Whenever the conservative movement loses its way, says Samuel Gregg in an article for Law & Liberty, it’s only a matter of time before some turn for guidance to the figure most associated with modern Anglo-American conservatism’s emergence—Edmund Burke. And Burke admirers who have reservations about market economies should remember, says Gregg, that Burke robustly defends what we would call “market liberalism.”
Burke’s status as a conservative icon often draws attention away from that portion of his political career spent trying to reform the British state and empire. Part of that agenda involved trade liberalization. From the beginning of his parliamentary career in December 1765, Burke sought to open the empire to greater internal and foreign trade to foster greater economic prosperity for all its subjects.
Burke invested considerable energy in promoting the first Rockingham ministry’s Free Port Act of 1766. This law created several free trade ports in British Caribbean colonies. It also diminished the scale of trade regulation between Britain’s North American possessions and British, French, and Spanish colonies in the West Indies. This represented a significant shift away from the mercantilist doctrines that had dominated British policy.
The support Burke gave this legislation was not rooted in a desire for greater economic efficiency for its own sake. Trade liberalization, he believed, was in Britain’s interests. “The trade of America,” he wrote, “was set free from injudicious and ruinous Impositions—Its Revenue was improved, and settled on a rational Foundation—Its Commerce extended with foreign Countries; while all the Advantages were extended to Great Britain.” Burke never made the mistake of confusing the monopolies controlled by politically-connected merchants with Britain’s economic health.