Acton Institute Powerblog

Edmund Burke, free marketer

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It’s not just millennials and other young people who are souring on free markets (44 percent according to a new poll) — there’s also a growing disenchantment among some conservatives.

Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg explains the conservative angst as rooted, among other things, in the threat that upheaval in market economies presents to the “permanency, order, tradition, and strong and rooted communities.” Conservatives who advocate for free markets should take this critique seriously and “rethink about how to integrate their case for markets into the broader conservative agenda.” And who better to make this case than Edmund Burke himself:

Rather fewer people know that Burke was a committed free trader, a strong defender of private property, and a skeptic of government economic intervention. He once described Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations as being “in its ultimate results,” “perhaps the most important book ever written.” Burke’s literary executors, French Laurence and Walker King, even claimed that Burke “was also consulted, and the greatest deference was paid to his opinions by Dr. Adam Smith, in the progress of the celebrated work on the Wealth of Nations.” When Smith’s magnum opus appeared in 1776, Burke reviewed it for the widely-read Annual Registrar. He sang the book’s praises as a text which managed to achieve that most difficult of goals: to “teach things that are by no means obvious.”

Yet even before The Wealth of Nations’ publication, Burke was arguing the case for greater commercial liberty. In parliamentary debates during 1772, for example, he insisted that the best way for society’s poorest segments to receive enough bread was through a market free of legislative interference. Over twenty years later, in the midst of Britain’s epic struggle with Revolutionary France, Burke penned a carefully-worded memorandum entitled Thoughts and Details on Scarcity to Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger in 1795. Here he explained why the state generally shouldn’t interfere with the market-price of goods, services, and labor.

Burke’s strong belief in economic liberty and the institutions and habits which sustain it are not in doubt. The real question is why he held these views. It turns out that Burke’s support for extensive commercial freedom wasn’t chiefly based upon what we today would call libertarian premises. His main reasons for embracing free markets were those of a conservative.

Read “Edmund Burke’s conservative case for free markets” by Samuel Gregg at the Burkean Journal.

Image: public domain on Wikicommons. 18th century merchant ship.

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  • Conservatism in the United States
  • John Couretas John Couretas is Director of Communications, responsible for print and online communications at the Acton Institute. He has more than 20 years of experience in news and publishing fields. He has worked as a staff writer on newspapers and magazines, covering business and government. John holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in the Humanities from Michigan State University and a Master of Science Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University.


    • “the conservative angst as rooted, among other things, in the threat that upheaval in market economies presents to the “permanency, order, tradition, and strong and rooted communities.”

      In other words conservatives oppose change of any kind. Kirk wrote in “Conservative Mind” that conservatives didn’t oppose change; they just wanted it to be very very slow and controlled by the state. Hayek points out that problem in his essay “Why I am not a Conservative.”

      Free markets are necessary in order to make the property something more than an airy concept. Without free markets, property does not exist because property requires control. But free markets cause change at a faster rate than conservatives are comfortable with. That’s why they have fought free markets from day one and compromised every chance they got with socialists. Their continual compromise with socialists has made the US a very socialist nation. Now that socialism has been established for almost a century, conservatives are siding with them against any kind of change.

      I was impressed reading Kirk how staunchly conservatives opposed industrialization in spite of the rapid and massive decrease in poverty it caused. Conservatives need to get counseling for their extreme fear of change, their hatred of industrialization, and their idolatry of powerful states.

      BTW, we haven’t had free markets in the US since 1929. Young people are sour on the failure of socialism in the US for the past 80 years and they have been lied to by the media and historians claiming we have free markets.

      • Tim C.

        I recommended the article only to bring attention to your great comment, couldn’t have said it any better.