The Political Economy of Edmund Burke: A New Perspective

Nobuhiko Nakazawa is Professor of the History of Economic Thought at Kansai University, Osaka, Japan.

In this essay I will throw new light on a relatively neglected aspect of Edmund Burke’s (1730–97) economic thought.1 Most scholars have recognized its central assumptions as advocacy of a freely competitive market economy and justification of laissez-faire commercial policies. But this conventional interpretation is unsatisfactory and incomplete. There have been very few extensive studies of what Burke meant by political economy, although he frequently used this term and prided himself on being a political economist.

The first section of this paper will present enough documentary evidence to sketch the scope of Burke’s political economy. What he meant by political economy was different from the classical school of political economy, not to mention modern sophisticated economics. Rather, it was much more akin to what is now called public finance. The second section will describe the moral nature of his political economy in relation to that of his politics. To him, political economy was an essential constituent of his politics of prudence. The third section will focus on his prudent choice of economic policies, and how his political economy distanced itself from theoretical laissez-faire dogma.

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