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Not for Gain Alone

Max Skjönsberg

Commerce and Manners in Edmund Burke’s Political Economy, by Gregory M Collins, Cambridge University Press, 578 pp, £39.99, ISBN: 978-1108489409

Edmund Burke (1729/30-97) wrote only one text that can be strictly classified as political economy: his Thoughts and Details on Scarcity, composed as a private memorandum for the British government in 1795 and published posthumously in 1800. As Gregory Collins’s new book reflects, however, economic topics are prominent in several of Burke’s better and lesser-known writings and speeches, including many in relation to Ireland’s economic suffering and the disadvantages imposed by Britain. The book is the first serious book-length study of Burke’s economic thought.

Burke wrote towards the end of his life that he had made political economy “an object of my humble studies, from my very early youth to near the end of my service in parliament, even before, (at least to any knowledge of mine) it had employed the thoughts of speculative men in other parts of Europe”. He is likely to have referred to one of his contributions to The Reformer (1748), a weekly periodical which he co-founded in Ireland around the time of his graduation from Trinity College Dublin and before his departure to London. In an essay on Irish poverty in this periodical, the young Burke wrote that “The Riches of a Nation are not to be estimated by the splendid Appearance or luxurious Lives of its Gentry; it is the uniform Plenty diffused through a People, of which the meanest as well as the greatest partake, that makes them happy, and the Nation powerful.” This enlightened approach to political economy, decades later systematised by his friend Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations (1776), informed Burke’s approach to political economy throughout his life.

In the wake of the French Revolution, Burke was accused by Thomas Paine of lamenting the plight of the French monarchy and nobility and forgetting about the condition of the poor. “He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird” Paine wrote memorably in The Rights of Man. However, Burke was firmly committed to the principle of private charity to ameliorate the situation of the poor. Even more importantly, he was convinced that market freedom, or the natural laws of supply and demand, would better advance the interest of labourers in the long run than any state intervention. He not only championed free trade, but also free mobility of labour. England’s Poor Laws, which allowed magistrates to return the indigent to their parish of origin, punished the industrious in pursuit of employment, according to Burke. Moreover, the government should not seek to restrict foreign emigration. “I should not be concerned if 40,000 emigrants went every day”, he said with regard to emigration to America in the 1770s. “Let [them] be flourishing and happy. They will not enjoy their fortune at the expence [sic] of Britain.”

Burke viewed himself as a champion of the cause of the powerless. This was particularly relevant for his native Ireland. Arguing for the relaxation of the penal codes, he wanted to give oppressed Irish Catholics more opportunities to cultivate their land and bequeath property to their offspring. Peoples should not be regulated into servitude but rather be afforded the liberties to cultivate, produce and trade. This was as pertinent for Ireland as it was for the American colonies, Burke maintained.

Ireland’s wider economy in the eighteenth century was suffering from what Smith called the “mercantile system” of the British empire, which restricted its abilities to trade. From the inception of his parliamentary career in Britain in 1766, in the face of fierce resistance within the assembly, Burke supported and advanced measures that sought to promote Ireland’s commercial freedoms, including allowing it to import of sugar directly from the West Indies, and permitting Irish soap manufactures to be imported into the British settlements in America. Even though both these attempts were unsuccessful, Burke persisted.

His endeavours to aid Ireland’s commercial prospects were renewed in the late 1770s, when British trade was contracting because of the American war. At this time, Burke was representing the port city of Bristol, and the city’s merchants believed that their market advantage would be threatened if trade restrictions on Ireland were eased. In 1778, Burke told the British parliament that “it particularly behoved this country to admit the Irish nation to the privileges of British citizens”, and that freer commercial links would benefit both countries and promote their joint interest. In response to the objections from Bristol merchants, many of whom had been his supporters, Burke published Two Letters on the Trade of Ireland (1778), which, as Collins demonstrates, contains Burke’s most comprehensive remarks in favour of the principle of free trade.

According to Burke’s first biographer, Robert Bisset, Smith said that Burke “was the only man, who, without communication, thought on these topics [political economy] exactly as he did”. Collins shows, however, that there were important differences between the Irishman and the Scot. For one thing, Smith strongly distrusted merchants with political influence, whereas Burke told the British House of Commons in his speech on Fox’s East India Bill in December 1783 that he had “known merchants with the sentiments and the abilities of great statesmen”. Be that as it may, Smith and Burke were at one in many other respects, including their commitment to free trade within the British empire. This is an important qualification since they both offered conditional defences of Britain’s Navigation Acts. Trade was not a zero-sum game, but war was, and commercial interests had to be made subservient to considerations of national security and honour.

While devoted to the British empire, Burke, like Smith, emerged as one of the most prominent critics of the imperial abuse of the East India Company and of monopolistic trading corporations more generally. Burke granted that the right of war and conquest, as well as treaties with the Mughal empire and local rulers, gave the British the right to govern and accumulate wealth in Asia. As with Britain’s American colonies, however, these rights were inseparable from the moral obligation to rule justly, benevolently, and prudently.

In political opposition in the late 1770s, Burke took the unprecedented step of training himself to be one of the world’s leading authorities on India, without ever having been there. While Burke did not always oppose monopolies in practice, the reality, he concluded, was that the Company was draining wealth from the impoverished Indian natives. In his Ninth Report of Select Committee (1783), Burke wrote that “there can be no Life and Vigour in any Business under a Monopoly so constituted”. The efforts of the short-lived Fox-North coalition to regulate the East India Company on the basis of Burke’s plans failed and brought down the government of which he was a part at the end of 1783. Burke spent the last decade of his life trying, and failing, to impeach Warren Hastings, the former governor-general of Bengal, for abuses committed in India.

Burke’s reputation as a defender of unpopular causes was also expressed in his criticism of slavery and the slave trade. Around 1780, he drafted one of the first plans for the gradual abolition of the slave trade, which he sent to Henry Dundas in 1792, when parliament debated the question. Collins argues that Burke’s Sketch of a Negro Code

signified the harmonizing convergence of his moral philosophy, conception of reform, and understanding of supply and demand laws: the proposal identified a social wrong, proposed a method to steadily eliminate it, and employed the sheer weight of regulatory power to discourage demand and make it too burdensome to preserve.

As should be clear by now, Burke was no doctrinaire libertarian. As he wrote in Thoughts and Details on Scarcity, the role of the state should be confined “to every thing that is truly and properly public”, but this entailed the “public prosperity” as well as the “public peace”. The state thus needed to reward public-spirited citizens, establish and maintain public buildings which inspired awe and patriotism, and provide funding to advance culture and education. In this spirit, Burke supported state funding to the British Museum, the conversion of Somerset House into a national administrative building, and a school for the children of French émigrés after the French Revolution.

In Reflections on the Revolution of France (1790), Burke wrote against minimalist understandings of society as an instrument for the pursuit of gain and interest. Society was based on a contract, but it

ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, callico or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties … it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is to be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.

For Burke, there was more to life than transactional exchange. Civilisation was ultimately underpinned by religious and moral traditions rather than self-interest, and the Western market economy itself was a product of this religious and moral heritage. This is what was at stake when the French Revolution broke out and risked turning its back on this legacy. As Burke warned attentive readers in the 1790s, the commodification of all social relationships risked undermining the entire basis of European civilisation.

In this context, Burke emerged as a critic of one of the salient aspects of commercial modernity: national debt. Burke was not alone in being worried about deficit spending. The Scottish Enlightenment thinker David Hume had decades earlier famously declared that “either the nation must destroy public credit, or public credit will destroy the nation”. In the nineteenth century, the Whig historian Thomas Babington Macaulay erred when he argued that Burke was “too wise to share in the general delusion” in the eighteenth century that public debt was fatal to society. However, it was not the size of Britain’s debt that troubled Burke but rather the political power of the class of capitalist speculators in revolutionary France, who threatened the stabilising influence of landed wealth.

This did not make Burke a nostalgic for an older order. Indeed, he complained that France, in contrast with Britain, had the misfortune of segregation between its landed and commercial interests before the revolution, which made the rising monied interest menacing, since it was motivated by resentment and jealousy rather than self-interest connected to the welfare of the whole. The British revolutionary state and society, established in the wake of the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89, and not pre-revolutionary France, was Burke’s model – with the caveat that Ireland’s real revolution did not occur until it was granted increased legislative independence in 1782.

Burke was not a conservative, at least not in our party-political and ideological sense of the term. For much of his parliamentary career, he was a reformer. The reforms he proposed and carried out in government in 1782 and 1783 were economic rather than constitutional. In administration, he favoured “economy” rather than radical parsimony, as his reforms eliminated waste and sinecures, and restricted the budget of the royal household with the aim of strengthening the independence of the legislature vis-à-vis the Crown.

Reform was in his view one of the most precarious yet essential duties of the statesman. It could lead to progress or decay, but it was sometimes necessary to undertake. “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation,” Burke wrote in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. Although civilisation was the product of unintended consequences, and ultimately directed by Providence rather than choice, Burke was not in favour of human beings sitting back passively and lettin history take its course. In this sense, Collins argues that it is unhelpful to think of him as a precursor of Friedrich Hayek and his theory of spontaneous order.

Similarly to Hayek, however, Burke’s reflections on political economy underline the difficulties in directing economic activity through legislation because of the sheer complexity of civil society. Both Burke and Hayek believed that the price system in the market structure could channel the flow of resources more effectively than the government because of the inevitable information gap. Detached from the real experience of individuals, government officials are ill-positioned to appreciate the complex range of motivations and aspirations of actors in the marketplace. Collins writes: “For Hayek and Burke, even the brightest individual mind is only aware of a minuscule portion of the sweeping index of knowledge necessary to ensure the smooth coordination of economic activity.” Accordingly, social institutions were best served by accumulated wisdom and experience. This was the essence of what Hayek called the “British tradition”, which, in his view, Burke exemplified.

Although Commerce and Manners in Edmund Burke’s Political Economy is written with an eye to modern politics, it presents a historical Burke, reinforced by meticulous research, and drawing on the scholarship of Richard Bourke, JGA Pocock, and most importantly Oxford University Press’s nine-volume editions of Burke’s collected Writings & Speeches, under the editorial direction of the late Paul Langford and aided by distinguished imperial scholars such as PJ Marshall.

Ultimately, Collins argues that it is unhelpful to classify Burke, and eighteenth century economic thought more broadly, through a modern dichotomy between free trade absolutism and protectionism. This book, along with the best research on Burke in recent years, demonstrates that the power of Burke is not that he was the father of conservatism or an exponent of either classical liberalism or libertarianism but rather that he can help us transcend these subsequent labels. Instead of a tradition of thought, a range of policies, or even a disposition, what Burke’s life and ideas provide is the importance of statesmanship and political judgement in political thought and practice.


Max Skjönsberg’s first book is entitled The Persistence of Party: Ideas of Harmonious Discord in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge University Press, 2021). He currently works on ‘Libraries, Reading Communities and Cultural Formation in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic’ at the University of Liverpool.



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