Ethics & Public Policy Center

Edmund Burke’s Economics of Flourishing

Published in AEI: Economic Freedom and Human Flourishing on November 10, 2016

This essay is the sixth in a series from the book Economic Freedom and Human Flourishing: Perspectives from Political Philosophy, edited by AEI’s Michael R. Strain and Stan A. Veuger. Check back in every Tuesday for additional essays in the series.

The deep links between human flourishing and economic liberty are both vitally important and terribly underappreciated. Under the influence of modern economics, we too often now fall into viewing the economy as a kind of machine to be managed by technicians. This leads us to ignore the central place of economics in the human experience; to overlook its moral, social, and political character; and therefore to lose sight of its philosophical roots. In the process, we neglect the moral preconditions for the market economy, as well as some of the foremost moral and practical problems it poses for us.

Considering the link between economic liberty and human flourishing through the lens of the thought of Edmund Burke is a good way to be reminded of the moral and political depths of economic questions, because Burke thought about economics almost exclusively as a function of such deeper questions. He considered the “political economy” to be one coherent whole, and he thought about it in some ways that can inform our contemporary understanding. Such an exercise can be especially valuable for friends of free enterprise because Burke arrived by the end of his life at an argument for the market economy that we would find quite familiar, but which he reached by some much less familiar paths.

Burke was not an economist, of course, but more important he was a great critic of technical and technocratic ways of thinking about the lives of societies, and so his economic thought presents itself as a kind of critique of a lot of what now passes for economic thinking. The mechanistic understanding of the modern economy would be anathema to Burke. For him, economic life was best understood from the bottom up. He suggested that the power of markets, in our modern parlance, was that they enabled decisions to be made close to the ground and so aggregated society’s knowledge in much the same way that our other core social institutions do.

Burke thus tended to think about economic relations in the way he thought about social relations—as something interpersonal that happens in those middle layers of society that were so important to him. That is still largely true, but it is not always true, and as we consider the relevance of Burke’s economic thinking to our time, we should also reflect on what has changed and what that might mean.

The key to Burke’s economics, as to much of the rest of his social and political thinking, was his belief in the incorrigible complexity of society. That belief was absolutely central to the arguments he made about both liberty and human flourishing and to his stout opposition, in what must strike us now as very modern terms, to government intervention in economic exchange. Let us, then, seek a sense of Burke’s economics in his own terms.

At first glance, Burke’s defense of the commercial society is a kind of tragic case. He recognizes the downsides and dark sides of the emerging market economy but argues that the alternatives would be worse, even (or especially) for the people most disadvantaged in commercial societies.

In Reflections on the Revolution in France, when he takes up the economic complaints of the revolutionaries and of their supporters in Britain, Burke takes note of “the innumerable servile, degrading, unseemly, unmanly, and often most unwholesome and pestiferous occupations, to which by the social economy so many wretches are inevitably doomed.”1 He can see why the conditions of so many workers would lead some observers to demand radical change. But he argues that the costs of remedying their situations by the sorts of extreme economic measures that the French would adopt—the costs not only to society as a whole but even to the particular wretches involved—would be far worse than their current suffering.

Unlike his acquaintance Adam Smith, Burke generally does not make a case for economic freedom as a transformative force that could dramatically improve the living conditions of the poor. He tends to emphasize the dangers of intervention and the harms of mercantilism more than the benefits and advantages of laissez-faire.

But I say this is so only at first glance because Burke’s arguments about economics were actually rather minor elements of a larger argument about liberty and about human flourishing. Understood in that larger context, his essentially Smithian economic conclusions turn out to be rooted in more than a tragic acknowledgment of the absence of superior alternatives. We can reach Burke’s view of human flourishing through his understanding of liberty and then look again at his explicitly economic arguments to see where they fit in.

Burke had a lot to say about liberty, but he was certainly not what we might today call a libertarian. In fact, he was moved to articulate his vision of human liberty precisely in opposition to a highly individualist, choice-centered understanding of what freedom entails and enables.

We might see that most clearly in one of Burke’s lesser-known writings about the French Revolution. In early 1789, he received a letter from a young Frenchman named Charles-Jean-Francois DePont, whom he had met in London the year before. DePont would later be the formal addressee of Reflections on the Revolution in France, which was published as though it were a letter to him from Burke. But this actual exchange of letters between the two men happened before Burke had made any public statements about the revolution, and so before his views were known. DePont had clearly expected praise for the French when he asked for Burke’s views, and an affirmative answer to his question about whether the revolution seemed to Burke to be an example of liberty in action.

What he actually received, of course, was decidedly not an affirmative answer. The French surely deserve liberty, Burke wrote in his letter to DePont, but they have mistaken the meaning of the term. True liberty “is not solitary, unconnected, individual, selfish liberty, as if every man was to regulate the whole of his conduct by his own will. The liberty I mean is social freedom. It is that state of things in which liberty is assured by the equality of restraint. . . . This kind of liberty is indeed but another name for justice; ascertained by wise laws, and secured by well-constructed institutions.”2

Burke suggests in these remarks that radical individualism is the opposite of justice, and in that sense the opposite also of genuine liberty, and argues that freedom is a function of social relations and is obtained by equal self-restraint in a successful regime. His phrase “social freedom” is intended as a kind of counterpart to “individual liberty,” a term much favored by the revolutionaries. And he argues that such social freedom, or liberty properly understood, is the deepest source of Britain’s strength.

Self-restraint is, as he says, at the core of this idea of liberty. He put the point even more forcefully in Reflections the following year:

Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites. In proportion as their love to justice is above their rapacity, in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption, in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.3

This is an idea of liberty that is deeply intertwined with a particular notion of human flourishing. It is flourishing as a liberation from blinding passion and appetite—a freedom not only from outside constraint but also from an inner anarchy. And that kind of freedom is achieved in society, with the help of its institutions of moral formation.

At the heart of this vision of flourishing is therefore a sense of the interconnectedness of society—the way in which every human being is ensconced in a dense web of relationships that give society its shape and strength. Liberty is not a gift of society—it is the right of every person. But it is a right that can be exercised only within society and that requires immensely complicated social and political arrangements for its exercise and its perpetuation.

A year after publishing Reflections, and in response to some of its critics, Burke offered his most explicit articulation of this vision of society. In a pamphlet entitled An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, he makes it clear that his social vision begins precisely from the fact that we are born into a preexisting set of institutions and relationships:

Dark and inscrutable are the ways by which we come into the world. The instincts which give rise to this mysterious process of nature are not of our making. But out of physical causes, unknown to us, perhaps unknowable, arise moral duties, which, as we are able perfectly to comprehend, we are bound indispensably to perform. Parents may not be consenting to their moral relation; but consenting or not, they are bound to a long train of burthensome duties towards those with whom they have never made a convention of any sort. Children are not consenting to their relation, but their relation, without their actual consent, binds them to its duties; or rather it implies their consent because the presumed consent of every rational creature is in unison with the predisposed order of things. Men come in that manner into a community with the social state of their parents, endowed with all the benefits, loaded with all the duties of their situation. If the social ties and ligaments, spun out of those physical relations which are the elements of the commonwealth, in most cases begin, and always continue, independently of our will, so without any stipulation, on our part, are we bound by that relation called our country, which comprehends (as it has been well said) “all the charities of all.” Nor are we left without powerful instincts to make this duty as dear and grateful to us, as it is awful and coercive.4

Each human being arrives in the world as a new member of an old order, and far from a constraint upon our freedom that must be overcome, this fact is what makes our freedom possible. The primary reason for that, Burke argues, is that human beings have to be formed for freedom and are not born with that form. It is a social achievement. Social theories that begin with the free and rational individual alone seemed to him to beg a question they can never answer: where does this free person come from? Every person, after all, comes from a family—which is not a liberal institution—and enters the world both unable to exercise freedom and encumbered by all kinds of social relations that operate as restraints. To get from that beginning to the exercise of liberty, let alone to a society of free people exercising their liberty, requires much more than the absence of restraint.

It requires a social order, a political order, an economic order, and a moral order. The only genuine liberty, Burke argued in 1774, “is a liberty connected with order: that not only exists along with order and virtue but that cannot exist at all without them. It inheres in good and steady government, as in its substance and vital principle.”5

Human flourishing, in this sense, is possible only in a rich and complex social order adapted to enable it. And that adaptation is key for Burke. A free society is not found at the end of a syllogism or on the right side of an equation. It is a matter of gradual evolution, a long-term trial and error process. Society’s institutions are means of learning how to enable flourishing and happiness.

That is the case, Burke argues, not because there are no principles of justice or natural law that should guide society but because we cannot access those principles as directly as we would like. We cannot generally access them directly through the sort of rational science of politics that the enlightenment promised, nor can we do so through the natural-law arguments of the church. We generally cannot know them directly at all. But we can come to know them indirectly through the experience of social and political life itself. The institutions of our society are always seeking them out, and the shapes those institutions take are a function of that process of seeking.

The historical experience of social and political life for Burke consists in essence of a kind of rubbing up against the principles of natural justice, and the institutions and practices that survive that experience—that are found by men and women across generations to provide them with flourishing and happy lives—take on something of the shape of those principles, because only those that have that shape do survive that process. So over time, provided they develop through continuous, incremental change at the margins rather than sharp breaks and jostles, societies come to express in their institutions, charters, traditions, and habits a kind of simulacrum of the standard of justice. Society as it exists after such long experience comes to offer an approximation of society as it should exist.

This is the essence of Burke’s conservatism. It is rooted in a profound epistemological modesty and involves a rejection of highly technical ways of thinking about social life and social change and an emphasis on evolved institutions that stand between the individual and the nation as a whole and channel dispersed social knowledge (as opposed to engineered institutions that stand above it all and apply centralized technical knowledge). Those kinds of social institutions, and that mode of social change, make possible the balance of order and freedom that allows for genuine human liberty, and therefore for human flourishing.

With that in mind, we can more fully appreciate Burke’s economics. Burke’s tragic view of the benefits of capitalism is fundamentally a rejection of the alternatives, which even in his time involved technocratic attempts to manage social relations in ways that seemed to him likely only to undermine the potential for human flourishing. But in that rejection is also an affirmation of an alternative understanding of human flourishing—an alternative to technocratic liberalism.

We can see this most clearly in Burke’s most extended discussion of economics. In the last years of his life, Burke became deeply involved in a debate about a proposal in Parliament to manage the wages of farm workers—essentially a minimum wage for agricultural laborers. He was a staunch opponent of the idea, and he put his reasons in writing in the form of a kind of memo to Prime Minister William Pitt, which was published shortly after his death as “Thoughts and Details on Scarcity.”

Burke opens his case with a statement of his general outlook on the subject:

To provide for us in our necessities is not in the power of Government. It would be a vain presumption in statesmen to think they can do it. The people maintain them, and not they the people. It is in the power of Government to prevent much evil; it can do very little positive good in this, or perhaps in any thing else.6

He goes on to argue that the proposed legislation is premised on the notion that a contract between an employer and an employee involves the former abusing the latter, but that in fact the nature of contracts involves finding an arrangement that reconciles different interests. “In the case of the farmer and the labourer, their interests are always the same, and it is absolutely impossible that their free contracts can be onerous to either party.”7 He then frames potential objections to this view in a most ungenerous light:

I shall be told by the zealots of the sect of regulation that this may be true, and may be safely committed to the convention of the farmer and the labourer, when the latter is in the prime of his youth, and at the time of his health and vigour, and in ordinary times of abundance. But in calamitous seasons, under accidental illness, in declining life, and with the pressure of a numerous offspring, the future nourishers of the community but the present drains and blood-suckers of those who produce them, what is to be done?8

But this argument, too, he says, fails to take account of the nature of economic relationships:

And, first, I premise that labour is, as I have already intimated, a commodity, and as such, an article of trade. If I am right in this notion, then labour must be subject to all the laws and principles of trade, and not to regulations foreign to them, and that may be totally inconsistent with those principles and those laws. When any commodity is carried to market, it is not the necessity of the vender, but the necessity of the purchaser that raises the price. The extreme want of the seller has rather (by the nature of things with which we shall in vain contend) the direct contrary operation. If the goods at market are beyond the demand, they fall in their value; if below it, they rise. The impossibility of the subsistence of a man, who carries his labour to a market, is totally beside the question in this way of viewing it. The only question is, what is it worth to the buyer? But if authority comes in and forces the buyer to a price, who is this in the case (say) of a farmer, who buys the labour of ten or twelve labouring men, and three or four handycrafts, what is it, but to make an arbitrary division of his property among them?9

Such jerks of authority, Burke suggests, are generally well-intentioned—driven by a desire to equalize unequal conditions. But the nature of a free economy means that such egalitarianism frequently has disastrous consequences:

A perfect equality will indeed be produced; that is to say, equal want, equal wretchedness, equal beggary, and on the part of the partitioners, a woeful, helpless, and desperate disappointment. Such is the event of all compulsory equalizations. They pull down what is above. They never raise what is below: and they depress high and low together beneath the level of what was originally the lowest.10

And the notion that the agricultural economy should be treated differently than commerce in the cities is equally ignorant of basic economic principles, Burke argues:

A greater and more ruinous mistake cannot be fallen into, than that the trades of agriculture and grazing can be conducted upon any other than the common principles of commerce; namely, that the producer should be permitted, and even expected, to look to all possible profit which, without fraud or violence, he can make; to turn plenty or scarcity to the best advantage he can; to keep back or to bring forward his commodities at his pleasure; to account to no one for his stock or for his gain. On any other terms he is the slave of the consumer; and that he should be so is of no benefit to the consumer. No slave was ever so beneficial to the master as a freeman that deals with him on an equal footing by convention, formed on the rules and principles of contending interests and compromised advantages.11

The same is true of the people who stand between the farmer and the market:

What is true of the farmer is equally true of the middle man; whether the middle man acts as factor, jobber, salesman, or speculator, in the markets of grain. These traders are to be left to their free course; and the more they make, and the richer they are, and the more largely they deal, the better both for the farmer and consumer, between whom they form a natural and most useful link of connection; though, by the machinations of the old evil counsellor, Envy, they are hated and maligned by both parties.12

Indeed, Burke turns out to be immensely impressed by the power of markets to apply knowledge that their would-be regulators could never possess:

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. They who wish the destruction of that balance, and would fain by arbitrary regulation decree, that defective production should not be compensated by encreased price, directly lay their axe to the root of production itself.13

Burke concludes with a general statement about the proper relation between government and the economy. “My opinion,” he writes, “is against an over-doing of any sort of administration, and more especially against this most momentous of all meddling on the part of authority; the meddling with the subsistence of the people.”14

This Burkean case for a free economy as an essential component of a genuinely free society is rooted in a view of human flourishing that emphasizes the moral preconditions for freedom in a complex, layered society. It proceeds from a profound epistemic humility. And it advances a model of gradual, incremental change through bottom-up trial and error at the margins.

It understands the system of economic liberty as an embodiment of a traditionalist view of society, and therefore as itself a kind of precondition for human flourishing. But its commitment to the market economy is not dogmatic or absolute but prudent and practical, and subservient to a commitment to the genuine liberty of virtuous citizens.

It is also, I would hasten to say, the product of observing the emergence of a commercial society in Britain but not yet of the emergence of the industrial economy, with its mass scale and its immense transformative, even revolutionary, social consequences. Burke’s capitalism is an inextricable element of his fundamentally social conservatism, but it is so in part because he did not expect the market economy to overturn the social order. He saw it, rather, as an embodiment of the social order, and he viewed those who would seek to regulate and manage the economy as disrupting stable social arrangements.

In the subsequent centuries, things did not quite turn out that way. The market economy has in fact turned out to be a profoundly disruptive and revolutionary social force—overturning traditional arrangements in every realm of life, for good and bad. The advantages it has provided us are those that Burke had hoped it might: immense wealth and with it immense freedom. But the challenges it has posed for us are actually often those that Burke had thought it would prevent: social dislocation, insecurity, and breakdown.

While the route Burke took to his defense of the market economy is very instructive for us, therefore, especially because it gets near the root of his case for tradition as a means of change and adaptation, it does not make Burke simply a capitalist in our modern terms. He was a traditionalist and valued markets for their embodiment of a kind of humility and for their channeling of knowledge from the bottom up.

That made him a friend of markets to the extent that they support and uphold the complex social order that enables human flourishing. They surely do so to a very great extent, but never perfectly. And it is precisely the friends of markets who should bemost willing to acknowledge that, and to seek for ways to address it that themselves partake of humility about human knowledge and power, for the sake of liberty and human flourishing.

1. Edmund Burke, The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, ed. Paul Langford (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), VIII, 209.

2. Edmund Burke, The Correspondence of Edmund Burke, ed. Thomas Copeland (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), VI, 42.

3. Burke, Writings, VIII, 332.

4. Edmund Burke, Further Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. Daniel Ritchie (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1992), 161.

5. Burke, Writings, III, 59.

6. Ibid., IX, 120.

7. Ibid., 124.

8. Ibid., 126.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid., 127.

11. Ibid., 130.

12. Ibid., 132.

13. Ibid., 133.

14. Ibid., 145.

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