The Political Economy of Edmund Burke: The Role of Property in His Thought

The Political Economy of Edmund Burke: The Role of Property in His Thought

The Political Economy of Edmund Burke: The Role of Property in His Thought

The Political Economy of Edmund Burke: The Role of Property in His Thought

Synopsis

In Edmund Burke: A Bibliography of Secondary Studies to 1982 Clara Gandy and Peter Stanlis write, "One of the large unanswered questions is how Burke's economic theory is related to his political theory, and whether they are complementary or contradictory." Canavan is the first to offer a book-length treatment of this question, and in so doing, he places the strength of his argument largely on primary sources rather than a patchwork of previous interpretations. Canavan aims to show that Burke's own emphasis was not on capitalistic laissez-fair economics, as has been assumed, but that his goals were primarily political and cultural. Namely, Burke sought the preservation and development of an aristocratic and Christian civilization supported economically by a leading class of landed property owners. This study projects a new profile of Burke which challenges C. B. Macpherson's sketch of him as a bourgeois capitalist, or, as depicted by J. B. Plumb and Frank O'Gorman, as a hired philsopher of the Whig Oligarchy. Nor does Canavan's study present the philosopher as one who would "declare war on the poor," as Gertrude Himmelfarb charged in her The Idea of Poverty. Burke emerges from Canavan's treatment as a Whig who admired paternalistic government by the rich and virtuous whom he felt would govern as trustees for the benefit of the whole people. Burke did not support the notion that property by monopolized by any one class in society, but wanted the wealthy to empower intermediary institutions which would hold in check the control of the expansive state, whether that meant the Crown in Britain or the revolutionary state in France.

Excerpt

In their Edmund Burke: a Bibliography of Secondary Studies to 1982, Clara I. Gandy and Peter J. Stanlis state:

Most scholars have identified his [Burke’s] economic theory as simi
lar to or identical with that of Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations, a
free market, laissez-faire system of free trade and natural liberty in
economic enterprise, a world removed from modern socialist and
Marxist collectivist systems. One of the large unanswered questions
is how Burke’s economic theory is related to his political theory,
and whether they are complementary or contradictory [p. 213].

The question has remained unanswered, because few, if any, have tried fully to answer it. I myself have consciously ducked it in my previous writings on Burke, and I am not sure that I have satisfactorily answered it here. Still, it was the question that first drew my attention to the larger one of Burke’s conception of the role of property in society. That led to a consideration of his political economy, because in Burke’s mind there was no gulf between economics and politics. Whatever the truth may be, he at least was aware of no contradiction between his political and his economic theories.

My purpose in this book has been neither to praise nor to condemn Burke’s views on property and society, but only to elucidate them. Descended as I am from a long line of Irish peasants, I have no nostalgia for the days when a British aristocracy not only ruled but owned the land. But it is the views of Burke, who loved the aristocratic social order of his time, not mine, that are of interest here. I have therefore for the most part avoided expressing my opinions, though I have not been able to forbear all question and comment on Burke’s ideas. I have also generally declined to argue with other writers on Burke. in fact, except for the first chapter, I have made little use of secondary literature on Burke, in order to let him express his mind in his own words. the reader will no doubt be able to decide for himself to what extent he agrees or disagrees with Burke.

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