The Political Economy of Edmund Burke: A New Perspective

By Nakazawa, Nobuhiko | Modern Age, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

The Political Economy of Edmund Burke: A New Perspective


Nakazawa, Nobuhiko, Modern Age


In this essay I will throw new light on Xa relatively neglected aspect of Edmund Burkes (1730-97) economic thought. (1) Most scholars have recognized its central assumptions as advocacy of a freely competitive market economy and justification of laissez-faire commercial policies. But this conventional interpretation is unsatisfactory and incomplete. There have been very few extensive studies of what Burke meant by political economy, although he frequently used this term and prided himself on being a political economist.

The first section of this paper will present enough documentary evidence to sketch the scope of Burke's political economy. What he meant by political economy was different from the classical school of political economy, not to mention modern sophisticated economics. Rather, it was much more akin to what is now called public finance. The second section will describe the moral nature of his political economy in relation to that of his politics. To him, political economy was an essential constituent of his politics of prudence. The third section will focus on his prudent choice of economic policies, and how his political economy distanced itself from theoretical laissez-faire dogma.

I

While Edmund Burke has been most remembered in the history of political thought as one of the most important founders of British conservatism, he has also been noted as having possessed considerable competence as a political economist. According to the biography of Burke written by his contemporary Robert Bisset (1758/9-1805), Adam Smith "told [Burke], after they had conversed on subjects of political economy, that he was the only man, who, without communication, thought on these topics exactly as he did." (2) Most commentators' evidence has relied almost entirely on the economic analysis of Thoughts and Details on Scarcity (1795), a posthumously published memorandum addressed to Prime Minister William Pitt (1759-1806) in response to the famine that hit England during the war with France. This has led them to jump to the conclusion that the nature of his political economy lies in the defence of a self-regulating market economy and the justification of laissez-faire policies. (3) Here are some typical excerpts from Thoughts and Details:

  The balance between consumption and production makes price. The
  market settles, and alone can settle, that price. Market is the
  meeting and conference of the consumer and producer, when they
  mutually discover each other's wants. Nobody, I believe, has
  observed with any reflection what market is, without being
  astonished at the truth, the correctness, the celerity, the general
  equity, with which the balance of wants is settled. (4)

  We, the people, ought to be made sensible, 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. (5)

  It is one of the finest problems in legislation, and what has often
  engaged my thoughts whilst I followed that profession, "What the
  State ought to take upon itself to direct by the public wisdom, and
  what it ought to leave, with as little interference as possible, to
  individual discretion." ... The clearest line of distinction
  which I could draw, whilst I had my chalk to draw any line, was
  this: That the State ought to confine itself to what regards the
  State, or the creatures of the State, namely, the exterior
  establishment of its religion; its magistracy; its revenue; its
  military force by sea and land; the corporations that owe their
  existence to its fiat; in a word, to every thing that is truly and
  properly public, to the public peace, to the public safety, to the
  public order, to the public prosperity. (6)

This conventional wisdom, however, leaves room for further discussion since it seems significant that Burke never used the term "political economy" in Thoughts and Details, while he occasionally showed evidence of his efforts as a political economist in his other works. …

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