Acton Institute Powerblog

Why Edmund Burke Supported Free Trade

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edmund-burkeThe Republican Party is fracturing on the topic of trade. Alas, in the same corners where free and open exchange was once embraced as a propeller for economic growth and dynamism, protectionism is starting to stick.

In response, free traders are pushing the typical arguments about growth, innovation, and prosperity. Others, such as myself, are noting that the trend has less to do with economic illiteracy than it does with a protectionism of the heart — a self-seeking ethos that wants “economic freedom” only insofar as it poses no threat to the preferred wage, vocation, or plot of dirt.

We have forgotten that work is not about us. It’s about serving others, and adapting that service when the signals say, “yes.”

On this, the “communitarian” wing of conservatism tends to push back, accusing free traders of being overly comfortable with social disruption and displacement, prioritizing efficiency and cheap widgetry over “stability” and “social well-being.”

Such critics would do well to heed Edmund Burke, one of the movement’s heroes. Burke was a staunch supporter of free trade not because he was indifferent to disruption, but because the alternative would cause much, much more. 

Burke, who Adam Smith once described as “the only man I ever knew who thinks on economic subjects exactly as I do,” believed that the disruption from trade was far less destructive than whatever government trickery was done on the citizens’ behalf. Throwing up walls and blockades and imposing tariffs may serve “stability” for a season, but at its root, it is an act of sabotage that will only lead disorder and disappointment.

By artificially fixing prices and inhibiting exchange, protectionists are not just cramping the goals of narrow efficiency; they are subverting the natural order and beyond. “We, the people,” Burke wrote, “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.”

In his book, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left, Yuval Levin explains Burke’s view at length, contrasting it with that of Thomas Paine, the famous American revolutionary.

Paine, too, supported free trade, but for very different reasons, preferring it because of its disruptive effects — not to the everyday worker, but to the power structures and social mores of his day. The comparison offers a good warning for conservatives and libertarians today:

Paine several times makes it clear that he is a believer in commerce because he believes open trade and free economics will advance his radical causes by uprooting traditional social and political arrangements. It would do this by focusing men on their material needs and showing them a rational means of meeting those needs. The system of the old European governments, Paine argues, was held in place by deceptions and distractions (including especially the nearly permanent specter of war) that could be, and were already beginning to be, dissipated by a rational economics. “The condition of the world being materially changed by the influence of science and commerce, it is put into a fitness not only to admit of, but to desire, an extension of civilization,” Paine writes. “The principal and almost only remaining enemy it now has to encounter is prejudice.”

Paine was right that such trade is bound to “shake up” unhealthy power structures both here and abroad, but conservatives should be wary of this sort of blind march to (supposed) “technological progress.” When it comes to the modern variations of Paine’s thinking, communitarians are right to protest, and conservatives do themselves no favors when they idolize efficiency as the ultimate end.

Which is why we should turn to Burke, who supported free trade for reasons of justice, not utility. Burke supported free trade not because it would invigorate materialistic desire or disrupt the populace toward a “rational economics.” He supported free trade because it would lead to a social ecosystem wherein people could serve their neighbors in response to real prices that communicated real needs, creating networks of community and collaboration.

Society will shift and adapt, and sometimes, the so-called “forces of the market” will require a wake-up call or correction. But for Burke, such a resistance cannot be mounted by the government. It must come from the culture, bottom up:

Burke’s support for largely unimpeded trade and industry began from roughly the opposite corner [as Paine’s]. He argued that government manipulation of the economy could be profoundly disruptive to the social order because it involved gross manipulation of very complicated economic and social forces that are almost inevitably beyond the understanding of legislators. Even in its own material terms, he argues, the economy functions best when left to itself, referring in one essay to “the laws of commerce, which are the laws of nature, and consequently the laws of God.” A free economy, as Burke saw it, would help sustain the stability of society and therefore its wealth—some of which could (and should) then be used by the wealthy to help the poor.

The passion for wealth was by no means an unmitigated good, but trying to mitigate it through policy would be a mistake, Burke argued…It would have to be counteracted by the culture, not by politics, which should just seek whatever good could be drawn from it. “The love of lucre, though sometimes carried to a ridiculous, sometimes to a vicious excess, is the grand cause of prosperity to all States. In this natural, this reasonable, this powerful, this prolific principle, it is for the satirist to expose the ridiculous; it is for the moralist to censure the vicious; it is for the sympathetic heart to reprobate the hard and cruel; it is for the Judge to animadvert on the fraud, the extortion, and the oppression: but it is for the Statesman to employ it as he finds it; with all its concomitant excellencies, with all its imperfections on its head.”

Legislators are always tempted to employ the weight of government to undo economic inequalities, but such attempts always produce more harm than good, in Burke’s view. He recognizes that the modern economy does relegate some people to desperate poverty or to demeaning occupations, and he frets about “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.” But the costs of remedying their situation, not only to society as a whole but even to the particular wretches involved, would be far worse than their current suffering, Burke argues, because these people are the most vulnerable to economic dislocations, which are made more likely by clumsy government manipulations of prices or wages.”

As we re-articulate and remind conservatives of the many glories of free and open exchange, let us remember that community is, indeed, of utmost importance, and that any subsequent disruption will require a significant cultural, social, and spiritual response. This is what it means to be both free and virtuous.

Rather than taking the path of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, pretending we can manipulate market signals and concoct manipulative “deals” for temporary or personal gain, let us set our sights like Burke’s: toward an economic order that is free and authentic, and a culture that is true and good enough to produce the fruits that endure.

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.