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Edmund Burke on economic freedom and the path to flourishing

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EdmundBurkeAdvocates of economic freedom have a peculiar habit of only promoting the merits of the free markets as they relate to innovation, poverty alleviation, and economic transformation. In response, critics are quick to lament a range of “disruptive” side effects, whether on local communities or human well-being.

Alas, in over-elevating the fruits of material welfare, we forget that such freedom is just as important as a restraint against the social dangers of an intrusive state as it is an accelerant to economic progress. If our concern is not just for economic prosperity, but for the wider flourishing of individuals and communities – social, spiritual, and otherwise – economic freedom has a role to play there, too.

As I’ve noted before, Edmund Burke builds the best bridge on this topic, offering a robust vision of liberty that connects these dots accordingly. In a new essay on Burke’s “economics of flourishing,” Yuval Levin highlights those very views, noting that, although his economic solutions were similar to those of his friend and contemporary, Adam Smith, Burke’s conclusions were more closely tied to a deeper commitment to human flourishing.

This begins with Burke’s view of liberty, which rejected any notion of radical individualism or choice as a good unto itself. As Levin explains, Burke “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.” Or, as Burke himself puts it, 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” but “social freedom” – “another name for justice; ascertained by wise laws, and secured by well-constructed institutions.”

According to Levin, Burke viewed this self-restrained liberty as “deeply intertwined with a particular notion of human flourishing,” and the existence of each requires “a social order, a political order, an economic order, and a moral order.”

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.

As for how this connects to the realm of economic freedom, Levin points us to a range of examples, but the most striking is Burke’s critique of a proposal before Parliament on setting a minimum wage for agricultural workers. Burke’s resistance has less to do with the economics than it does with (as Levin puts it) “technocratic attempts to manage social relations in ways that seemed to him likely only to undermine the potential for human flourishing.”

For example, here’s Burke in his own words:

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…My opinion 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.

For Burke, government intrusion into wages was an intrusion into the authentic, an “arbitrary regulation decree” that would surely cause greater community disruption than that which it sought to curb. It was ill advised because it meddled in the affairs of people, communities, and a peaceful economic order.

Such a critique comes not out of a quest for innovation, material prosperity, or economic conquest, but a concern about the abuses of power and a humility toward the value of free exchange among free peoples:

[Burke] 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.

We should be careful to note, as Levin does, that this “does not make Burke simply a capitalist in our modern terms.” But we can be forgiven for wishing that modern capitalists might work to emulate a path closer to Burke’s.

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, Intellectual Takeout, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, Charisma News, The Green Room, 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.