government, which “can do very little positive good in this, or perhaps in any thing else.”
Burke’s case for economic freedom wasn’t based on crude utilitarianism. It wasn’t merely, in the words of Tucker Carlson, about maximizing GDP, while leaving out all other aspects of life. After all, “economy in my plan was, as it ought to be, secondary.”
Rather, Burke thought the social order could only properly function if it grew organically, or, as a later prominent thinker put it, spontaneously, in a bottom-up process, left alone by external authorities to the largest extent possible. Humans, being social animals, would naturally cooperate and interact with each other. Over time, certain patterns and social institutions develop — among them, but not exclusively, market institutions and mechanisms. Those institutions make up a social order, one that is not designed in a top-down and centralized manner, but that develops over time and generations.
At the forefront of this is human flourishing: when individuals pursue their own ends, they inadvertently help others to flourish as well. As Burke—not Adam Smith, though it certainly sounds like the originator of the “invisible hand”—said, “the benign and wise Disposer of all things obliges men, whether they will or not, in pursuing their own selfish interests, to connect the general good with their own individual success.” Thus, through voluntary cooperation, individuals could help each other pursue their dreams. And where markets would eventually “fail,” civil society and charity, not government, would care for those in need. Private initiative and cooperation would produce virtuous citizens.
This case, in favor of economic liberty coupled with a healthy civil society, was hailed by many others. Burke was “a great economist,” argued Russell Kirk. Adam Smith, a good friend of Burke’s, reportedly said, “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.” Friedrich Hayek called Burke “the man who to me seems to be one of the greatest representatives of true individualism,” which is based on spontaneous order, not dogmatic rationalism that thinks society can be redesigned from the top down.
None of this is to say there aren’t economic challenges in our world that need to be closely examined. Trade with countries like China and new technological developments do pose questions that go beyond “mere economics.” Burke, “far from being a student of the cold logic of metaphysical and dogmatic laissez-faire doctrines,” would have assessed these matters based “on prudence, not on principle,” in the words of Nobuhiko Nakazawa.
Yet for so many conservatives these days, what matters is not specific policy questions. The entire edifice of economic liberalism needs to be brought down. The government, rather than society, is seen as saving individuals. As Burke showed, however, centralized decision-making can’t solve these problems. For this, a defense of the free market in the Burkean tradition is necessary.